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The Unprofitable Valley
April 8, 2014 3:05 AM   Subscribe

Why is so much stuff mediocre? Matt Stohrer, saxophone repairman, has an explanation he has dubbed The Unprofitable Valley.
posted by Harald74 (41 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
BTW, "saxophone repairman" is not code for anything, it really is what he does. I stumbled across him randomly when I had a look at his Airstream trailer renovation (he made it into a saxophone repair shop).
posted by Harald74 at 3:07 AM on April 8 [5 favorites]


ITYM "saxamaphone repairman".

(But seriously, such a specialised field).
I do love a good Airstream.
posted by Mezentian at 3:20 AM on April 8 [2 favorites]


I dunno, seems like an awful lot of words and an unnecessary connection to the Uncanny Valley idea in service to a not particularly novel or original idea.
posted by Justinian at 3:24 AM on April 8 [2 favorites]


I'm literally still trying to figure out anything and everything related to the video about halfway through. I don't understand the point of it, and I understand the point of including it even less.
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:36 AM on April 8


I thought this was a very interesting piece, and even though the idea makes obvious sense, I think identifying the "shared language" problem as a piece of the puzzle, means that I can focus on fixing that particular piece.
posted by madred at 3:38 AM on April 8 [5 favorites]


Yeah he explains the problem of undereducated consumers and badly-defined services but doesn't mention one possible answer: regulation.

His argument is an argument against the unregulated market where you can call anything anything. Regulation would mean defining what a "tune-up" is exactly. It is the same problem with consumer goods and words like "Natural" or "Nutritious" or "Healthy."
posted by vacapinta at 3:40 AM on April 8 [13 favorites]


I dunno, seems like an awful lot of words and an unnecessary connection to the Uncanny Valley idea in service to a not particularly novel or original idea.

I agree that the central conceit in the article in quite strained, and even that the underlying idea is not original to Stohrer…but I think it is a worthwhile idea and one worth discussing. A lot of mainstream economic theory depends on the idea that information symmetry and price signaling emerge from market activity, but that doesn't actually seem to be the case in many areas.

Additionally, as access to information rises, being an "informed consumer" paradoxically becomes *more* costly in terms of time and effort in certain ways. Stohrer's idea is unoriginal because it comports rather well with most people's everyday experience upon even casual reflection.

So why, then, do so many people maintain their commitment to a naive version of the mainstream economic theory around markets, or, let's be honest, market ideology? Even Stohrer, by the end, makes some rather odd moves to try and save an island of "good" market functions with his notion of the specialist.

But his own discussion shows very clearly that the specialist is, to use the terms of that ideology, "disincentivized" by the workings of her or his market. So what is the true nature of the idea or activity Stohrer is trying to rescue at the end, from what does he mean to rescue it, and why is he trying?
posted by kewb at 3:40 AM on April 8 [4 favorites]


I wonder if it is just a coincidence the graph of unprofitable valley resembles the curve of a saxophone.

Work hard, continually improve your skills over a long period of time, get really good at what you do and build a brand or reputation that people are willing to pay more than average price for. Not a particularly novel or original idea, but one that cannot be repeated often enough. There is no easy way to success - nor should there be.
posted by three blind mice at 3:42 AM on April 8


Seems a bit like an attempt to reinvent the concept of the Lemon Market.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 4:33 AM on April 8 [2 favorites]


His argument is an argument against the unregulated market where you can call anything anything. Regulation would mean defining what a "tune-up" is exactly.

Even without government regulation, a good alternative to the race to the bottom is to define your service better in your advertisement. Push your local competitors to up their games and raise their prices. "When other places talk about a tune-up, they often mean just x. They might charge a little less, but you get what you pay for. When we talk about a tune-up, we mean that we will do x, y, and z for you, plus a, b, and c if needed. We want your car to start every time, get maximum mileage for your gasoline dollar, and maintain its resale value. Before you go somewhere else, see if they are ready to match our checklist. And make sure you get it in writing."
posted by pracowity at 4:37 AM on April 8 [8 favorites]


People with no job skills need to earn a living too. Those whose skill level is so low that they're dunning-krugered are lucky. Others have to mystify the customer and may feel guilty if their dose of anti-depressants is too low. In return, they themselves are mystified in fields outside their expertise, but consumer satisfaction isn't a good thing as far as economic indicators are concerned. A good economy is one in which people are always unsatisfied so they must spend more and more. What's wrong with this picture?
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:01 AM on April 8 [1 favorite]


man, what a depressing comment thread.

the connection to the uncanny valley is that: they look similar

the video half-way through shows: customers rely on words/brands instead of education
posted by rebent at 5:40 AM on April 8 [8 favorites]


Maybe I just relate more because I play woodwind instruments and try to sell stuff on quality and service...

The comparison to the uncanny valley is indeed stretched - as a writing critic I'd say he gave us the benefit of all his musings whereby he arrived at his idea, and should have simplified or omitted a lot of it before hitting "publish."

But the idea is really good, and goes to something I often have trouble explaining to people (and reminding myself of) - why it is that when we shop for things on price, and go check things out in the store then go hunt for it online so we can avoid sales tax and get an even BETTER price, we find that the store isn't particularly well-stocked, well-staffed, etc.

The real frustration is that it inflates the cost (including the acquisition cost) of getting something that's quality. With all the band instruments floating around any given city, you'd think there'd be someone who knew how to repad a sax everywhere. But because parents are crabby about paying for repairs and often just don't do them (just practice harder, Johnny!), I have to ship horns off to another state if I want something done right. The local music store owner can't keep a good tech because of that and competition from "instrument-shaped-objects" from Wal-Mart.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:51 AM on April 8 [2 favorites]


I guess if they want it badly enough, they can learn to play on a horn in poor repair, like old blues guys plucking on a single guitar string nailed to the wall, but what a recipe for frustration.
posted by thelonius at 6:10 AM on April 8


I have to ship horns off to another state if I want something done right.

Maybe there's a living to be made (for a person or couple of a certain type) in driving town to town, state to state, in a big old truck full of parts, tools, and used instruments. Let the local band leaders and music store owners know when you'll be in town, ask them to tell their students and customers, and go.
posted by pracowity at 6:12 AM on April 8 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: resembles the curve of a saxophone
posted by Foosnark at 6:25 AM on April 8


Maybe there's a living to be made (for a person or couple of a certain type) in driving town to town, state to state, in a big old truck full of parts, tools, and used instruments. Let the local band leaders and music store owners know when you'll be in town, ask them to tell their students and customers, and go.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if one of the manifestations of our deep inequality and bifurcated employment world will be that we see a return of traveling tinkers -- with a mobile workshop, you could scratch together a living at the margins of the economy, working for cash and supplementing with public assistance when things are tough. Most cynically, it combines homelessness and itinerant labor, while also providing services to people who themselves are probably too economically marginal to pay the rates someone with a shop and a house would have to charge. Brave new world indeed.

Work hard, continually improve your skills over a long period of time, get really good at what you do and build a brand or reputation that people are willing to pay more than average price for.

That's great, and probably is good advice to most people with a MetaFilter account who are under a certain age, but isn't very relevant at the societal level. For one, not everyone is actually capable of achieving those steps, but more importantly we now have an economy that doesn't universally reward that approach. When a big company needs to downsize 10,000 people, they don't go through and carefully retain the people who have followed that advice -- they just close their midwestern office. Particularly at the lower rung of the economic ladder, a lot of jobs are simply structured to remove any option of applying this kind of advice -- jobs have been deskilled and made conditional, leaving people in them without a path towards this kind of individualized success.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:26 AM on April 8 [15 favorites]


"...but isn't very relevant at the societal level..."

I didn't really get the impression that this article was proposing a solution to any social problem, but the problem faced by crafts/trades people who are just trying to make a living doing high quality work in a culture that often can't or won't recognize their value.
posted by nerdler at 6:51 AM on April 8 [6 favorites]


That's some mighty good theorizing from a saxophone repairman. You were expecting Žižek?
posted by jonp72 at 6:56 AM on April 8


He says at the end that we have to either wait for uploads into a network of higher understanding or be told about specialists by friends and family.

Jokes on him, the hive mind gets to consult with itself for this sort of thing. Super easy mode.
posted by Slackermagee at 6:56 AM on April 8 [1 favorite]


The proper term for the "unprofitable valley" is "investment." You can either recreate the business model that already exists (and this is actually the best way to run a profitable business), or you can invest time and money in developing a new, higher quality product or service with the risks that the time and money will not pay off and in the long term that others will just piggyback off your work and compete directly against you.

There's downward pressure as well-- if you can deliver 75% of the quality for 50% of the cost, many times businesses will make the strategic decision to do that, particularly if there is little to be gained by capturing that last 25% of quality.
posted by deanc at 7:12 AM on April 8


You can call a certain kind of service "mediocre," or you can call it "good enough."
posted by escabeche at 7:22 AM on April 8 [4 favorites]


Last week he posted this neat photo series of converting an old airstream trailer into his repair shop on /r/DIY.
posted by exogenous at 7:50 AM on April 8 [2 favorites]


The uncanny valley curve is a real observable phenomenon, but the curve he drew on graph paper immediately below it is meaningless. It's like he thought of a name for his theory, appropriate of not, and drew a curve with no basis in any observable or measurable data.
posted by rocket88 at 8:03 AM on April 8


I don't think the original Uncanny Valley curve was based on any actual data to begin with (and at least one recent study has suggested the phenomenon doesn't exist at all). So this essay seems appropriately, comparably impressionistic in its sketching out of its chart.
posted by nobody at 8:21 AM on April 8 [1 favorite]


I agree that the central conceit in the article in quite strained, and even that the underlying idea is not original to Stohrer…but I think it is a worthwhile idea and one worth discussing. A lot of mainstream economic theory depends on the idea that information symmetry and price signaling emerge from market activity, but that doesn't actually seem to be the case in many areas.

Additionally, as access to information rises, being an "informed consumer" paradoxically becomes *more* costly in terms of time and effort in certain ways. Stohrer's idea is unoriginal because it comports rather well with most people's everyday experience upon even casual reflection.

So why, then, do so many people maintain their commitment to a naive version of the mainstream economic theory around markets, or, let's be honest, market ideology? Even Stohrer, by the end, makes some rather odd moves to try and save an island of "good" market functions with his notion of the specialist.


I'd agree very strongly with the proposition that the Efficient Markets Hypothosis is pretty flawed. This article, though, doesn't seem to provide much of a case for that proposition.

It never profits a business to care more about quality than its customer does. Anytime you're employing an expert to do something, the whole reason you're doing that is that the time and effort it would take to learn how to do that thing is worth more to you than the fee you're paying the expert. Encompassed in that wedge of time and effort is the time and effort it would take to learn how to differentiate among experts. The article posits that there's some sort of True Value or True Cost which is determined solely by the ultimate quality of the final product, and that things which cost less but aren't as high quality are false, fake, a scam. But really, if all I want is for Junior's sax to quit making that screeching sound when he tries to hit the F note, then maybe a $200 job is all I need, instead of the $500 it'd take to do the kind of job the would meet the standards of a professional musician. I mean, the mattress thing is perfect example --- I just participated in an AskMe about this, because I myself spent some time researching mattresses and saved myself a bunch of money buying online --- taking the risk that my research skills would not be good enough and I'd end up with something I didn't like. But there were plenty of people in that thread happy to pay triple what I did in order to buy from a name brand from a physical store that they could test out. Did they get screwed? Well, how do you price that risk? How to you price the time and effort? I don't think the fact that different people price things differently is market failure. This guy just takes it as automatic that the best possible job is the only kind worth paying for.
posted by Diablevert at 8:48 AM on April 8 [2 favorites]


That's an interesting take, Diablevert; if I understand your reading, you're suggesting that Stohrer advances (maybe not entirely knowingly?) a version of the labor theory of value.
posted by kewb at 9:25 AM on April 8 [1 favorite]


I buy his basic argument. It certainly explains the vast majority of average food you find on a freeway, driving past towns where you don't live, where you have no real way of ascertaining who's good and who's awful. So you just go for the brand you recognize. Will it be McDonald's for breakfast today ... or Denny's? (or whatever)
posted by philip-random at 10:16 AM on April 8


My Marxist economics is far too rusty to answer that, kewb. But he does seem to advance the idea that there is some platonic ideal of saxophone repair:

"how things should be, what per­fec­tion can be attained"

and that the price of a saxophone repair should equal the cost of the tech labor to attain this perfection. He suggests that the only reason someone wouldn't be willing to pay $500 for a saxophone repair is that they simply don't understand that "attaining perfection" costs $500. Well, I got plenty of things I can do with $500. Even if, as he posits, you could make everybody understand the difference between the $500 overhaul and the $200 one, it may still be the case that there's simply a much bigger market for $200 overhauls than $500 ones, and there always will be. And conversely, even if you can get a decent mattress for $500 instead of $1500 if you're willing to dig around and search for a deal, there will be some people who value the convenience of getting the $1500 one from Sleepy's.
posted by Diablevert at 10:17 AM on April 8


He suggests that the only reason someone wouldn't be willing to pay $500 for a saxophone repair is that they simply don't understand that "attaining perfection" costs $500.

I'm sure he'd happily do a $200 job if that's what was required, but he wouldn't call it the same thing as what he'd charge $500 for. Whereas the guy across the street might. And if the customer is suitably confused, well why wouldn't he go across the street and save $300 on an "overhaul".

The Unprofitable Valley is that gorge that must be negotiated before both customer and repairman are on the same page regarding the meaning of "overhaul".

Well, I got plenty of things I can do with $500.

Unless you do really need the $500 overhaul and/or that $500 overhaul ends up saving you a thousand bucks in future repairs/servicing and/or lost gigs because your sax sounds like ass.
posted by philip-random at 10:26 AM on April 8 [1 favorite]


Don't people use Yelp and other review sites these days? I'd never go to an auto service or sax repairman without consulting the internet. You should always be able to find reliable, honest people who charge reasonable rates in your area. The reputation that a specialist builds his name on now applies to just about every provider out there. If you're dishonest, everyone will hear about it. If you're the best, everyone will hear about it.
posted by naju at 10:54 AM on April 8


I'm sure he'd happily do a $200 job if that's what was required, but he wouldn't call it the same thing as what he'd charge $500 for. Whereas the guy across the street might. And if the customer is suitably confused, well why wouldn't he go across the street and save $300 on an "overhaul".

Required by whom, for what? He's free to describe the services he offers however he likes.

I mean, can experts use jargon to confuse people into paying inflated prices? Sure. Who hasn't had a car dealer try to talk them into an "undercoat"? But people take the risks they want to take, and put their effort where they want to put their effort. To a professional musician, the exact timbre of their instrument may indeed be worth thousands in earnings. To a parent trying to support a kid's interest in music, it may be nearly irrelevant. So only one of the above might spend the time to seek out the best sax repair guy in town and pay a higher rate, while the other may flip open the yellow page, make a couple calls and go with the cheapest priced option. The fact that lots of people are happy with "good enough" when it comes to services is not some tragic flaw or head scratching conundrum. It 's to be expected. I know perfectly well the difference between chateaubriand and rump roast, sometimes what I want is the later.
posted by Diablevert at 11:00 AM on April 8


I kind of like the way he's put things down.

As someone who's been in brass musical instrument manufacturing and repair, and has interests in other craft related endeavors, I can relate. An interesting factor here not really mentioned is that the game has been upped in many areas of goods and services over tha past few decades. Where goods are fundamentally better than ever, and less expensive than ever.

As a professional, I had often suspected the single most important factor in making and selling a professional level instrument was that extra 5% making sure it's not only functional, but functions seamlessly. That's a pretty tough way to make a living, when the competition is OK with selling a 95% instrument for half the price, using a much more streamlined and cost effective process. Fundamentally good, but not great. For many folks, that's good enough, though. Should one want optimization, the skilled repair person can go that extra 5%, and possibly make the total cost pretty close to what I had to charge for one, set up right, at the time of manufacture by much more laborious traditional methods.

I see this pattern in other fields. I, too, am not sure I'd paint it in the somewhat negative light as mediocrity. Driving a fifteen year old salvage titled Dodge Caravan is certainly a display of mediocrity in quite a few ways. But if it suits my needs at minimal cost, why should I really care what anyone else thinks? I'm fine with it.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:02 PM on April 8


The fact that lots of people are happy with "good enough" when it comes to services is not some tragic flaw or head scratching conundrum. It 's to be expected. I know perfectly well the difference between chateaubriand and rump roast, sometimes what I want is the later.

That's true, but I think it doesn't really address his point that capitalizing on information assymetry is more profitable than competing on quality, which in turn leads to a paucity of high-quality providers and thence to difficulties even for the people who do have the information necessary to discern between the available offerings. Another issue is that, due to that same assymetry, someone buying that $1500 mattress may not even be aware that the premium they're paying is indeed for the convenience of not having to scrounge for a deal.

I think too that it's hairy territory to argue from the position of being able to a define a utility function for individuals that makes a certain purchase the most rational choice, since it's easy to define a utility function that, were it the assumed standard for actors in a market, would lead to indisputably pathological outcomes. Assuming that utility is a function of product quality is not entirely realistic, but I think it's the sturdiest basis we have for thinking about problems like this.
posted by invitapriore at 1:27 PM on April 8 [1 favorite]


That's true, but I think it doesn't really address his point that capitalizing on information assymetry is more profitable than competing on quality, which in turn leads to a paucity of high-quality providers and thence to difficulties even for the people who do have the information necessary to discern between the available offerings. Another issue is that, due to that same assymetry, someone buying that $1500 mattress may not even be aware that the premium they're paying is indeed for the convenience of not having to scrounge for a deal.

Well, my point is that even were the information asymmetry somehow eliminated, I don't think that the best-quality workmanship would necessarily become the most profitable market segment. Supermarkets sell a lot more hamburger than filet mignon. Certainly, I think you're right that it can be more profitable to exploit an information asymmetry.

People for sure aren't always rational and markets are less efficient than economists make them out to be. On the other hand, I feel like in 2014 there's a degree to which, consciously or not, people do willingly accept that price premium for convenience/assurance ---- precisely because so many people do spend the time and are willing to do the research to get better at selecting the best provider/deal when it matters to them. Some people will spend weeks pouring over blogs and scoping Amazon before buying a TV, for example. If instead one chooses just to hop in their car and get whatever fits your budget at Best Buy that day, I think in part you're saying that you'd rather not spend all your free time reading about TV specs, that that free time is worth something to you.
posted by Diablevert at 2:16 PM on April 8


Well, my point is that even were the information asymmetry somehow eliminated, I don't think that the best-quality workmanship would necessarily become the most profitable market segment

Even very small differences in price are easily visible to the customer, but that is not the case for "quality". And it sure is true that some of that is because of information asymmetry. I don't think he means that with full information everyone would always pay the most for the best. But I think he is blaming the information asymmetry that valley - the ability to successfully do business in between "cheap and mediocre" and "expensive but so much quality your customers won't shut up about it".

However that's overly simple. The other thing about price vs quality is price is a single linear variable, while "quality" includes attention to detail, reliability, quality of materials, speed of work, communication with the customer, and a ton of other things. It's hard to compete on quality, because quality is not one thing.

It's also entirely possible that it's not really about any of those things, but the customer base simply that there's not many people who want sort-of-good service. Maybe there's some people who don't care, some who care deeply, and folks in the middle tend to gravitate towards one end or the other.
posted by aubilenon at 3:19 PM on April 8


Ironically, I crossed paths on Sunday with the 2014 convention of the National Association of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 3:28 PM on April 8


"one possible answer: regulation"

Regulation is often owned by the mediocre, which in the case of financial advice means your regulators are biased towards selling you financial instruments for commissions instead of providing you prudent advice.

Or in the case of tune-ups, a tune-up would be defined by the national chains of mediocre mechanics instead of the master mechanics.
posted by surplus at 4:53 PM on April 8 [4 favorites]


yeah, take it from a Canadian. Regulation is a fallback for when other means have failed. It's effectively handing the controls to inspectors and bureaucrats, which is better than nothing, but oft times only marginally so.
posted by philip-random at 6:00 PM on April 8


Zen and the Art of Saxophone Maintenance

For some reason this reminded me of Pirsig's Inquiry into Values (which I am a big fan of and need to reread), but I do take issue with some of his examples. Maybe its because I have a number of gearhead friends, but PCV valves are not at all scary. I have no problem paying what seems like an exorbitant price to have it looked at during oil changes. If I were to check it myself I would in addition to the relatively small cost of buying and installing it have to take the time to drive to and from the parts store and so on; my time is worth enough to me that I am willing to pay a premium to save it for other things. Also I don't know about saxophone players, but everyone I know uses the term "overhaul" to mean "completely disassemble and restore, repair, or replace parts as needed to return the item to like-new condition" A lot more involved and with a lot more room for variation than simply "fixing" Enjoyed reading it, though.

The airstream was cool, too. He could tow it around and be the sort of mobile repairman described above.
posted by TedW at 7:51 AM on April 9


Don't people use Yelp and other review sites these days? I'd never go to an auto service or sax repairman without consulting the internet.

You should try services like Yelp in places that aren't culturally biased toward techological solutions to these sorts of problems, e.g. my particular metro area. Totally useful in places like the Left Coast--believe me, I used it heavily when I visited last summer. Complete suck in my current metro area where recommendations for Mexican food will net you the four closest Taco Bells.
posted by Fezboy! at 9:08 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]


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