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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.