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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Record reviewing and the Control Sample

Everybody putting out a record knows the odds are stacked against them. Of course they don't know just how tough those odds are.  If they saw even the puny amount of CDs that I get sent for review they'd give up. If they saw how many a Radio Two producer gets they'd tell all their friends to give up as well.

But that's not the whole of the problem. They think they're competing against the other records that came out the same month. What they're really competing for is our attention, which is just too terrifying to think about. And our attention doesn't have to be restricted to what came out this month. Even assuming that we're in the mood to listen to or buy a record that attention is most likely to be occupied by something we already like.

And this a problem that the acts of today have to face which the acts of the 60s and 70s didn't. Unless they're working in new genres such as hip hop it's likely that whatever they do will have already been done first and better by somebody thirty years ago. In fact they've probably been "inspired" by the very record that outshines them. When Joni Mitchell made those first few records nobody had been down those paths before. When Laura Marling sits down to write songs she knows that wherever she goes lots of people have been before and quite a lot of them were pretty good.

As I write this I have at my left hand a copy of Burning Spear's 1976 album "Man In The Hills". I've actually only just heard this record. Until recently I never went further than "Marcus Garvey". Anyway "Man In The Hills" is brutally good.  I keep it close at hand as my Control Sample. Not far behind it is a copy of "Revolver" and Nick Lowe's "The Old Magic", both of which could easily be Control Samples.

The presence of the Control Sample means that I have to decide whether I'd rather spend the next forty minutes of my life reaching a further level of intimacy with something I know is worth the investment or risk it on something untried from my huge great box of new stuff (right), most of which, I have learned through experience, will never be fit to dust the shoes of those three great records. That's why lots of the time the Control Sample wins.

Obviously I'm just an unfeeling brute who has been made calloused and cynical by the amount of listening I've had to do over the years. But my attitude to hearing something new is just a more pronounced version of what the listening public feels. They're not just measuring your record against what else is at this week's starting gate. They're measuring it against the riches of pop history, all of which is just a click away.

Maybe the acts should start measuring their records against their own Control Samples while they're making them.


  1. Actually, no, David, you're wrong. We shouldn't mistake the fact that we're old for the perception that music is old. Young ears are innocent, gradually educated by the serendipity of what they hear at home. But when they find the music of their heart, at their right time,it burns with the same fire as it ever did. Did the 60s English blues fans like Peter Green or Keith Richard think "what's the point? these old guys did it all?" What was punk if not youth's need to make their own mark, regardless of ability to play? And far from fewer bands making it, more are: it's just that "making it" is redifined, "flatter", less lucrative, less heirarchical, less exploitable by "the business". But still the real thing. If they saw your pile of CDs they wouldn't give up, they'd email an mp3 to a thousand blogs with one click, put themselves up on Facebook, YouTube. If they've got any sense they already do. We're old. "The business is old." Music isn't.

  2. Excellent article, can't agree with previous comment though. Crap is crap however old or modern! And there's no escaping there's too much of that stuff being made by folks with big dreams and little ability.

  3. How can "too much stuff" be made in music? Sub-standard work simply languishes on YouTube; no one comes round your house and shoves the shit through your letterbox (unless like DH you are seen as an "in" to big media). And the rest generally finds the audience, large or small, that it deserves, boosting the live audiences that provide most musicians with their living. Radio stations that shovel shit through the airwaves are a different matter but that's more about the business side than the musicians. "Too much stuff" is often the complaint of musicians who would like the ground cleared so their own stuff gets an easier ride.

    1. You are quite right, We all have to make a living, every artist will find their audience.

  4. Not sure if you're being sarky but it's true. A pub band will get that many more pub gigs, a folkie will get a few more festivals. Real rubbish will get nothing at all. Real gems will find their way through. Could be a healthier musical economy than the old style make-or-break. There's stuff about like this – small-scale, local studios with an honest laid-back attitude. If you don't want to click on it, no one is twisting your arm.

  5. "our attention doesn't have to be restricted to what came out this month. Even assuming that we're in the mood to listen to or buy a record that attention is most likely to be occupied by something we already like."

    This isn't really representative of reviewers, though, is it? Reviewers DO have to focus on what came out this month, because they've got copy to file for a site/blog/mag or whatever.

    Not many editors are going to be happy with another review of Revolver...

  6. Unless of course you are the editor...

  7. It's an interesting point, and by that rationale I, as an owner of Lester Bangs' "Psychotic Reactions...", need a pretty good reason to pay for another (say) Damon Albarn interview.

  8. Ah gents, just remember that one man's ceiling is another man's floor. Your "crap" is someone's discovery of the day. Hey, if nothing measures up to Revolver for you, fine. Keep spinning Revolver.