The Music Fan’s Lament #4: Decreasing Quality


Well the series bumbles on into its final installment.  I am writing this from Vancouver Airport, waiting for a connection to Portland, so what better way to fill the time than with needless blathering about things I don’t really understand.  It’s taken a while to post, but I thought I’d finish this off before getting into all the Portland stuff and forever banishing the whiff of leeks from these pages.  Well, maybe not forever, but erm, well… oh never mind.

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. Quality

#4 Decreasing Quality

Reading JC’s article in particular put me in mind of this common complaint, and some of the commenters pushed the point even further.  Modern music is shit – where are the great bands?  Where, in particular, are the next Smiths, for example?

I can’t, and won’t, argue that there is a current band that I could honestly describe as the new Smiths.  But then, there wasn’t an old Smiths either.  You are talking about the very cream of the crop – that sort of band come along maybe once a decade, don’t they?  Radiohead for the 90s, I suppose, and erm, who for the noughties?  I really am not sure, so I can see where he’s coming from in that respect.

I don’t, predictably enough, agree entirely though.  One of the things JC seems to be doing, as do a lot of the people who criticise a living music scene by comparing it unfavourably to the past, is ignoring the fact of hindsight.  It’s easy to tell that the Smiths were something special, because we can look back on anything and everything that was around at the time and evaluate them in a relatively dispassionate way – something we just can’t do for anything current.  The Stone Roses first and the early Radiohead albums stand up very strongly in retrospect, but as we get closer to the present day how can we tell how good the bands are that we’re listening to now?

A couple of the groups mentioned in the comment thread on JC’s post are DeVotchKa and Calexico, but these bands are both a good solid handful of albums into their careers by now.  Think back over the last couple of years and the records that made real impact: LCD Soundsystem, Arctic Monkeys, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, The White Stripes – all these bands have pretty broad appeal, but only the White Stripes are more than a couple of albums into their careers, and we just don’t know who is going to be remembered from this era yet.  If the Arctic Monkeys continue to peter out, then maybe they’ll be forgotten about altogether.  It would just take one more brilliant album from any of these groups to cement their reputation as one of the really key bands of the first decade of this century.  Do we really think that the riff from Seven Nation Army is going to be less memorable in ten years than Johnny Marr’s equally iconic performance on How Soon is Now?  I know there’s more to genius that a few memorable riffs, but I think the more general point still stands.

The other question is this: who even remembers the Kasabian of the 80s anyway?  We can look back on the 90s now and identify bands like Blur and Pulp, Radiohead and early James as iconic and brilliant.  But how many Menswears and Kula Shakers are we consigning to the dustbins of forgetfullness in order to do so?  If no-one gives much of a fuck about the View now, then their memory may not survive the next full moon, never mind twenty years worth of rosy-tinted nostaligia.

Then again, as popular entertainment has made ever-greater inroads into the world of indie, having realised that there was a sizable market out there that their dancing karaoke whores were not capable of suitably exploiting, it seems that the world of indie is being over-run by preening, prancing piss-artists like the Hoosiers, Joe Lean and the Short Tight Pants, that one who’s pumping, er… Kate Moss.  Whoever they are.  They’re shit, anyway.  This is indie rock as commerical product, but it must be remembered that in no meaningful way is it actually indie.  It’s a branch of the celebrity industry, approached as such, and does not deserve our attention.  The bands are in it for the fame, the coke and the floosies, the music is fucking dreadful, and the marketing spend in proportion to investment in the actual ‘product’ is repellently high.  This last one is always a good metric to use when considering whether or not something might just be fucking rubbish.

At the other end of the scale, there are a lot of piss-poor bedroom bands reaching out using MySpace and the like, and we have a lot more contact with them than before because they can reach us directly.  They don’t need the middle-man, who might just have pointed out that they are shit, and so our MySpace inboxes are clogged with shit by groups that barely deserve to call themselves bands, nevermind command anyone’s ears.

If you’re used to listening to all this stuff because you want the buzz of that one exciting discovery, then you really do have to stop moaning and just accept it.  The people who got to be the arbiters of what was and wasn’t worth our time before the internet all had to wade through this stuff, so if we want to liberate ourselves from being told what to like, then we have to do the work that goes with it.  With great power comes gr… er, sorry, wrong speech.  The other option is to quitchabitchin and just find a few bloggers and a couple of radio stations that you trust and let them do it for you.  If you want to participate, you are just going to have to put the time in to listen.

So although I wouldn’t say that there are fewer great bands out there, I would certainly concede that we have exposure to far more really shit ones.  But as for greatness, I just don’t think we can tell right now what is going to be remembered in twenty years.  And I also think we conveniently forget all the crap that there was milling about on the airwaves at the time we thought the Smiths were so great.  I can see how you would get full, too.  After thirty-odd years scouring the country for great new bands, like JC has, there must come a point where you’re just full up.  There is a limit to the amount of music we can really find special, because if there was more of it then it would by definition be less special, but I really don’t buy the argument that bands then were better than they are now.

And as Mrs. Toad is whispering in my ear, great bands tend to be born into times of economic hardship – it’s what makes the release all the more euphoric – so you never know, we could be on the cusp of great things over the next five years or so.

The Smiths – How Soon is Now?
Blur – Clover Over Dover
The White Stripes – Seven Nation Army
Arcade Fire – Intervention

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