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Quantity or quality?

Written by Tommi on 05.08.2008 10:09:27

Blog image for entry Quantity or quality? Jeff Atwood wrote an interesting piece on quality vs. quantity in his Coding Horror -blog a few days ago. Although the post was about a piece of writing on making art applied to software engineering, I found it really thought-provoking in it's applicability to music.

In the text Atwood quotes a text from a book called Art & Fear. I'm just going to be lazy and requote it:
"The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot - albeit a perfect one - to get an "A".

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay."

The conclusion Atwood makes is that in blogging and software engineering (his two areas of expertise) quantity always trumps quality. Writing a lot - whether code or human languages - makes you a better writer as you learn from your mistakes and successes.

Does this apply to music, though? Obviously "practise makes perfect" and all, but do bands with higher output rates ultimately get a bit better? Shouldn't that mean that Guided By Voices should be the best band in the world by now?

One of the most darling hipster stereotypes is the "their first demo was the best" -mantra often heard about... well, just about every band. As ridiculous as it is, though, more often than not bands reach their peak on their first or at the very latest their second record. If not the first demo. I started to REALLY think about bands that had put out a steady body of work and substantially improved during the years and the results were slim to none. Sure, there's a lot of bands that have evolved (think Sonic Youth, R.E.M., U2) and reached an ever widening audience with every passing album, but I still wouldn't go as far as saying that R.E.M.'s early stuff is somehow inferior to their later, more succesful, work. Or especially that anything the post-Joshua Tree U2 has made has any chance against their earlier work even if the audience at large seems to disagree.

So, why is it that it seems bands lose their edge after a few albums instead of sharpening it as they get more focus on their collective vision? If arts & crafts in general seem to improve as the creator gains confidence, skill and insight, why doesn't the same happen to music?

Music is inherently a bipolar field of art, as it is in a constant battle between art and entertainment. Every piece of music is always at the same time both art and entertainment and I feel that the problem at hand stems from this equation. Artists generally feel a stronger urge to improve in the latter as it obviously is a far more gratifying field to excel in. Once the emphasis is put on entertainment and art is left to sort of drag along by itself, bands generally progress into getting duller and duller by every record. Then again, the opposite is quite true as well: artists who disregard the entertainment factor altogether seem to fall deeper and deeper into their introverted cocoon with every release.

I guess that's what makes a band like Sonic Youth special. Over the past almost 30 years they've been willing to conciously push the envelope further and further in both ends of the spectrum. They're able to just let go and pen pop hits like Sunday, but at the same time they're releasing obscure art experiments and droney noise on their own label.

So I guess the original text did have a point that's applicable to music as well, just not as directly as it is to pottery or blogging. I'd love to see more and more underground bands embrace the entertainment side to making music just as much as I'd love to see pop artists do something unique and artful. It's directly comparable to our muscular system. Usually every muscle has a counter muscle (like the biceps and triceps in your arm). You need to train both to be truly physically fit. Otherwise you're like an alligator - you can bite like a true champ, but if someone gets a hold of you around your snout, you're fucked.

ps. If you can think of bands who truly and directly support the theory of "more work done = better quality", please comment on this post. I want some opinions on this.
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Comments (4) 1/4

05.08.2008 15:08:03 Lassi wrote

Bändien täytyy tehdä hurjasti duunii ennen kuin bändistä "kuullaan" -- täytyy tehdä biisejä ja oppia soittamaan hyvin yhteen hurjalla motivaatiolla. Tämän lisäksi jokainen soittaja on tehnyt jo valtavasti duunia ihan vain opetellessaan soittamaan ja väsätessään biisejä omaan pöytälaatikkoon. Kun keikkoja tulee enemmän, paiskitaan myös hommia kiertue-elämän tms. harjoitteluun. Bändi on siis oikeastaan käyttänyt suurimman osan "elinvoimastaan" viimeistään jo parin ekan levyn aikana.

Viimeistään siinä vaiheessa jos bändistä tulee kuuluisa ja "major label -diili" on hanskassa, niin levyjähän on pakko tehdä säännöllisin väliajoin eikä se nyt niin ihme ole, jos ei ole jäljellä oikein mitään mistä ammentaa.

Ts. jos bändin "kovuutta" mitattaisiin sellaisella excel-käyrällä, niin ekoista treeneistä lähtien se nousee tasaisesti, jossain vaiheessa saavuttaa huipun ja sitten lähtee väistämätön alamäki. Huippu on yleensä siinä kohdassa, missä ei olla tehty kovin paljon vielä levyjä; ulkopuolisen silmistä bändin taival alkaa vasta ekasta levystä, vaikka oikeasti duunia on tehty ihan vitusti jo ennen sitä.

05.08.2008 16:35:40 Eetu wrote

I can think of two bands that have arguably improved on their every release: Propagandhi and Karkkiautomaatti.

In case of music, I guess the hard part is the feedback cycle. There are some ways to measure success, amount of sold units being the most obvious. Even when that applies (there are a lot of other factors than the music itself which influence it), is it ever clear to the band what they did right or wrong, what caused them to be (un)successful? Sure, they can try to analyze it themselves, but it doesn't guarantee any results.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about how what we call "agile" in the software business could apply to other fields of business. It would be interesting to see how it could be done in the music "industry"...

06.08.2008 01:22:54 Avi wrote : "more more more"

besides Sonic Youth, Fugazi is really the only indie band that comes to mind that consistently improved throughout their career. Radiohead is certainly doing their best to make a go at it too and I'd add the Buzzcocks, Wire and Entombed to the list of bands who are at least putting out decent work at a time in their careers when most folk would write em off.
However, if you really want to see "more = better" proven in a musical arena, you gotta look to country. Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton have all put out stellar albums in the last few years. They've put out a few bummers too, but I'd argue that they are the exception when you look at the grand scheme of things.

13.08.2008 18:50:26 Antti wrote : "Some bands"

these are of course my personal opinions, and i'm pretty sure, that only small minority agrees with me, but here i go...

i think Pulp developed A LOT between Separations (third) and His'n'Hers (fourth) album, actually my opinion is, that last four records by Pulp are really high quality, though Different Class stands out as the highpoint of their career.

Blur could be partly in the same category, the first four albums are definitely good poprecords, but for me Blur and 13 just somehow work better.

It's impossible to pick the best Bruce Springsteen album, but the first six are incredible, and then there's Born in the USA, though the level of his releases dropped dramatically after that, his releases on the new millennium are strong.

the "grunge"-era had some good examples, Screaming Trees' two last ones are definitely the best ones, whereas i can't decide which Afghan Whigs album is the high point, but the last three ones are amazing (Congregation rocks too).

Then there are bands like Beatles, Beach Boys and Rolling Stones, who didn't start their career with their strongest albums, actually it took quite a while before getting to "their" level. Dylan has had his ups (60's,70's and the last three ones) and downs (80's and 90's), Stevie Wonder recorded loads of records before Music of My Mind, but he was awfully young, when he began.

And again, Nick Cave has done so many good records with Birthday Party and Bad Seeds, so that it's hard to say if his albums have got better or maintained the high level, but i think except for Nocturama, he has done some remarkable albums even after turning 40!

And then there's Flaming Lips. I don't really like the 80's and early 90's stuff, but since Transmissions... they've been solid (i haven't had proper Zaireeka experience, so it's hard to tell about that one)
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