Confession: I listen to the ‘golden oldie’ stations.

Confession time: I’ve started listening to the oldies stations more.

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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.

p mcc And even geniuses are only at the height of their powers for a brief period.

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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.

1986 songs

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.

So, you’re planning on competing with The Boss? Let us know how that goes…

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.


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.

The Mowgli's
The Mowgli’s, as seen in Austin Texas in March.

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.

Musiconomics: Why the Macbook is the new Fender Stratocaster

My recent travels through the USA took me to Austin, Texas in the middle of March. At that time Austin is taken over by the festival known as South by Southwest (SXSW). This was no coincidence. We went especially for the music part of this festival and were ready to be blown away.

I wrote in 2013 about my first SXSW experience, and this time was definitely different. The festival had returned to its roots – eschewing big names in favour of exposing new bands. This meant the bills were filled with names we did not know, and gave us more freedom to choose venues at random, without expectations.

The music was often great, and despite never having heard the tracks before, we regularly left gigs with a hook on repeat in our heads.

But there was one surprise. Time and again we found “bands” on stage that were not traditional bands.  Many acts did their show on just a laptop and a microphone. We saw the Apple logo more often than the Fender logo.

That’s fun, but a traditionalist streak lurks within us. So on day four, the desire to actually see a big, proper band letting loose made us seek out an African/Carribean night at a smaller club. It featured acts from Cote d’Ivore, Nigeria, etc, and we expected something in the tradition of Fela Kuti.

But our search did not lead to a big band. Not a cymbal was struck in anger. Once more, we saw multiple acts featuring one microphone and one Macbook.

Serge Beynaud of Cote d'Ivoire
Serge Beynaud of Cote d’Ivoire. (It may look like there is a band on stage but those guys are roadies/photographers/loitering.)

It sounded great, the crowd was into it and we had a good time. But it got me thinking. In Cote d’Ivoire, how is a band starting out going to buy instruments? In Australia, people who are in bands work hard in traditional jobs to get the money to buy a bass, a guitar, and a drumkit, each of which can cost over $1000.

My friend the trumpet player, for example, is a vet.

It’s common knowledge that a band doesn’t make money in 2015. Not for the first few years, anyway. So they need a revenue stream. With the economic situation in Cote d’Ivoire, it’s probably not as simple as working in a bookshop to save for a new amp or some pedals. It makes sense most acts will be lean, streamlined, cheap to run. Expecting a full band is like expecting a grand piano. Not realistic.

That idea stewed in my mind for a while until I realised that it wasn’t just relevant to impoverished West Africa. It would apply in the rich world too.

Instrument choice could even explain success and longevity. Longevity and success are going to be linked in both directions. Because a good band will last, but a band needs to last to get good.

In the Western world, assume a share of bands start up with a traditional four or five-piece set up – more EADGBE than QWERTY, and a share of bands start up with a macbook they had anyway and a pirated copy of a music making program.

Who is more likely to get the 10,000 hours of practice they need before they crack?

iLoveMakonnen is a two piece - microphone and DJ.
iLoveMakonnen: A two piece featuring an MC and a DJ (who hasn’t touched an actual ‘disc’ in years).

While all bands suffer from entropy and slowly disappear, the effect will be more pronounced for larger bands with more expensive equipment. There are plenty of reasons for bands to split. But money-making is not the least of them.

If a big band does make a bit of revenue, the musicians will find it divided among many people, and soaked up by depreciation of the band’s material. They will start to see the band as an ongoing expense, not a money maker.

Perhaps in the 1980 and 1990s, bands endured this period with a little more hope of cashing in eventually. But in 2015 the idea of selling records is something of a joke. (Side note: at SXSW, the streets were littered with thousands and thousands of CDs that enterprising bands were trying to give away and punters couldn’t be bothered carrying home.)

In this scenario, bands with an upright bass and a trumpet are disappearing fast, while the number of bands using pirated software and a macbook shrinks at a lower rate. That means by year four or five, when all the skills are finally in place to write a song that’s genuinely awesome, the bigger, more traditional band’s songwriters are back at university, while the smaller acts are still plugging away.

It may be hard to justify a full band when you can make all those sounds through a computer. The main advantage of a proper band could be the richer stream of ideas that come with a meeting of minds.

Happily, there is still evidence of that happening.

Quality still wins out and the occasional seven-piece does make it through the cracks to become a viable band. Below is the Mowgli’s, who sounded great. Sure they’re white people from LA – one of the richest cities in the world – but at least that swirling moneypool is splashing some cash in the direction of old-fashioned music making.


Debrief – failed prediction

In a post I wrote ten days ago, I made an attempt to predict the future.

“I went to the website of a certain sportsbetting company and put $100 on Daft Punk to win this year’s Hottest 100 with the song Get Lucky,” I revealed.

I can now report I lost that $100 backing my own judgment. The song in question came 3rd in the Hottest 100. I had never even heard the winning song before.

Hopefully I have traded that $100 for some useful perspective and humility.

That is going to be an important theme this year as I play my part in the Good Judgment Project. I’ve been assigned to a team and just finished my training.

The training emphasised the importance of putting time and effort into exploring both “inside” and “outside” views of a prediction.

In the case of the 2013 Hottest 100, I over-emphasised the “inside” view. I was so sure Get Lucky was the best track I had heard all year, that I didn’t go and run any real analysis of what sort of tracks won the Hottest 100.

If I had done that “outside” analysis, I would have found a dearth of French disco tracks and a preponderance of  acoustic / folk tracks, such as Mumford and Sons’ Little Lion Man, which topped the poll in 2009.

I may also have noticed a lot of Australian tracks, like Gotye’s Somebody That I Used to Know (#1, 2011) And of course, the killer combo, acoustic/folk tracks by local artists like Angus and Julia Stone’s Big Jet Plane (#1, 2010).

With that sort of analysis to hand, Vance Joy’s win with Riptide is not so surprising.

It ticks all the boxes… except actually having an emotional reaction to it. It doesn’t tick that box.

So, anyway, my forecasting record is reduced to ashes. But, like the legend of the phoenix, all ends with beginnings. One is not going to make progress without making a few mistakes. The important thing is to shine a light on them and try to improve.


[A version of this post also appeared over at the Warner Music blog, Cool Accidents]

I’m having a beer with a priest in Texas. This is South by Southwest, undeniably the world’s biggest and probably its best music festival. Continue reading SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST BY REGRET

Little Red do ACDC’s ‘Long Way to the Top’

Little Red are a Melbourne doo-wop quintet.

Continue reading Little Red do ACDC’s ‘Long Way to the Top’

The Best of all Time

Some people really like music.  It’s like the songs reach right in and mash the emotional cortex of their brain.  The making of top five, ten and hundred lists is a process that forces them to confront their innermost emotions.  It’s like ranking friends and family.  It thrills their heart.  It stuffs them with crippling doubt.  The Australian government encourages it though… Continue reading The Best of all Time

On Naivety


The opening lines of the U2 song ‘Peace on Earth’ :

Heaven on earth / We need it now / I’m sick of all this / Hanging around


There’s a debate that isn’t quite raging. If you google Bono + naivety, you get a lot of people criticising the U2 vocalist’s involvement in international aid. They say things like:


“…pompous bastard…” “Egomaniac.” and “Make Bono History”


And they generally have some rude things to say about his apricot-tinted sunglasses too.

Continue reading On Naivety