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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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