Confession time: I’ve started listening to the oldies stations more.
And Gold 104 is not the worst of it. I’m ashamed to admit Smooth 91.5 is pre-programmed in the car. I’ve even strayed onto the AM dial and enjoyed a few hours of Magic 1278, where the ads are for dentures and funeral insurance!
Is that smart and wise? Or a sign that I’m a total dork, with any remaining dregs of cool banished completely from my existence? Hmm… This seems like a question I can answer with analysis!
Is the optimal strategy to listen to new music, or to dredge the archives? We can break the question down by looking at a couple of models.
Let’s start by assuming music quality has only one cause – genius.
Genius is only going to come along at random.
And even geniuses are only at the height of their powers for a brief period.
In summary, music made with genius is uncommon.
It would be easy to have a year in which very little music is released that meets the standard of being genius. For example, 1986.
If you listen to stations (or listen to Spotify playlists, or whatever) that focus on brand new music, you get the cream of this month’s output brought to you.
But this could be a colossal waste of your time. While you’re fussing over Kendrick Lamar’s new album, To Pimp a Butterfly, you’re missing the opportunity to listen to works already validated as true works of genius, like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
Mr Lamar’s work stands out, sure. But only against the background of a light couple of months of releases.
Chet Faker’s song that topped the Hottest 100 last year is undeniably good. But is it better than any of the nine tracks on Prince’s Purple Rain?
There are 500 albums selected by Rolling Stone on their best albums of all time. Listening to each one just once would require listening full time for 25 days. Appreciating them would be a lifetime’s work.
As I read through the top 100, I see not just albums but even bands I’ve never heard of. As a music fan, it strikes me as a matter of urgency to take these recommendations on.
Looking at music in this way, it would seem crazy to listen to new music. And it would be crazy to even start a band.
The longer history goes on, the more the stock of geniuses accumulates. The more the pile of amazing tracks and albums grows. And the chance of making a piece of music that compares well shrinks to nothingness.
This is the only outcome if we make the assumption that the only factor in music is genius. But that seems to lead to a stale and conservative outcome where new creativity is increasingly pointless.
Let’s assume something different for a moment. Let’s assume the only thing that matters in music is learning. Each musician listens to the bands that go before them. They hear what works. They see what doesn’t work. They gather information and skills.
In this model, music is more like technology:
Pink Floyd are like a payphone, and Alt-J is your smartphone. The latter has absorbed the ideas in the former, and expanded on them.
You’d be silly to listen to the old stuff, because it’s all there – reflected, distilled, improved – in the new stuff. When you do go back to the old music, it seems like a pale imitation. Stevie Nicks sounds like an also-ran version of Lana del Rey that didn’t quite have the right stuff. Neil Young sounds like a shadow of Ryan Adams, etc.
To be honest, there are times when I have felt this – sometimes a band accused of being derivative is actually an improvement on the original. Sometimes technology is making possible music that would never have been heard before. But far more often, the new stuff is being hyped by the industry because it can make money.
CONCLUSION AND CAVEAT
So which of these models is Truth?
Once you break it down, the answer is the same one you’ve been learning since childhood. The same message carried by Goldilocks, the Buddhists and the Food Pyramid. You need a balance. Old and New. Listen to a bit of both!
Music is part genius, part accumulation and learning. And seeing the links between the old and new is fun. The best way to decide which venerated hero to explore next is by hearing your favourite new artist cite them as an influence. The best way to catch onto a new act is to see them supporting your favourite old band.
So I don’t just listen to Golden Oldies. I flick through community radio and Triple J in order to stop getting too crusty and stale. I particularly like Double J, which plays a mix of old and new (recently, AC/DC, Alabama Shakes, Sonic Youth, St Vincent.)
This is sometimes not easy – the risk as you age is in wanting to just hear music that makes you feel comfortable.
But if there is one thing that should tip the balance against bunkering down and getting settled with your record collection, it is this: If you want to go to live shows, you need to be across the new acts.
Getting the most out of a live act normally means knowing a few of the songs in advance. If everything you like is from your youth (or before), shows will come round annually at best, be at arenas, and cost over $100.
Great moments in music come with a great act at a small venue. That act could top the greatest 100 list published in a decade’s time. And this is your chance to hear them first! That’s one reason at least to embrace something new.
Whether you start with Courtney Barnett or Taylor Swift, YouTube does a pretty good job these days of taking you on a tour of songs you wouldn’t otherwise have heard. Enjoy.