Staying abreast of musical developments in a time of accrescent plentitude (or, listening to records in 2019).
On his website, independent reviewer and music cataloguer Tom Hull counted 1,635 jazz releases in 2018. Even by a conservative estimate of 40 minutes per album, that’s over 65,000 minutes of recorded music last year: 45 straight days and nights of uninterrupted music, not counting bathroom breaks and the like (Hull claims to have listened to about half of those releases, around 800 albums, rating them with a system inspired by Robert Christgau).
Very likely, nobody in the world wants to listen to every jazz release of 2018, but for those who like listening recreationally to jazz, improvised music, and jazz-adjacent recordings, what’s the best way to keep track of what’s coming out? As a semi-professional saxophonist and composer, this question lately has been casting an ominous, FOMO [fear of missing out]-shaped shadow in my mind.
Of course, artists always have blind spots, which play a role in defining their personal approach and identity. That said, I still want to cast a wide enough net so that I can catch as much of the revelatory, invigorating contributions of improvisers around the world, if only to sustain my own work.
I’ve been a big fan of Bandcamp the past few years, having self-released several albums on the platform and, maybe more importantly, having discovered artists and independent labels through its recommendations and curated editorial posts, as well as by seeing who and what my friends are checking out. I hadn’t been particularly aware of contemporary labels prior to listening on Bandcamp, but I’ve noticed that having a sense of the constellation of independent labels helps orient myself to what’s out there and what I gravitate toward. Major label jazz releases, which are admittedly microscopic events in relation to most music industry goings-on, usually end up on my radar anyway through high-visibility ads, so I’m not missing much in that regard.
I’m not sure what percentage of listeners finds out about releases through reviews, but in my experience, most reviews tend to be uninspiring and largely unhelpful. Often, they’re watery paraphrases — or, worse, plagiarism — of publicist-supplied press releases, and very few contain the attentive critical engagement that makes reading reviews worthwhile in other media like film and literature. (I’m not going to shake my fist at the sky any further about this, though, given the massive complex of issues involved, most important of which is the decline of adequate compensation for skilled critics to spend their time and energy to give creative music its due.)
Following artists on social media is a popular way of keeping up with new music, but there’s a fine line between sharing the occasional promotion and becoming a one-person advertising channel. I’ve found that subscribing to artist-maintained email mails is more my speed in terms of volume and content, although that varies widely as well; on that note, I always look forward to thoughtful newsletters from Okkyung Lee, Ted Reichman, and Ethan Iverson, among others.
Despite being the oldest and least technological approach, I find that word of mouth is usually the most reliable source for new music that leaves an impression on me. Since I often hang with fellow musicians, I enjoy the company of critical, discerning listeners and continue to be grateful for astounding recommendations; among them, pianist Dana Saul has consistently turned me on to music that lingers deep in my ear, including last year’s mesmerising trio release Punkt.Vrt.Plastik (Kaja Draksler, Petter Eldh, and Christian Lillinger).
I haven’t fully submitted to the algorithms in discovering new music, although maybe I should. Since I live in a major city, I might also consider seeking out more brick and mortar stores to browse the old-fashioned way. My fondest memories of in-person record buying have been at Princeton Record Exchange near my hometown in New Jersey; if I lived closer, I’d be there every week. Oh, and I know there are podcasts, which I haven’t gotten into yet, but I know people like them.
Clearly, I don’t have all the answers on this topic, but it’s an ongoing process. How do you stay abreast of things?
The Sustain of Memory by Kevin Sun is released by Endectomorph Music on 8 November.