Here we go! Transferred from Low Earth Orbit, originally posted 2011.02.01 20:58. This one still accords with my current thinking and is interesting to reread for the first time in a long while. I haven't had the problem of musical oversaturation that it discusses basically since I wrote it, happily. My love of the nuum is as strong as ever.
We all know that the amount of recorded music that exists today is practically infinite in terms of how much of it one individual can take in, and that online channels (even just the legal ones) make a still-practically-infinite portion of this total available to anyone with net access. This is so even within fairly circumscribed subgenres. As a result, a truly complete exposure to almost any genre of music except a nascent one is, I expect, either mathematically impossible for one person, or nearly so. And of course I’ve only mentioned recorded music, since it’s relatively quantifiable — as opposed to live performances etc. Yet when I’m in a phase of deep interest in a particular genre, I have the understandable desire to hear a whole lot of it, and sometimes this desire approaches a gluttonous wish to hear every bit of output available within that genre and to know things about every artist working in it. I’m pretty sure that such compulsions are much stronger still in many music lovers, that my desire for encyclopedic knowledge and consumption is perhaps only middling (well, probably upper-middling) within the overall population. How far down into the genre I actually end up digging depends, naturally, on the intensity and duration of my interest in it. The question I started pondering last night is: how deep should one dig into a genre? How close to total should you try to make your understanding of it? How far in is just scratching the surface and how far is too much?
I think the obvious broad answer to such a subjective question is that it depends: on you, your personality, what you get out of the genre; on the works and artists that constitute the genre and their place in its history, and on the quality of their music itself; on the things you’re supposed to be doing rather than listening to and learning about music; etc etc. In other words, there’s clearly no real answer. But this is unsatisfying, and I’m going to try to be a little more precise.
Usually when I first become enthusiastic about a genre that I haven’t much listened to before, my appetite for knowledge about it is voracious. I think sometimes the desire to read about music I’m interested in even outpaces my desire to hear new works within the genre. I’ll find a few albums (or even just one to start, or indeed a single tune) that catch my ear, acquire them (legally) and read up on the artists and those connected to them. As I learn about more artists, I check out their music in turn. The listening and reading feed into each other. (As I describe this process, it seems it must obviously be the normal way of things for a music enthusiast and that it therefore hardly bears mentioning — how can you learn more about the sonic space of a tune or album that strikes your fancy other than by researching it? Pandora, I suppose, or other such passive means. Oh, or by actually talking to fellow fans in real life. Right.)
The degree of obsessiveness of these inquiries naturally affects how soon I become saturated in the genre, how soon I begin to tire of it. This usually does happen to some degree, but to date I don’t think I’ve gone so far overboard that I permanently lose interest in the music. (Although admittedly there is plenty of music in my library that I haven’t listened to in years, so maybe I’m actually quite wrong about that; only time will tell.) Often it will happen before I’ve really acquired a lot of music in the genre, particularly if the albums that I have bought I’ve listened to a whole lot.
That time of saturation may be when the question of how deep one “should” get into the genre is most likely to rise into conscious consideration. Even though I’m starting to tire of this kind of music, are there more works out there that are truly essential to my understanding of it, so that I’m doing a disservice to the genre if I don’t listen to them before moving on? Should I just let go and revisit such works when my interest in the genre comes back around? Reviews of albums one hasn’t yet listened to at this point saying that e.g. “you cannot be a true connoisseur of (insert genre here) if you don’t have this album” are not helpful here, as the option I’ve come to think is more sound is the latter: let it go. Unless you’re a professional music critic and it’s your actual job to listen to a work in order to review it or to get context for other music, or, let’s say, you’re a student in a music class and have been assigned to listen to it, or you’re a DJ and are considering playing it out, it is unlikely that you Really Must Hear It right now. More likely, you have been seeking out music in this genre for your own enjoyment, and so, once that enjoyment wanes, there’s no point in forcing yourself to listen to it. You won’t appreciate it as much as you would have during your initial passion for the genre, so in my view it’s actually more respectful to the music and its creator(s) not to listen to it at that point, and to wait until you’re once again able to appreciate it. It’s all right not to have encyclopedic knowledge of a genre by the time your love for it wanes; no one will be harmed by such a lack; no one who is really worth chilling with should be affronted by it. On the contrary, they ought to be thankful that you’re not super-obsessive. (Or maybe you are anyway. It’s all a matter of degree, after all.) Maybe some tunes at the edge of the genre lead you into different ones that you find more fulfilling; that’s great. Maybe you take a break from listening to much music at all for a while. That might be even better.
I have a similar attitude toward dessert: if you’re really full after dinner, you won’t appreciate dessert as much as if you have it when you’re actually hungry. So basically what I’ve been leading up to this whole time is that you should eat ice cream for breakfast. Enjoy.
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This essay has really been for my own benefit, fundamentally. I fear that I may be currently approaching saturation in the sphere of the “hardcore continuum” (garage, jungle, dubstep, grime, funky, bassline, etc) even though it continues to be the kind of music I want to make myself, and even though I feel woefully underexposed to certain parts of it, such as grime and funky, relative to where I want to be. This is more of a saturation in actual listening rather than in learning: my appetite for reading material about the ‘nuum and its latest transformations is just as insatiable as it was six months ago when I really jumped into it deep for the first time, and I expect that many of my subsequent posts will concern the ‘nuum — but recently I’ve started to feel overwhelmed by all the exciting new ‘nuum music revealed to me seemingly every day (by Resident Advisor, Boomkat, etc) and by its enormous (practically infinite), enormously varied backlog, and that’s what has spawned these more general thoughts on music consumption. I hope that having hashed out the foregoing line of argument will help me keep perspective at such times as this. But if your relationship to music is similar to mine, maybe you’ll have some use for it as well.