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.