Sometimes the best teachers are not our elders but our contemporaries.
At Fresh On The Net we’ve just sifted through the final batch of submissions for 2014. As usual there was everything from the sublime to the ridiculous.
I’ve learned a lot from Tom Robinson’s music site since joining the moderation team at the beginning of the year. True, working at a label means I’m no stranger to demo submissions but until I became a FreshMod there was no effective framework within which to satisfactorily listen to unfiltered independent music.
One thing I suspect all label stooges can agree on is that there is NEVER an ideal time to get contacted by an unknown artist wanting attention/advice/affirmation/adoration. Even if there are four minutes at your disposal with which to listen to a new track does that artist really want to be judged by someone who has just spent three hours battling with the PPL database and is about to spend the rest of the day attempting to fill the annoying Tuesday gap on a tour that begins next week? Surely such a listener will just hate everything in the world, they’d probably hate the bloody Beatles. I’m a songwriter myself and I know what the ideal listening circumstances are: a sealed silent room and a freshly peeled mind ready to appreciate every nuanced lyric and lovingly ignore every botched metaphor. But no one listens like that, there’s always distraction: your phone might ring at the start of the game-changing tuba solo, the dog will want to go outside just when the really impressive bagpipe harmony kicks in, you’ll miss the incandescent pay-off in the closing verse because a starling has fallen down the chimney and is now flapping soot all over the chaise-long.
Music is never born within a vacuum, neither is it consumed in one.
And what is the arch nemesis of every unknown band? EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD. Particularly the lives of their potential listenership.
Yes I have a thirst for new art but No I don’t want it flung at me all day from all angles, especially not accompanied by inane second-hand PR nonsense about how much “buzz” so-and-so has, how “hotly tipped” they are and how this will “definitely be their year”.
When exactly did Music and Bullshit become such persistent bedfellows?
But every Thursday I sit down to listen to about 150 tracks of all genres, unaccompanied by explanation or excuse. The songs are bereft of clothing and context, entirely at the mercy of human patience. And the best thing about this strange mixed bag of high hopes and hot air? Just that, it’s a mixed bag.
It’s all too easy to get duped into believing the music business is one clear linear narrative of trend begetting trend – Rihanna then Adele then Cyrus then Swift… like some kind of pop evolutionary diagram.
But every week emerging artists send us brand new stuff of all flavours: indie, rock, shoegaze, hip-hop, ambient, electronica, reggae, dance, folk, country, alternative, punk, jazz… almost all of it produced to a professional standard. This is what new musicians are up to – EVERYTHING.
I am so encouraged by this variety, simply because it is so at odds with what the dreary mainstream media would have us believe.
That’s not the only thing I have learned though. Regularly confronting such a tangle of talent and trash has taught me a lot about the attitudes all musicians are up against – because I adopt those attitudes myself. Unfortunately (for me at least) the only workable criteria when confronted by such a formidable deluge of new material is (at first glance anyway) “What do I hate the least?”
Sad isn’t it?
These songs are loved by those that made them and they are loved by those that love those that made them and, with the help of some cultural eruption that somehow makes them the soundtrack to every sixteen year old’s GCSE results day, could potentially be loved by an entire generation. But, to me, most are merely new assemblages of old cliches and the skip button looks mighty enticing.
This process has explained why so much of my own early songwriting got ignored by reviewers. Why didn’t they appreciate that extended intro? Didn’t it effectively set the scene and shepherd the listener into exactly the right mood to properly appreciate the song? No. No it most certainly did not. Poor anonymous reviewer was waiting for the damn thing to get to the damn point so they could make their own judgement about whether or not it was the sort of thing their magazine/website/radio show even covered (let alone liked). Ten extended dramatic intros later and anonymous reviewer is beginning to wonder whether reality itself is melting or just his brain. A hundred extended dramatic intros later and aforementioned brain has been blown all over the walls by a self-administered bullet.
But the wonderful thing is that once I’ve whittled the 150 songs down to my 15-20 “What Don’t I Hate” list then I can properly listen and decide what I actually actively like. And that’s when the pleasure begins. Like picking flowers rather than pulling weeds.
Then after the most popular tracks go through to public appraisal we take it in turns to write reviews of the favourites before starting the whole process again. When it was my turn to write the reviews (http://freshonthenet.co.uk/2014/07/faves116/) I resolved to like everything (sometimes necessitating no small amount of willpower!). And what was the final lesson I learned from Fresh On The Net? That if you really want to like something then you’ll probably end up liking it quite a lot. Indeed that’s what we do with all art: it makes no sense until it somehow invades (or is invited into) our world, then once it’s there becomes one of the things that not only makes sense in our world but makes sense of our world.
Unfortunately for artists that do not have the zeitgeist (or the media) at their disposal the process by which one ingratiates oneself into the cultural imagination still largely relies on uncourtable serendipity jumbled up amongst the peculiar personal prejudices of individuals just as confused as the artists themselves.
Still, if it was easy everyone would do it.
Hang on, I just looked online… it seems everyone does do it.