The Music Fan’s Lament #2: Over Saturation

Flood

Here is the second part of a series of posts where I have a think about a lot of the common complaints I hear from music fans, as they react to the massive change which the industry is undergoing at the moment. I’m just trying to think about it from a fan’s point of view at this point, trying to figure out if these laments actually have much merit, whether or not a normal fan really cares, or whether we’re just being silly.

Once again, here are the various articles that prompted this little festival of self-indulgence, so you have some idea what to expect:
A Penny For Your Thoughts by The Vinyl Villain (read the comments as well, because some of them are very thought-provoking.
Does the World Need Another Indie Band? by Tim Walker, writing in The Independent.
Why Has Modern Music Lost So Much Impact? by the Kings of A&R.
This comment, from a reader called Alex in the comment thread of my recent podcast – The Tribecast.

And here are the other posts in the series:
1. Fragmentation
2. Over Saturation
3. Hype Overload
4. Decreasing Quality

#2 Over Saturation

I am in real doubt as to whether or not over saturation really exists, but perhaps I have to concede that it does. There is a fuck of a lot of music out there to be listened to, but then there always has been.

Realistically, I think it is fair to say that there is probably more music being recorded and presented to the world as a whole for listening than there ever has been. Fair enough – cheaper technology and better access to distribution, even distribution as limited and basic as websites, blogs and MySpace all make this infinitely easier than it was before. So I can agree that perhaps the total quantity has increased, but I don’t think that makes a shred of difference.

If you think about it for even a moment, there has always been more music out there than you can listen to. What’s the difference now? More outlets? More outlets pushing more songs than before? Fewer filters between the musicians and the listener? I don’t know, but I think there are two things that have changed which influence people’s feelings of being overwhelmed by the quantity of music out there.

Firstly, we seem to be burndening ourselves with this odd sense of obligation to actually listen to more stuff. A lot of the time this complaint comes from bloggers and other enthusiasts – in other words, not the casual fan and not necessarily the deranged obsessive. The casual fan has always just listened to whatever comes along, sought out a little more of what really captures their imagination, and then drifted off to do something else and not thought about it. It may not be my attitude, but it is a healthy one. The really mental obsessive – the likes of John Peel and voracious vinyl accumulators – have always known and accepted that it was impossible to listen to everything anyway. Did Peel not say something that roughly paraphrases as: it would take me a month to listen to the amount of music I receive in a week. He knew it was fruitless to try, obviously.

I think the only people who worry about this are people like me, and probably you, if you’re a keen enough fan to be reading a niche page like this. The mid-level enthusiasts who are finding the explosion of availability exciting and yet overwhelming. We want to explore everything, leave no stone unturned, no bedroom talent unappreciated and we are starting to realise that it is just impossible. Without wishing to be brusque, there is only one solution to this: get over it, forget about it, it was never going to happen anyway. We can’t even listen to all the stuff we hear about, never mind all the stuff that no-one ever mentions. There’s too much for one brain to absorb or for one lifetime to even make time to listen to, there always has been, so get over it and stop worrying. Just enjoy the stuff you do listen to and stop whining.

Secondly, I think there is sometimes a little too much pressure to actually participate. In the old media model this stuff was delivered to you in a linear fashion. The radio was on, a band was playing or whatever it was – you listened, you absorbed it, or you didn’t. It was your choice and your only obligation was to engage or ignore, that was it – it was easy to be listener back then. Nowadays, with things like my comment section gazing pleadingly at you at the end of every post – two or three a day, remember – and the explosion of message boards, bands directly contacting you asking you what you think and all manner of other interactive media, there can seem to be a lot more to being a music fan than just sitting back and enjoying the tunes.

If you read this site every few weeks, which is how often I read a lot of websites, then the sheer volume of music and interaction you are missing can seem like an accusation, I would imagine. If a band drops a friend request into your MySpace inbox, ignoring it can feel like ignoring a specific question addressed to you in a conversation at a party. You feel you have to answer, and of course you don’t. Web 2.0 is an opportunity, not an obligation. If you want to come here, read a couple of posts, not bother commenting and then not come back for a month then no-one minds! If you want to ignore a hundred borderline-spam friend requests from MySpace bands, then so what? If you listen to a song, kind of enjoy it, but have nothing to say about it then so fucking what? You are the audience, not the artist and there is no obligation to anything, not even listen.

You can tell where I’m going with this, can’t you? It’s such a false lament: there’s too much music. There always has been, stop burdening yourselves with non-existent expectations and just enjoy the stuff however the fuck you please. It’s supposed to be fun!

(The Real) Tuesday Weld – It’s a Dirty Job but Someone’s Got to Do It
Silversun Pickups – Lazy Eye
Bob Geldof & the Vegetarians of Love – The Great Song of Indifference

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