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.