Columbia Records is 125 years old this year. No, really. And to mark the anniversary, Sean Wilentz has written a book called ‘360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story.’
In an interview, Wilentz said, “There’s so much music out there. Labels sort it out for you – they’re the gatekeepers – and Columbia is still one of the biggest. They’re not the only ones who do that any more, but they bring you into contact with people you should be listening to. You need that – we all need that.”
He has a point, yes? We’re all of us influenced by brand. If Columbia discovered and/or recorded Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Beyoncé – and they did – then yes, sure, we’re going to be interested in who else they may have for us.
The same’s true in other fields. We expect certain things of the publisher Faber & Faber, of the car-maker Volkswagen, of the BBC. There’s a hallmark effect.
But there’s a flipside too, of course, and it manifests itself frequently. We build a reservoir of trust in a brand, but sometimes, if we drink only from that reservoir, we deprive ourselves of the possibilities of variety, of fresh discovery. For every Columbia, offering us a new talent, there is a McDonald’s and a Starbucks and Subway, giving us featured new products that are essentially safe variants of tried and tested previous offerings.
Which is why, I suppose, we should be suspicious of phenomena such as iTunes Genius, which tells us what it thinks we’ll like, based on our previous choices. Sure, I may agree with it. But I may also miss out on something.
They may differ only by a few letters, but there’s a big distance between the safety of brand and the excitement of random.