There are only two kinds of music
October 7, 2015
I’m fond of Duke Ellington’s statement that there are only “two kinds of music: good music, and the other kind.” Let’s spend a minute dissecting this quote, which for me still resonates.
I find it nifty how the great bandleader, composer, and pianist both dismisses the genre wars (in jazz, that can often mean sub-genre and sub-sub-genre wars) that can consume musicians, critics, and tastemakers, and does it in such a gentle way: not calling it out as ‘bad music’ but just ‘the other kind’ of music.
But the other implication of this quote is more hard-edged: it’s the idea that there really is a divide in music: on one side of the divide there’s good music and, on the other side, music that, if not “bad,” at the very least (to use other words from the Duke), “fails” at “sounding good.”
But here we hit a problem. I think it’s evident that there can never be a definitive benchmark for what constitutes good or bad music. To some, the music of ABBA (to pick an example that, statistically speaking, you have a 99.9934 percent likelihood of having heard) is a bubbly delight that brings them to their happy place instantly; for others, ABBA’s tortured, almost pre-literate lyrics and the relentlessly dumbed-down optimism are nails-on-chalkboardesque. Even within my family, we have this divide, and it doesn’t fall along age or gender lines; in Stockholm not long ago, my wife and my son happily trotted off to the immensely popular ABBA museum while my daughter and me were delighted to stay as far away from there as possible.
Music can sound heavenly to one listener and repulsive to the next because our reactions depend on so many variables: what we were doing and how old we were when we first heard a particular piece, what our musical background is, how much time we’ve spent acquiring a particular musical taste (don’t let anyone fool you: music, especially more complex forms of music, can be an acquired taste), where we grew up, and so much more.
Which is why it would be ridiculous for me to suggest to you that, in your music career, you strive to not make music that someone, somewhere, may consider bad. What I would suggest instead is that you never intentionally make music that feels/sounds bad to you.
I suggest this for two reasons. The first is entirely pragmatic. It’s hard to project yourself into the ears of a hypothetical listener who likes bad (meaning “sounding bad to you, the performer”) music. Trying to write something slick and meaningless because you think that’s what people want is a lot harder than it sounds. Odds are good you’ll miss your cheesy target.
The other is the danger, paradoxically, that you’ll succeed. What if you do succeed in selling bad music, music that to you just doesn’t have what it takes to sustain your soul? I don’t think that, long-term, this is viable commercially for you either. You may be able to sell music that you don’t believe in once, or twice, but sustain a career doing this? I doubt it. Either your fans or you are going to burn out. Go drive a truck instead; at least it’s honest work.
President & Founder
Oasis Disc Manufacturing