It’s rare, these days, for me to pay real attention to Jamendo. Way back when I first tripped over free music I treated the place as a hub, the first check-in point whenever I felt like finding something new and for the most part it worked. An hour wading through the dross and I’d usually be able to come up with at least one album worth hearing and the detritus surrounding it seemed like a fairly marginal issue. Over time though that marginal issue of the bad stuff started to define the site for me, facing the vast jumble sale of music I increasingly decided not to bother trying, instead shifting my attentions to the net labels. There was still shit music about but finding the one good album out of 10 on a label’s catalogue took far less devotion and patience than finding the one good album out of 200 on Jamendo. It’s a ratio of good to bad which is always going to be part of the equation when it comes to free music. Not necessarily through self-delusion or a lack of talent on behalf of the artists but the ease of releasing stuff incites some musicians to include the stuff that they know is only a step on the path to the final project. Especially when it comes to those, like me, who have only just started fiddling with sounds – the second you get to grips with the basics there’s an immediate desire to be involved, to add your work to the whole, to see it standing alongside the artists you admire. A good thing, to some degree, given that it frees up the creative process and means people can learn and explore what they can do with an actual audience to guide them but the overall effect on a site as welcoming and all inclusive as Jamendo can never be an entirely positive one.
Unlike Archive.org, Bandcamp, Soundcloud et al Jamendo is an active and obvious exponent of Creative Commons music, the others host it and sustain it, often to a greater degree than the Orange Behemoth does but none of them are so easily pointed to as an entry point for free music which can hold appeal to everyone (given that not all net labels will suit all tastes). So the freedom of the amateurs and novices starts to become the first glimpse people get of a scene which has far more to offer, the one good album out of 200 ratio becomes the one which people expect from free music.
Whether Jamendo care, as a business, whether they’re renowned for consistant quality or if they’re just happy with numbers (which would be entirely understandable) I don’t know. After all, they are the main entry point and they do attract a large audience so barring the occasional financial blip they are successful on at least a couple of levels and perhaps it’s just for the armchair exponents like me to care about the perceptions of free music out there in the real world – as long as the numbers are coming in that might even be an irrelevant side note in itself. Assuming that there’s value to the point though there is a problem here, the same one which hits free music at virtually every junction, one of quality and organisation. We’ve got all the freedom in the world but rarely the capacity to express that in a way which will actually draw people in – the average new arrival to the world of free music faces a labyrinthine music dump without much, if any, guidance on how to navigate it. The net labels suffer less for it of course, given that they at least are actively pushing their own work as something worth hearing but Jamendo has no such motivation. Instead you have a user review system which is, to be honest, a bit shite and a limited level of staff interraction in picking out the good bits from the rest.
Artists do of course put effort into their own self-promotion but that’s a one way trick really, discover the musician outside of Jamendo and it’ll feed you in, come in through Jamendo and if you’re lucky enough to find the artist you’re no better placed to find more good stuff than you were before. The radio features Jamendo has are trapped by the massive variation of quality in the content and beyond that only filtered searches can offer any lead which is fine if you’ve got the drive to wade though album after album but if you’re looking for an easy introduction to what’s out there it’s of limited assistance.
What could change, or what should change rather, is the community surrounding the site – something which has long been neglected by Jamendo themselves although recent signs suggest that that’s slowly changing. There’s a vast pool of talent and enthusiasm there which could easily be motivated to scout out the best not just from Jamendo but from throughout the movement and if the company showed the will to organise them it could act not just as a hub for distribution but as a hub for quality too. A reviewing program which actually draws in the best critics the site has to offer and then places them under an official banner, for example, would start from a point that most doing such things would kill for both reader and reputation wise. Some sort of internal award system too, not just a set of star ratings but an active and selective Jamendo ‘label’ which lets community contributors move the best of the best into its own sphere, allowing those who are learning and experimenting to be judged on their own merits too without being the nth novice attempt you have to wade through before finding the genuinely complete album. Small steps I think which could slowly start to mark out Jamendo as a reliable source for good music rather than the Tescoes to the net labels Marks and Spencers. And from their the biggest entry point into free music could become something which doesn’t just show off the capacity for freedom and inclusiveness of the scene but also the quality it contains in a way which allows any new arrival to step directly into it rather than face a map makers nightmare in navigating it.