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Whither eclecticism?

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Adam Walton Adam Walton | 15:08 UK time, Monday, 5 October 2009

For the best part of the last 15 years I've gloried in the variety of music I have had the freedom to play on my show and in my DJ sets. Mine (not that it belonged to me!) was the first generation that wasn't particularly tribal about its music. Madness sat next to The Beatles, Iron Maiden, Ice T, Josh Wink, The Stone Roses, De La Soul -- you get the point without me having to drag it up to date.

My DJ sets, especially, have always been a bit of a tumble through 60 years of blues, jazz, rock n roll, rap, indie, dance - all these labels functioning a bit like ingredients in a stew.

But stew isn't to everyone's taste. Even if you do try and disguise it as a cassoulet (French stew). Or tagine (stew with chickpeas in it).

This kind of eclecticism (and we'll get to that word again, trust me) was due, in no small part, to DJ's like John Peel, Mark Radcliffe and Steve Lamacq ignoring genre delineated barriers. The increasingly catholic booking policies of the major festivals, especially Glastonbury, were also incredibly influential. To be a purist meant you were a bore, a stick in the mud and blinkered.

But, for reasons I can't quite fathom, there feels as if there is a change back towards a more tribal and genre-orientated approach to music. Especially in the clubs.

This is anecdotal, I know. Hell, all writing about music is anecdotal, to a point - so I'd appreciate your leeway on such matters.

I have noticed that the people I DJ for every Friday night have a much narrower idea of what they want to dance to than at any time since the late 90's.

Someone will come up to the DJ booth looking confused when I'm playing Major Lazer, or F*ck Buttons: "Isn't this supposed to be an indie night?" And the reverse happens when I stick on some Phenomenal Handclap Band, or - if they're very lucky - Future of the Left.

Of course, this could just be my experience in the venue I work in, but I've noticed it when I've DJ'd elsewhere, too, and particularly when I'm broadcasting my show.

Last night, for example, was a particularly eclectic affair. You can't go from Cate Le Bon to Frank Sinatra to Slayer, via R Kelly without inducing some kind of travel sickness. But a track that doesn't fit into a listener's perceived idea of what the show should be playing can generate a surprising amount of ire.

Within seconds of each other, I got e-mails from someone ecstatic they'd heard some Slayer on the show and someone else who was mortified that their indie enclave had been invaded by those notorious death metallers.

My friend and broadcasting compadre, Soundhog, pulls a face that would curdle yoghurt if you use the word 'eclectic' in front of him. He thinks that slapping together songs from a multitude of different disciplines is lazy, haphazard and infers a lack of vision. And I must admit that most of my favourite DJ's and producers - Soundhog himself, Erol Alkan, zWolf, Kaptin (mix coming up this Sunday night) - encase the breadth of their love for music in something identifiable. The eclecticism is there, but there is also a unity of sound - an identity - that permeates their work.

So, I think that 'eclecticism' might have become uncool. Not that such facile considerations bother me, but I would be intrigued to know where you stand on this.


  • Comment number 1.

    I couldn't agree more - in fact I've been blogging about the very same thing at https://bit.ly/uFFSU

    Admittedly, mines more of a rant than a balanced argument as yours is, however... same hymn sheet an' all that!

  • Comment number 2.

    Hello Hux,

    I do so love forum usernames, Mr Capacitor.

    Firstly, thanks for taking the time to read and reply.

    A lot of the time I wish that I'd had my musical dreams and aspirations now rather than 15 years ago. There are more outlets for new music [well, more outlets for music that fits the zeitgeist and its immediate periphery]; recording your music has never been easier / cheaper; the internet has revolutionised bands' ability to promote and distribute themselves... if they're any good, of course, there are thousands scattered across the world willing to do all that distribution for you, without giving you a penny for your troubles, so it's not Utopian, I know.

    But I don't envy bands this increasingly compartmentalised approach within all areas of the new music media. There may be more places for your faces, but if it doesn't easily fit into one of the compartments [your face, that is, for the sake of this tortuous analogy], you're scuppered.

    My head is now full of visions of wardrobes filled with musicians' faces. I could become the indie Ted Bundy.

    I think there has to be some acknowledgement of the effect that budget cuts have had on the BBC and the independent media, too. There are fewer researchers and production people at all levels of the broadcasting industry [I don't have anyone, for example, other than a producer for 3hrs a week]. So shows may sound the 'same', in that the voices are recognisable, but the responsibility for listening to all that music *properly* and responding in a timely and constructive fashion is spread across fewer and fewer people.

    And, because of the relatively easy access to the means of production and distribution mentioned above [I'm not a Marxist, honest!] there is more music.

    Much more music to get through.

    I don't mean to paint it as a Herculean task. It isn't to me. But for Chris Moyles and his team, it would be. They have different priorities.

    And I'm not towing any party line, here, I promise.

    There are other clear issues associated with digital technology supposedly democratising music making / distribution.

    It doesn't if you're too poor to buy a computer, or get yourself an SM58, or a MIDI controller.

    I think that that explains why 'alternative' music has become so much the domain of the middle classes. I'm middle class, by the way. I'm confabulating a hundred different issues and arguments, here. See what you did?

    Lots to consider.

    I'm lucky I have the time to consider it while I'm listening to all the music that got sent to me today. Some of it was very good indeed.

  • Comment number 3.

    Eclecticism rocks...or should that be eclecticism rules, to avoid genre specifying it.

    You can never stop tribalism forming in music, but I think music becomes a lot more interesting when it's been influenced by a variety of sources. I fear that a whole swathe of 'kids these days' are being influenced by bland, restrictive, marketing-styled genres that are slowly disappearing up their own *rses (the genres, not the kids).

    I don't think eclecticism is uncool, I'm all for it. There's definitely nothing wrong in "slapping together songs from a multitude of different disciplines". If it's good, it's good and worth playing... but R Kelly? Hmmm?

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi Andy!

    I'd expect anyone who loves music - truly loves music - to eschew any kind of stance that would limit what they may be exposed to. My concern is that eclecticism has become, somehow, uncool.

    As a designer you'll know better than I do that eclecticism wouldn't work with colours - part of your role [I'm not telling you, by the way, just thinking this through aloud - pardon my impertinence] is to pick a scheme / palette, but there are certain rules, I suppose, that govern and define what constitutes a working scheme.

    I know it's a faulty analogy because colours aren't sound, but I wonder if people have just socialised themselves into a similar set of rules for sounds as we've had for colours for centuries.

    I know, for example, a lot of people whose sensibilities are completely offended if they hear a guitar-based indie track next to something electronic - it upsets their aesthetic [like wearing blue and green without a colour in between]. In my experience, people like that love the aesthetic itself more than they love music.

    But [I'm getting there eventually, I think] at this point in time, such aesthetes are running, or at least very influential, on what the rest of us hear / experience because it's easier to, as you said, market / sell to advertisers or a potential audience if people know what to expect.

    On a purely musical level, I wonder how much the resurgence in dance music has got to do with that?

    I like dance music, but I think that much of it is a triumph of style over substance - I'd go so far as saying that that is entirely the point, in many respects, of all of those micro genres. So that the punter / clubber can readily identify exactly what it is they want to dance to - rather like you might order something specific at a takeaway.

    This would have been good over a pint.

    I have stored the details on the upcoming Absurd events and I'll make sure I post something constructive and factual [to the best of my ability] in these blogs about them. Great work you're doing. And wonderfully eclectic!


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