Why I regret that I stopped buying records and CDs

Every generation discovers music anew, regardless of the media on which it’s carried or transmitted. It just so happens that the format via which I first encountered recorded music – grooves on a plastic disc – were also those on which music was first recorded. Of course, prior to the advent of recording technology, there was notation: music was etched, scratched onto the page. Beethoven may not even have understood the concept of ‘recorded’ music. I grew up with the performance as central, the production as paramount, mostly focussed on the voice. From the early 20th century onwards, vinyl was the medium for folk, country, blues, rock, punk, hiphop, house, and so forth. Now music can be plucked out of the air, but when I listen to Bob Dylan talking about Leadbelly, there’s a frisson which comes from having experienced music in exactly the same way as he did. I can relate to that; I’ve lived a very similar revelation. I can’t conceive of (for example) hearing certain New Order*, Teardrop Explodes or, for that matter, George Michael songs, music that had a profound emotional impact on me as a teenager, I can’t imagine that without picturing the environmental context for my experiencing of the sounds. I believe that the loss of the physical format partly explains the deterioration of my relationship with music per se. Although I don’t agree with Dylan that downloaded music ‘ain’t worth nothing’, the move from physical to ephemeral shows that Marx had a point when he wrote that as capitalism develops, ‘all that is solid melts into air’.

To quote another prophet of capitalism and culture, everything that was directly lived has moved away into a mediated representation. This now happens instantaneously, live, as, locked into our headphones, we view ourselves walking down the street to a private soundtrack of a film in which we are always the star and hero. I’ve pontificated previously (in relation to the documentary about Zinedine Zidane) about how in an age of intensified self-consciousness of our own performance as social actors, our experience of our lives has become more and more like the film ‘Boyhood’, with every one of our gestures immediately recounted back to us in the form of fantasised cinematography, dramatised by individually-curated theme tunes. 

This is connected to the relationship between music and advertising, particularly the vampiric dependence of the latter on the former. The role of marketing cash in financing or subsidising the lives of those who produce music has meant that music itself is increasingly obedient to an image or logo. It’s true that a lot of art – particularly popular music – benefits from and plays with the tension between the comercial and the artistic, but more than ever nowadays exposure as part of a marketing package means one’s music is experienced as a mere soundtrack to sell prospective consumers an image of themselves inhabiting the world of the given commodity. Music has, in a much more profound sense than with the advent of MTV, become evermore subservient to the image rather than defining its own purpose.

As is the case for any such diatribe against the internet, it’s essential not to overlook the affordances of technology in terms of both production and consumption. Hyper-accelerated access and avid overconsumption is made possible by downloading and streaming. When I first got an MP3 player twinned with a proper internet connection, I quickly discovered that I felt compelled to skim through my exponentially expanding music collection – the prospect of listening to a particular album or piece of music had become a more powerful experience than actually doing so. Once something becomes infinitely available, it’s hard to value a single instance of it. Value is produced by scarcity, not abundance.

I’ve written before about how hard I find it nowadays to commit to a single song, album or artist. Nick Cave Syndrome is the name I give to what I think is now a universal experience: I could, if I so chose, spend a few days immersing myself in the work of the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, etc, but I never actually do. There’s too much digital distraction, too much white noise to engage with newmor unfamiliar music. I’m open to charges of laziness, but I’m by no means alone: the KLF’s Bill Drummond once embarked on a series of experiments to reconnect with music, including spending a whole year only listening to artists who names began with a particular letter of the alphabet. To get that connection back involves somehow making music finite and thus more precious.

Music dramatises space and time but also requires space and time to produce and experience. Mark Fisher and Momus have both written about the restrictions that gentrication and permanent austerity imply for young people wanting to experiment with sounds and images. Early Human League in the documentary ‘Synth Britannia‘ showed some of the abandoned industrial spaces which made their existence possible, while Jarvis Cocker in his ‘Musical Map of Sheffield‘ stressed how important dole money was to his artistic survival. The same goes for the art colleges which formed David Bowie and Malcolm McLaren. They inspired the kind of artistic invention which anyone spending three years on a desultory £9,000-a-year business studies degree course anticipating a lifetime of internships would struggle to replicate.

Of course, no matter how little physical space you have, you can nowadays make and remix music on your phone or laptop while unemployed in a slum or drinking coffee in an airport. Momus makes hugely inventive use of the internet to gather samples and images and Youtube to share it – but then he does have a fanbase built up over more than 30 years. I probably wouldn’t listen to Pillycock or Scobberlotchers if I hadn’t pored over Tender Pervert and Don’t Stop the Night as a teenager. Who’s really going to listen to new music? (Or, for that matter, find the time to read blogs?). It was actually Momus who predicted that on the internet everyone would be famous for 15 people. But what if you can only get those people’s attentions for 15 minutes? That’s a thumb-twitching epoch online.

The human relationship with music is both intimate and (as Schopenhauer argued) spiritual, both individual and social. Having long along lost or given away the tens of thousands of discs I once had, how do I recover the value that music used to have for me? The answer is, of course, to collect it in its physical form. But maybe my relationship with music is too far gone now. Maybe I’ll never get it back. While writing this, listening to an algorithmically-curated selection of tracks by Francesco de Gregori (who has released something in the order of 30 albums, all of which I can access with a tiny gesture of my thumb but none of which I will ever get round to really listening to**), we had a powercut. Although it was mercifully short, it screwed up our Internet connection for a good two hours or so. It made me think of people in Puerto Rico, suddenly deprived by a capricious climate of running water and electricity. If there’s one thing we can predict with some certainty about the future, it’s that we won’t be spending so much time online. The internet presupposes the stability of too many physical, social and economic infrastructures. Even wifi, I once learnt, is vulnerable to climate change. If the only access we have to music is via Spotify, then we will lose access to it whenever a passing storm so decides. Music is far too valuable for that.

*Incidentally, ‘Regret’ is not my idea of a great New Order song, it just tied in with the title, which may be no classic as titles for blog posts go, but is at least hopefully more enticing than the original one, which was ‘Music, technology and spectacle’, which is, let’s face it, shit, although not nearly as shit as either Bad Lieutenant or the third Electronic album.

**His album of Dylan covers is great fun. You can find it on, er, Spotify.

Due incontri per strada a Roma/Two street encounters in Rome

sin-tituloIt’s a bright blue Monday morning in mid-October 2016 and I’m standing at the corner of Via dei Gracchi and Via Alessandro Farnese in the centre of Rome, having just left work. I’m partly waiting to cross the road and partly trying to get fivethirtyeight.com to load on my phone. There’s a guy in a car looking at me, stopped at the traffic lights on this quiet street, shouting and laughing. At first I don’t think he’s talking to me, maybe on his phone or to himself. But no, it’s me, he’s beckoning me over, and he seems to know my name, so I must know him, but I feel bad because I have no idea whatsoever who he is. He looks very Italian, in a slightly fighetto kind of way – bald head, properly shaven, shirt well-ironed, smart and garrulous with his hands. He’s speaking quickly with a Napoli accent, and he’s saying something about an embassy, and 2011. I explain that I wasn’t here in 2011, that I was in London, but then it turns out he’s talking about the school. Il British! Ah! Well, that’s where I worked, after a fashion. British Study Centres, in Marylebone. He clearly knows me. Matteo!, he exclaims. He’s an ex-student! I taught dozens of such people over the course of eight years or so in London, so many Matteos and Giovannis and Robertos so I feel bad that I don’t remember him. Seeing him again I’ve got a feeling of nostalgia. I’m delighted to tell him that I live in Rome nowadays, I’m here to stay, in fact I’m married to an Italian. And she’s pregnant! He’s delighted, and we shake hands again. He tells me he’s now living in Frankfurt. Just to show off, I switch to German, but he waves his hand dismissively. He’s going back to Germany after a week doing business here, driving all the way there in this quite plush new vehicle. When I ask why he doesn’t fly he laughs again and explains that he’s not had a good week, he’s been working overtime and still getting nowhere. He says he works in l’abbigliamento, and as he’s sure I’m aware i tempi sono dificili. In fact, he says, he wants to give me a gift, from the clothes he hasn’t managed to sell. He reaches back and grabs an expensive looking bag, explaining that this is his company: Tutti Frutti. The jacket he takes out is maybe a bit natty for daily use but not remotely unpleasant. He gets me to try it on, and it is quite a good fit. When he tells me it’s worth mille euro, I start to regret putting it on; it’s clearly not worth a thousand euros, although it is worth…something. Money is an issue, he explains. He needs some, to buy petrol to get back to Germania. By now I’m inevitably having my doubts, even here. Surely if he’s genuine he’ll remember the names of some other students. Male Italian students always buddy up, play off each other. If he was in the school he will remember other people who I should be able to recall. Plus I’m also very aware that Il British is the generic name that Italians use for all English language schools. I ask who else he remembers from the school but he’s a bit vague on the details. Then he has another idea. My wife! He also sells women’s clothes! He jumps out, goes to the boot of the car and takes out another bag. This time it’s a dress. I know Chiara’s shape and style, and this is not it. By this point I’m experiencing quite a lot of confusion, so there is the temptation to just walk away, but the whole exchange is just too good-natured for that. If he’s an actor, he’s a very good one, and the situation just doesn’t allow me to break character and accuse him of being a liar. And the clothes must be worth something. There’s a lot of face at stake and on the small chance that this is real I don’t want to humiliate him and thereby myself. I look in my wallet and see that I have 30. He sees it too, and I reluctantly hand it over. But then he says it’s not enough. He’s driving all the way to Germany, after all. He wants me to go to the cashpoint and withdraw more money. This is clearly una stupidaggine. Sure, I tell him. Torno subito. I take the bags and walk round the corner onto Via Cola di Rienzo while he drives alongside me. I need to get some more money out anyway as I’ve just bought some probably-stolen clothes that I didn’t want from someone I’ve quite clearly never met before. I spend two minutes in the bank lobby, take out some cash for myself and then slip outside, immediately turning left and then left again, onto a side street. As I turn the corner a young African man holding out a baseball cap asks me for some change, but I shake my head, and just as I do so I hear someone calling my name. I turn, see the car and give il mio truffatore a look designed to get him to leave me alone and drive away.

* * * * *

Two months pass. I’m just getting to work on a Monday morning, having walked all the way from Viale Marconi because of another bus strike. I’ve reached the corner of Via dei Gracchi and Via Alessandro Farnese, and am lost in my own thoughts, wondering what to do in the off-chance my students should turn up, when suddenly I notice that there’s a young African man standing right in front of me and talking to me at high speed. It’s hard to make out what he’s saying at first because he’s speaking a mix of French and Italian. He’s on the street selling trinkets, colourful plastic beads and the like, and so he pushes a red tortoise representing African folk art into my hand, but the curious thing is that just as he does so he turns away, not seeming to want anything in return. At the same time he’s thanking me for taking the time to talk to him, because most Italians don’t. And this is a very special day, he says, and he wants to share his happiness with someone because his wife, back home in Senegal, has just had three kids, the night before in fact. I shake his hand and congratulate him, and say that I’m about to become a father myself, in just a few weeks. I ask him the names of the children and he shows me a photo, sent via Whatsapp just a few hours before, of his wife lying in hospital with her arms around Amadou, Fatou and Mariam. Their father is called Mustafa. I ask him how long he’s been away from his wife and he tells me just four months, he came here to play professional football in San Remo but as I can see things didn’t work out.  This reminds me of the recent Guardian article about the thousands of football players, particularly Africans, stranded with no salaries around the world. There must be a whole subculture of budding Drogbas and Tourés exiled in Europe, their peak years of skill and fitness quickly slipping by. Now he has a problem because his wife needs medicine, there were complications in the birth and there are some products that exist in Italy but can’t be found back home. I think of what I’ve learnt in the last few weeks about the process of childbirth and try to imagine what having three in quick succession must be like. I offer to help; although I don’t have any money in my wallet I know there’s an ATM just round the corner on Via Cola di Rienzo. As we walk I try to remember the word used in Senegal to describe white foreigners, particularly Europeans, and I feel embarrassed because I can’t, although I should, because when I learnt it from a book I bought from someone from Mauritania in the street outside la Feltrinelli on Viale Marconi last December I thought, I must remember that (the word, I remember later, is tubab). We reach the cashpoint, I take out 20 and give it to him, and then realise it’s already past the time for class. Time to run to work.