Open Mike #6 – Question 1.

Dearie dearie me, I really do seem to be losing the power of written expression altogether. Evidence: I spent over an hour and half yesterday evening, penning a mere 120 word blurb on one of my favourite singles of the year, for the forthcoming “Best Singles of 2006” round-up on Stylus. And that’s not counting the time I spent doing the research, either.

So, yeah: the plan was to answer all ten of your questions over the weekend in a fairly quick-and-dirty, rapid-fire manner – but the aforementioned Failing Powers got in the way of doing this. This wasn’t helped by the gargantuan nature of Question Number One, either – in which jo asked:

Has the proliferation of alternative sources for finding and hearing new music such as music blogs, YouTube, Myspace, etc., helped or hindered the populace in the quest to find new music?

Do you think these alternative sources are allowing smaller acts who might not have caught the attention of music scouts or writers previously to promote without the backing of giant label conglomerates – and if so, do you think this has led to a dearth or a surplus of quality music?

Is it simply nostalgia for previous decades that causes us to feel that music from *then* was, in general, better than whatever is *current* – or is it that we simply manage to blot out all the crap that was around *then*, and create a rosy post-image?

Blimey, jo! And, er, Naughty jo! Not only did I say “one question per person only”, but I even said it in bold type, so that no-one could miss it!

OK, so let’s try and answer this one without turning in a 5000 word dissertation on The General State Of Popular Music In 2006. Yeah, fat chance. Brevity has never been my forte.

I’m not sure that I can speak for the general populace, but YouTube and Myspace in particular have certainly made it easier than ever before for people like me to access new music with a minimum of effort. For instance: the last time that I posted a list of my favourite tunes, I was able to add helpful illustrative YouTube and/or Myspace links for all of them – and in 11 cases out of 20, I was able to supply both. This wouldn’t have happened 12 months ago, and I most certainly welcome it.

These days, I regularly use both sites in order to decide which gigs and albums I should review, or whether it’s worth turning up early to catch the support act. If I read of a new song or act on a website, or a message board, or in the print media, I can be listening to that song in seconds – and because the content is being streamed rather than downloaded to my hard drive, nobody seems to mind. This makes for a more reliable – and more ethically defensible – alternative to peer-to-peer file-sharing sites, which I only access in cases of dire need. (Compare and contrast with the trigger-happy days of Napster and Audiogalaxy.)

All of this has to be set against my declining interest in old media – both print and broadcast – as reliable sources of information. Radio One is a hyper-active, unlistenable racket; I’m still (just) too hip for Radio Two; and as I don’t own a digital radio and can’t stream live audio at work, 6 Music has yet to become a regular listen – even though it is clearly the station which most closely matches my needs. In fact – and in a highly unexpected reversal of roles – it’s now K who relies on the radio for most of his new CD purchases, as he is a long-standing fan of Radio 3’s Late Junction, and he frequently uses the “Listen Again” service in tandem with the archived playlists on the show’s website.

Meanwhile, Top of the Pops and CD:UK have vanished, Popworld is as nothing without Simon Amstell at the helm, and I can never get it together to set the Sky box for all those late-late-night Channel 4 music shows. Which just leaves Jools Holland’s Later, which will occasionally – very occasionally – throw something new in my direction.

As for the music press: Uncut and the NME are shadows of their former selves, Q and Mixmag are comics for people who don’t really like music, Mojo is overly heavy on the retro, The Wire is impenetrably “difficult” for a shallow soul like me, Straight No Chaser is indiscriminately nice about everybody and everything, which makes it an untrustworthy guide… which leaves Plan B (excellent in its way, but mostly far too indie for my personal tastes), The Word (trendy vicar stuff for the most part, but I have long since learnt to live with my inner Mark Ellen), The Guardian on a Friday (but please don’t get me started on the questionable merits of Alexis “Man at C&A” Petridis) and the Observer Music Magazine once a month (probably my favourite read of the lot, despite having its own fair share of horrors: that “Record Doctor” of theirs should be struck off the register forthwith, for instance). Oh, and there’s always fRoots and Songlines – both excellent in their way, but somehow they have never become essential purchases.

All of this means that, thanks to the likes of the ILM message board, webzines like Stylus and MP3 blogs like the ever-reliable Fluxblog, the web is now by far and away my main source of information regarding new music – and I should imagine that applies to many thousands of others. Do I think that’s a healthy, democratising, liberating shift of emphasis, which enables people to make a freer set of personal choices? Absolutely. Much as I regret the passing of the Top 40 as a mass-consensus barometer of popular taste, I’d rather have things this way round. Maybe that’s partly why my tolerance for music radio has diminished; why should I endure five consecutive crap songs in order to discover one good song, when I could be assembling my own playlists instead?

Has all of this helped smaller acts to flourish? Absolutely. I cannot recall a time when live music in this country was in such a healthy state – or maybe it’s just a local upswing, and I’m just lucky enough to have access to six excellent venues, catering for all sizes of audience, and all within 15 minutes walk from my front door.

Has this led to a dearth or a surplus of quality music? A moot point. It has been a particularly rubbish year for the singles and album charts, with the intelligent and innovative new pop and R&B of the first half of the decade increasingly giving way to identikit faux-rebellious “corporate indie” bands, dreary singer-songwriters, and a iredeemably fossiled slurry of creatively bankrupt commercial dance tunes. So, in order to get to the good stuff, you really do have to make a bit of an effort – but once you do (and really, it’s not that great an effort) – there’s as much good stuff out there as ever.

As for jo’s “are we just giving in to rose-tinted nostalgia, or was music really better in the old days” question: it’s problematic, as…

a) The popular music of our formative years will generally cut deeper than anything we will ever experience in adult life, for reasons which shouldn’t need spelling out.

b) Old music tends to feel more “significant” than new music, as it accumulates depth and weight over time.

c) I genuinely do believe that the singles charts were objectively at their best between 1964 and 1984, with “golden ages” from 1964 to 1966, and again from 1979 to 1982. But that’s just the singles charts. Once you look beyond the commercially popular, the seemingly “good” years and “crap” years even themselves out to a much greater degree.

Extended ramble over, or else we’ll be here all night.

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