I like whisky. But I didn’t always like whisky. In fact, I thought it tasted pretty damn foul for most of my life. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve got into that whole world.
What’s interesting about whisky, is that it takes YEARS to even get a “first draft”. After getting a first draft, to improve it you need to learn what worked and what didn’t, to identify which elements need tweaking and which need to be kept the same. Each further iteration adds years more to the process.
As such, when you see a successful whisky distillery that has been running for any length of time, there’s often centuries of hidden experience behind even just a single whisky recipe. Established distilleries have often run for hundreds of years, with more modern recipes building on the expertise garnered by the generations who went before.
Much time has been spent on distilling recipes and methods, multiple drafts spanning multiple years, exploring dead-ends only to move on to more successful avenues, etc. All of this, just to produce even one specific whisky.
A proverb worth remembering
There is a proverb that echoes the sentiment behind such a time-spanning endeavour:
“A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.”
With that in mind, consider what has happened to music, art, and everything else over the last few decades.
Instant Gratification and the Erosion of Standards
Mobile phones, iPads, constant connectivity, social media, Instagram culture, quick cosmetic surgery, fast food joints and same-day Amazon delivery. All these things are contributing to this idea of instant gratification.
Revised product offerings are being brought out multiple times per year. Clothing ranges are refreshed sometimes multiple times a quarter. And artists are being told they can’t just release an album every few years. Consumers become used to this.
Many unsigned or smaller label artists often need to release a song a month to stay commercially relevant. It’s increasingly becoming more important to release songs more often than that, sometimes even aiming for a song every fortnight. I’ve even seen some artist development advocates advising artists to release a song a week.
When artists are commercially required to kick out a new ‘song’ every week (say), it very quickly goes from being pursuit of ever-increasing quality of art, and becomes pure generation of novelty content.
The Erosion of Standards
Feeding that constant need for novelty in our day-to-day experiences isn’t healthy. That constant need not just for entertainment, but to constantly be hearing novel and new things that are always different to everything we’ve heard or seen before isn’t healthy. Some are pushing back against it, taking time away from devices and learning/re-learning patience towards things.
Unfortunately, there is a side-effect that is less obvious: our understanding of what constitutes a high standard in various disciplines is being lost.
When our ears are constantly being filled by music created to be novel for novelty’s sake, this chips away at the standards we previously took for granted.
Think about it. We live in a world where the latest novel gadget is held up as heralding a new standard of technology, but then suddenly it’s obsolete by Christmas. Or there’s that hot new artist who allegedly has the greatest voice ever, but somehow they are only 18, and then they suddenly have nodules and never release anything better than that first album.
We laud things of remarkably little value and very little depth, and hold them up as the pinnacle of ability and skill, yet somehow we forget about them just as quickly. These are the signs that show how we are becoming less and less capable of recognising high standards when we see them, thanks to such commercial pressures.
Standing on the shoulders of giants
Return to the whisky analogy: a great distiller could never arrive at a great whisky if they kept tearing up the recipe and starting again each time. That would be a waste of effort. The hundreds of years of heritage gives todays crop of distillers the chance to stand on the shoulders of giants, instead of insisting they can start their own tower and build it bigger and better in their career span, despite hundreds of years of hard-won progress already being available to them.
Art and music is no different. When people want to throw out the recipe book, they are choosing to start again in the dirt. And if every artist is throwing out that recipe book, if the entire industry is placing pressures on people to do that, then the erosion of standards is an inevitable following conclusion.
When you’ve built something good, you don’t abandon it or radically change it. You preserve it, you develop it further and build on it. You weed out the remaining bad/”less good” aspects, and continue to build upwards. But the constant pursuit of novelty (by producers and consumers alike) erodes this.
Of course, we can experiment. Of course, we can have new music that is both novel AND good – who wouldn’t welcome this? Many truly great artists are always innovating. But they are doing so in good faith to further their art, not purely for novelty’s sake.