In Praise Of The Future

One of the things it’s very easy to do – and something I do a lot myself – is to romanticise scarcity. I used to be a record collector, because being a record collector and being a music lover were, until very, very recently, the same thing. I remember the excitement of finding a 60s copy, on lovely thick, heavy vinyl, of Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, for 50p in the pile of unfiled albums they always kept in Empire Exchange in Manchester city centre in the back section with the old porn mags. I remember being the first person in the UK to hear a recording of Brian Wilson live with his new band, because of a tape trade I arranged with someone on the internet!. I remember a friend in Sweden sending me a CD in the post, and my dad being worried when he saw the stamp in case I was receiving material from ‘behind the iron curtain’ (this was in 1998).

I remember making a sixteen mile round trip, on foot, to the nearest decent record shop when I was growing up, to order a single. And then repeating that trip a week later to pick the single up.I remember buying my very first bootleg – a terrible double CD of Get Back sessions. I remember treating music as a scarce resource that needed to be hoarded – I have maybe a dozen Johny Cash albums that I’ve not listened to more than once or twice, but which I bought because I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to get them again when I found them in second-hand shops.

No-one growing up today has that experience, and they’re missing out on something very precious.

I can even understand, in this context, the cretins who don’t want the Beach Boys’ Smile Sessions to be released next month because it will stop that music being something ‘special’, for the cognoscenti only. They’re wrong, for many reasons – not the least of which is that the amount of effort it takes to spend £120 on a nine-disc box of what is mostly two-chord plinking harpsichord instrumentals is much greater than the effort it takes to type “Smile bootleg” into Google – but I can sort of see it.

But the benefits of having essentially unlimited access to music are, paradoxically, so great that they’re easy to miss in this nostalgia. I have 26935 MP3s in my MP3 collection (a mixture of five years’ worth of eMusic (RIP) purchases, things I’ve ripped from my CDs, and downloaded bootlegs – only a very, very small proportion is commercially-available but illegally-downloaded music) and if for any reason I don’t fancy listening to any of those, I can use Spotify to find the exact piece of music I do want to hear, or play last.fm radio and discover new music.

But the benefits are greater than that, even. I have a huge record and CD collection, too. But I’m mildly autistic (in the actually-autistic sense, not the ‘all men are *so* autistic, am I right girls?’ sense of newspaper columns) and I have a tendency to become fixated on a single band or single album. If I’m left to choose a piece of music to listen to, I’ll often choose the same thing for months on end – right now, for example, I’m in a mid-period Monkees phase, and were you to ask me to choose an album to play, it would be either Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd or The Birds, the Bees And The Monkees – or maybe my live DVD of the Monkees I got last week and have already played ten times.

But this isn’t good for me, because there is so much beauty in music – so much good stuff out there, so much that will move me, give me ideas, make me feel better, make me a better person. And so I can use shuffle.

In fact, I have a playlist in Rhythmbox, automatically updated, which plays only MP3s I’ve not played before (or at least not played in Rhythmbox since I last lost my home directory or whatever – I have multiple pieces of music software on my computer, and if I want to listen to a specific album I’ll use something more lightweight), on shuffle.

So, just as an example, the last five songs I’ve heard as I type this are The 59th Street Bridge Song by Simon And Garfunkel, Density 21.5 by Edgard Varese, You’ll Be Mine by Howlin’ Wolf, The Casket by Mike McGear and Just A-Sittin’ And A-Rockin’ by Duke Ellington. Currently Drowning Butterflies by the Cleaners From Venus is playing.

Now, all those songs have two things in common. Actually, they have three, but the male-centric nature of my music collection is something I am slowly working on. The first is that they are all worth listening to – they vary in quality from astonishingly brilliant (Varese) down to catchy-but-inane (Simon & Garfunkel), but all improve my life in some way – all have moments that make me want to dance, or move me emotionally, or make me think “that’s clever…”

(Imitation Of Life by R.E.M. just came on).

The other thing they have in common is that I wouldn’t have listened to them if I had to play them on a record player. If I had to get up, take the Simon & Garfunkel album off, put the Edgard Varese record on… it would just be easier to just play the same album again.

(Girl On The Phone by The Jam)

But even more than the ease of it, I didn’t remember half those tracks – I didn’t even know I had the Mike McGear album – and so it wouldn’t occur to me to put them on. Yet there’s some genuinely wonderful music there.

(The Allegro from Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto)

So I can hear all this music – music that I know I’ll enjoy, because it’s music I’ve chosen to own, but music that would possibly have lain unlistened for decades had I had to own it physically, and be overjoyed by it. And I can share it with my friends.

(Henry Lee by Nick Cave and P.J. Harvey)

(My wife just phoned, and Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles by Captain Beefheart came on while I was on the phone).

I can create a playlist of all the songs I’ve mentioned (except the McGear one which isn’t on spotify), and now anyone who wants to hear that music that’s made me feel so good over the last hour or so can hear it too.

And they don’t have to go into the second-hand-porn-mag section of a shop to do it.

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5 Responses to In Praise Of The Future

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Used to be something of a vinyl junkie myself but these days, why bother? That whole idea of record collecting as a sort of archaeology, rescuing nuggets of the past that the world had forgotten and were in danger of fading out of existence is now almost totally moot. .

    Its sad to say but when virtually the whole history of pop music (or at least a good 75% or more of it) is available on-line, for free – legally even if that’s a stumbling block – the thrill of finding that obscure Adverts LP on a market stall after 5 years of looking for it just… evaporates.

    I do find it quite weird that this sudden gigantic Aladdin’s cave of musical history available to all hasn’t resulted in much in the way of ‘include and transcend’ new music. Indeed, it seems that – generalising massively – the music industry doesn’t seem to know where to go when confronted with it, now that its past isn’t an obscure collectors-only world ripe to be plundered and recycled endlessly.

    Though maybe I feel like there’s hardly any good new music just because I’m old now. I’ll be telling my kid’s their music is ‘just noise’ next

    The fuse blew in my record player plug months ago and I haven’t been bothered to fix it. I think that’s a pretty good sign that my ‘lifelong’ vinyl obsession is pretty much over…

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I strongly suspect that the Smile Sessions box set will be the last music I buy for myself on physical media.

      As for ‘include and transcend’, I tried that with my own band, The National Pep, but I think we’re just waiting for the next technical innovation to come along – music tends to stagnate in periods when there are no new music-creation technologies to play with, then come alive with the invention of, e.g. multitracking, or microgroove records allowing for longer playing time, or electrical amplification or synthesisers or samplers.

      I can’t imagine what the next thing in that list is, which is worrying, but I’d be surprised if there *wasn’t* a next thing.

  2. TAD says:

    I know what you mean. I remember when I was a kid, going to the record store and just staring at an album I wanted, for months and months, until I finally saved up enough money to buy it. Kids of today don’t experience that anymore, with almost every song being findable somewhere on the internet. It’s cool that songs are freely available now, but it’s also a shame too, in some ways.

    By the way, I wrote a song recently that has a bridge that starts with a Ddim7 chord. Your influence lives on….

  3. “No-one growing up today has that experience” – i’m not entirely sure. i imagine my children will be enough like me to like the process of investigation, and half of that is to look for stuff the old fashioned way. it helps that i am in essence a luddite and whenever i download anything i almost entirely burn it to disc so i have a physical copy of it (even podcasts). it’s why i won’t buy mp3s or ebooks – too easy to become obsessed with something too ephemeral. i can see bad things happening far too easily in terms of amassing crap that way. instead i do it the old way, trudging around the same said porn emporium looking for goodies (found “superfolks” there earlier this month). i imagine that’s a way of doing things i can reasonably easily reproduce in future… at least i bloody hope so

  4. The Empire Exchange is a good bit of symbolism for all of it really. The first time I went to manchester in the late 90’s I remember going in there and it knocking my socks off. So much stuff to sift through for treasure!

    The last few times I’ve visited Manchester I haven’t even gone in. And if I had I wouldn’t even give the vinyl a glance, I might take a cursory look through the comics, dig through the boxes full of Speakeasy and Comics World etc. and probably come away empty handed.

    I just can’t see that sort of thing appealing to my kids, the same way the junk shops my dad used to take us in when we were kids never appealed to me (i.e. real metal and wooden junk, not just cultural detritus). The way things are going pretty much any sort of physical media will be long, long gone by the time they’re adults.

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