The decline in traditional music CDs

We may be reluctant to admit it, but as the years wind on it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny. While we may look on in awe at the degree of enterprise traditional musicians have shown in independently releasing dozens upon dozens of CDs in recent years, we also can not escape the impression that the vast majority of them have been disappointing.

By that I mean that very few demand repeated listening. Regardless of the credentials of a traditional musician, that is, their commitment to traditional music, their family heritage, and so on – all the aspects that their sleevenote authors tend to write effusively about, with very little said about the actual music! – if we can’t find enough musical reasons to keep listening to their CD, none of that actually matters.

One possible explanation for this dry stretch is that, after a period in the 1990s in which there was almost exhaustive experimentation and invention, the pendulum may have swung entirely the other way and traditional musicians are playing it just a little too safe.

There are other possible reasons however. For example, the control musicians today have over their recording careers due to the development of technology and decreasing costs is often cited as a great artistic advance, but is it? An analogy with literature can illustrate how the removal of the traditional barriers to self-publication could seriously affect an art form.

Imagine if writers were able to bypass all the editors and publishers in the world and publish their own books. There would be no advice on what to leave in and take out, no specialised cleaning up of all the small glitches and errors, and no one to tell them that their work simply didn’t deserve to be published. Needless to say, the amount of poor writing that would get through from what may potentially be good – or even great – writers would be tantamount to a tragedy. Those with real talent might never actually achieve their potential because there would be no one to guide them or make sure they were producing their best work.

If one transposes this analogy to traditional music, and considers that traditional musicians may now have wiped out whatever ‘gatekeepers’ there may have been in the past, we can begin to understand this new situation. Many CDs don’t even seem to get what one would consider to be the the basics right. Simple things like high-quality production, variety in tempo and repertoire, a balance between accompanied and unaccompanied work, and the simple exclusion of tracks that are obviously sub-standard, all seem to be overlooked in the drive to have a CD to one’s name as soon as possible.

In this new environment, we have to consider whether or not we are getting the very best performances on CD from the finest of the present young generation of traditional musicians. Often their recordings appear hurried, at best. Consider the legacy of recordings that the 1970s generation of musicians produced, and consider the recordings of today’s generation. There is a gap there which on present trends would seem hard to bridge.

Musicians are of course responsible for the music they put into the public arena, but we cannot be totally unsympathetic to the difficulties of the present working environment. First of all, there is immense (and unprecedented) commercial pressure in traditional music: musicians are compelled to produce a CD even when they are (a) not ready and (b) not able. They do it because they can sell their product at gigs at home and abroad to audiences who are often less than discerning, and because they require the accoutrement of a CD in order to secure additional gigs at the many traditional music festivals around the world.

In addition, it has to be considered that the pressure to produce really good recordings may ostensibly have been removed because in the absence of those traditional upholders of standards – the ‘folk police’, ‘the purists’, all those who have had to head for the hills for cover in our politically correct times! – the role has fallen to mainstream traditional-music criticism – and it goes without saying that that is in a terribly poor state.
There is also the issue of an intellectual retreat in contemporary culture whereby there is no insistence on standards if they at all conflict with the demands of the market, or if it is considered that an opinion on someone’s music is ‘insensitive’. These days, it is terribly bad form to say publicly that a CD by a traditional musician is simply not good enough.

The result of all this is that traditional musicians are partly culpable for nourishing an attitude in this country which they profess to disdain, that is, the national inclination not to take traditional music seriously. Traditional musicians confront this attitude regularly in their playing lives and it depresses them, but do they ever consider that they might be partly responsible for it? There is enough strength behind the historical, cultural and social forces which work to keep this music off the radar of serious consideration in this country without traditional musicians, through churning out less-than-their-best CDs, helping those forces along.

January 2005

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