A New Eclecticism

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My much better half, Jo, likes to put things in boxes. It'll be me one day; such is life. Well, death. Hopefully, though, I won't end up in Tupperware with nothing more than a freezer bag sticker identifying my remains as contents:

"Adam Walton - Use Before 1998."

What do we keep in this container port of plastic receptacles? Well, literally everything. But let's just concentrate on my particular weakness: biscuits. We have traditional biscuits (digestives, cow, Rich Tea and Nice) in one box; chocolate biscuits partitioned elsewhere; biscuits for cheese in a couple of other boxes; dunking biscuits in another; 'healthy' biscuits in yet another. Not that I've ever opened that box, not on purpose anyway.

It's a triumph of obsessive organisation over anarchy. I'd prefer anarchy, to be honest. Perhaps Jo is concerned the biscuit equivalent of a tax man will pay a surprise visit, insisting they audit any undeclared Bourbon Creams. Maybe a more demanding relative visits in her dreams, threatening family ridicule if she can't proffer a cranberry oatcake within seconds of it being requested.

The shame would be cataclysmic.

Here is my problem with putting everything in boxes: I can't be bothered looking beyond whichever box is in front of me when I open the cupboard. Jo's system is governed by the need to find what you want quickly and without accidentally fingering a long-forgotten fig roll. Sometimes, however, taking a sticky leap beyond the rigid confines of the system is just what is required to alleviate torpor. Put too many things in boxes and you may as well live in a box yourself.

I'm hoping Jo doesn't read this piece for a number of reasons - but the idea she'd get, and implement, having read that last sentence is the key reason.

Boxes make me claustrophobic. They're good at containing, but containment is a reductive philosophy and not always a good thing, especially for music.

I heard a brilliant - proper brilliant, not my usual, kneejerk hyperbole 'BRILLIANT!' - interview with Chic's legendary Nile Rodgers on Lauren Laverne's 6 Music show the other day. He recounted his amazement the first time Chic did Top Of The Pops. Unlike the more rigid, partitioned system in America, TOTP was a genreless free-for-all.

Chic, who'd have been marginalised towards the black, R&B charts and programmes in the States, got to play alongside "some guy singing Ugly Duckling". The wonder of TOTP was it was an imperfect democracy based entirely on sales. Rock/pop/reggae/music hall/novelty/dance/punk: every musical denomination having to rub shoulders together, and all playing in front of a similarly broad-ranging audience.

The kids waiting for Little Jimmy Osmond got to get warped by Bowie; a dyed-in-the-wool rock fan would have been titillated by Chic; stuffy parents got to sneer at it all. The point being that it wasn't a programme predicated on genres. Neither the artists nor the audience were put in boxes.

This amazed Nile. He still sounded amazed almost 40 years later.

But almost ever since then, some bright sparks, probably in marketing departments or some such, decided that a better way would be to partition creativity. Maybe MTV's American, genre-orientated approach was the catalyst; then exacerbated by the reboot of Radio 1 in 1993, with the dawning of specialist indie/hip hop/reggae/metal and dance shows. Undoubtedly the process was exacerbated by the growing influence of the internet. Podcasts and music blogs took specialisation to a whole new level. If you wanted Norwegian black metal, you could find it, and only it, and the same applied to a massive proliferation of sub genres.

Original, leftfield music went niche. The audience got split. And - at a time when market research, focus groups and audience demographics started to rule editorial decisions - the audience for new music had disempowered itself, splitting into niches and cliques that hardly registered on the stattos' pie charts. Top Of The Pops got dropped in 2006, what little music TV that followed in its wake unashamedly targeted the mainstream advertising pound.

And eclecticism, as a street level musical philosophy, died.

Now, I do understand that eclecticism - or randomness - isn't always the perfect way to enjoy music. A cleaner, more aesthetic focus on form, an awareness and respect for style and flow is also important. It's what makes great DJs great DJs. But I'd argue that it shouldn't be the dominant ethos that dictates how the music industry and media showcase the talent they support.

People (shows/magazines/blogs) have been preaching to ever-decreasing circles for over a decade now. Audiences, I believe, have got bored by the predictability of what they're served up. I have no statistical evidence for this, It's a feeling. But this is a blog, not academic research.

It's one of the reasons that pop music - generally - has been more exciting and cutting edge than the supposed leftfield. You can hear a real convolution of ideas and styles in a lot of pop productions. But indie guitar hasn't evolved much, despite flirtations with jangly, off-kilter African riffs or surf-y reverb, for eons. And that - I believe - is because the pool of influence on those bands has shrunk because the shows, magazines etc that they seek support from have become, inevitably, more nepotistic and inward looking. Same goes for metal. Same goes for dance music. One dubstep does not a summer of genre-melting creativity make.

My radio shows and DJ sets are eclectic, but not purposefully. I just play the things that I hear that I am most excited by, regardless of the box they come from. It's not an approach that always finds favour. You can guarantee that if I play an R&B/grime/house/trance track on my show, there will be tweets and emails of derision.

Famously, John Peel challenged a similar conservatism when punk records started to replace the prog rock that had been his show's domain hitherto, but how can this kind of conservatism still exist in 2011? Why is it, in my experience at least, getting worse?

I'm preaching for a new broad-mindedness. Music lovers are far more eclectic than they're given credit for. For evidence, see the growing popularity of 6 Music and the enduring love for John Peel - the last great eclecticist. And, if I've just coined that word, can we keep it? Because I'd be proud to be regarded as an eclecticist.

So, can we please have daytime radio that seeks to bring more joy and variety into our lives, not just a stream of 'meh' focus-grouped to bland, predictable nothingness? Could we have a music programme other than Jools Holland's, that isn't entirely determined by live performance underpinned by boogie woogie piano? (Although - piano omnipresence notwithstanding - I applaud the ethos of Later.) Could the media and the music industry encourage and support more cross-genre fertilisation? Could we take the decisions about musical content away from marketing people who love boxes more than they love what they put in them?

Remember, the moment you stick music in a box, even if you put a leaf and a thimble of water in there and puncture the lid with air holes, it will die. Genres suffocate. All hail a new eclecticism!

And here, while you're thinking about it, have a fig roll (unfingered).

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