Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Quality vs quantity

We have reached the promised land when it comes to music. If you have the time to devote to listening, you will most certainly find enough music to occupy every scintilla of that time. Whether it’s new or old stock …

Mon, Aug 15, 2011, 09:34


We have reached the promised land when it comes to music. If you have the time to devote to listening, you will most certainly find enough music to occupy every scintilla of that time. Whether it’s new or old stock you’re after, it’s coming at you, endless wave after endless wave. Just keep clicking.

For those of us who possess a passion for new sounds, this is nirvana beyond our wildest expectations. All the music you can eat and enough to go around several times. You dive in, you find something you like, you feast on it, you move onto the next table. You keep on trucking.

But if it’s all hunky-dory on the quantity side of the equation, what about the quality? How does our desire for quality dovetail with the abundance of music which we encounter every day, every week, every month? More importantly, because we still gravitate towards quality music, has how we guage quality changed?

After all, the filters we use when it comes to calibrating, hallmarking and identifying quality are still, by and large, functioning. Very few of us have the time or, indeed, inclination to wade through everything that’s on offer so only a certain number of new bands and tunes rise to the top in any given year. It’s the process of how we come to a collective conclusion about these bands and tunes which fascinates me.

Every single week, I write about a bunch of new bands here and play at least a dozen new tunes every Tuesday night on The Far Side radio show. I don’t need any reminding that not all of these are going to stick with audiences or enjoy some time in the sun despite what I might think. It’s not like I’m back in A&R mode gambling someone else’s cash on these acts – I like them, think there’s potential and throw them out there. It’s a fact that many of these debutants will probably never feature further on mainstream radars, not that this is ever the plan by a significant number of them (music hobbyists do make good music too, you know). Most acts who do intend to take the playing-music-for-a-living route, though, will take a couple of years before they strike it lucky and that will only happen after 10,000 hours of gigs, recording sessions, rehearsals and time spent waiting for a fried egg bap in a Little Chef outside Birmingham.

Some observers will point out at this juncture that the current mania for the new is a huge part of the oversupply problem but, like so much in modern culture, there’s no going back to the way things used to be. You can’t go back to having record shops on every Main Street as your only way to get new music. You can’t go back to having labels controlling the means of access to the music market. You can’t go back to having Top Of the Pops on every Thursday night and the entire family gathering around the telly to gawk at what the pop stars of the day are wearing and talking about it to their pals the following day. The genie is out of the bottle and s/he is busting moves left, right and centre. You have to suck it up. You have to join the dancing. You can’t, we repeat, go back.

Which is why it’s still worth looking at how a mass of people come to a conclusion about quality – after all, that quest for quality hasn’t gone away. Many still trust the wisdom of crowds. If your friends are championing the same band or song, you’re likely to go with them on the basis of familiarity and tribal ties. You may keep an eye on some beyond-the-pale filters and recommenders– certain blogs or some radio shows or a reviewer who seems to have the same taste as you – so you’ll take some of your cues from them. You just don’t have the time to wade through everything which is coming at you so you rely on your friends and filters. You trust them.

It’s when these calls are further filtered and finessed that the process gets even more interesting. I’ve been fascinated time and time again this year looking at how Adele continues to sell copies of “21” like billy-o. It’s a great album but what’s more striking is the manner in which a huge swathe of those who buy and like music – and we’re not merely talking about the die-hards who know their Factory Floor from their Factory Records, because they don’t quite figure in this equation – have embraced “21”. It’s the album which has got the communal thumbs up and a huge mass of people have jumped onboard. There is still massive magnteic power to be harnessed by a piece of art.

I’ve also been struck this summer by how Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” has taken off, chiefly because such momentum has been a year in the making. “Pumped Up Kicks” had a brief moment in the shop-window last summer (specialist radio play, blog love and a berth on an NME Radar compilation) but, despite charming the pants off anyone who heard it, the tune never went beyond being an underground thrill. This summer, though, this has all changed. The tune is getting hammered on the radio, it is soundtracking ads and it’s a big deal. The tune is still as fantastic as it was a year ago but now, the wisdom of crowds has joined the party and pushed things forward.

For those who make music and hope to make a living from it, there are several lessons to learn here. There’s still an audience for great music, which is good to know. Still an audience who are willing to pay cash for music (which is great for Adele as she hasn’t done the dog like her peers when it comes to live shows). Still an audience who don’t really care two hoots about what an act looks like (though I think Foster the People may not have much problems in this regard).

But it also shows that just as audience respects and responds to quality, acts too need to go that extra couple of miles and provide that quality. One of the reasons why there’s so much music out there is that it’s never been easier for acts to get their music to our ears. Yet this doesn’t mean that they should keep firing out stuff just for the sake of it. Why do that when you’re not going to impress anyone? Why do that when you’re not going to add to your 10,000 followers? There is a lot of virtue in pulling back, taking a break and working on what will attract attention. The problem for bands is that it’s very hard to say no to all the offers which are coming their way. Like freelancers, there’s a fear that if you say no, the good stuff won’t come around again. But it’s worth noting that an audience will respond to quality so it might be worth waiting to give them the real deal rather than throwing them scraps from the table.

Because quality does rule. It’s what seperates the great from the merely good. And at a time when everything you want is just a search field away, it’s quality which makes us want to stick around for more.