OK, so I’m a real music snob. I’m comfortable with this. Music is everything to me, and I expect people to treat it with the same gravitas that I do. So yeah, my standards are pretty high.
My formative years came around the transition from cassette to CD, and I’ve desperately clung onto that nostalgia.
There’s still something special to me about owning a physical album. You own a piece of that creation, and when you truly connect to it, it owns a piece of you too.
When Producer Eric & I moved to NZ from the UK we were ruthless in our attempts to downsize. Bags and bags of clothes were taken to the charity shop, we bought a kindle and donated all our books, our entire DVD collection was traded in for a new camera, we argued over a harmonica (I lost by the way, and said harmonica was transported to the other side of the world, and sits unplayed on the coffee table).
Our CD collection was (somewhat) downsized. We decided that if we hadn’t physically played an album within the last year, then we didn’t love it enough, and it was relegated to the “donate” pile. This got us down to around 200 “essential” albums. They each represent a part of us, and a time in our lives, and you just don’t get that same feeling looking at your iTunes library.
They say the sense of smell invokes the strongest memories, but for me “Feeling Strangely Fine” by Semisonic instantly takes me back to a teenage summer of misadventure, getting off the London Underground, feeling the sun on my skin, and feeling very, very happy.
There’s real value in waiting. I remember the excitement of getting a new CD, tenderly unwrapping the plastic, and reading the sleeve cover to cover (again, and again, and again…) in giddy anticipation of getting home & playing it. A joy, but an undoubtedly inferior experience compared with the intricate gatefold sleeve of my vinyl cradling predecessors.
You can’t always get what you want, but maybe that’s the point. There’s a real joy in discovering rare or forgotten gems in record stores, or borrowing yearned after albums from friends. When a vast collection is beyond your fiscal reach, you cherish (and pick wisely). You listen to each new album until it’s worn out, only discovering the overlooked nuances of previously neglected track 7 (or 8, or 4…) on the 15th listen.
So where are we now? YouTube, iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Soundcloud are on call 24/7 to satiate our need for instant gratification. We live in a fast forward culture – 500 TV channels, Tinder, Grindr, X Factor. The patience to enjoy the development of a song, film, book (or even relationship) is replaced by a quick hook or “move on” mentality.
I’m not here to bash Millenials (I AM a Millenial, just). I think we’ve become the toddler at Christmas, overstimulated and underwhelmed. It’s created a cultural slide where music has become tragically devalued. Financial caution is thrown to the wind when the latest iRectangle launches, but we cry “Bah Humbug” when it comes to paying for the music that fills it.
And what is the effect on the music industry? I overheard someone say recently that the best songwriters came out of the 60s & 70s, and found myself in mixed agreement. There have been, and still are, wonderfully creative pioneers post 1970s (Trent Reznor, David Byrne, Jack White - I’m looking at you delightful maniacs). But what has changed is the creative breathing room artists enjoy. The Beatles, Dylan, Bowie & Elton John were releasing on average 1.2 albums a year in their heyday. It allowed them to experiment and grow as songwriters. They could pick which songs they wanted to release as singles, and fill the rest with delights (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer anyone... anyone... Bueller...).
Now look at the pressure that today’s artists deal with. How can you develop your craft, when you only release new material every 2 years, and there is huge pressure to deliver an album packed with iTunes friendly hits? No room for deadwood, no room for risk, no room to try new things. Then you have to tour the hell out of it, playing the same songs night after night after night, slowly sapping away any creative enthusiasm, because it’s the only viable way to make money anymore.
For the past few years, I’ve had well-meaning friends recommend Spotify to me only to be met with a lung full of , quite frankly undeserved, vitriol - “It’s the beginning of the end”, “The record industry is dying, what’s the matter with you?”, “People don’t listen to albums anymore. It’s art, man. You wouldn’t just look at the corner of the Mona Lisa!” – and so on, and so forth I ranted with no clear end in sight.
And then I tried it, I liked it, and now I get it. I swore I’d remain a purist, and only listen to full albums on it. But how swiftly the self-righteous are seduced…
There’s something energising about having almost everything at your fingertips. Whatever random song pops in your head, you have immediate access to it. And creating playlists for every potential mood & genre feels delightfully retro.
But the biggest revelation for me has been in discovering new artists. I still stand by the idea that immediate & unlimited access de-values music, but there’s no debating that it massively widens your horizons. I’ve always regretted getting into grunge long after it’s influence had dwindled, but pre-internet your musical sphere came from your own social circle. None of my circle were aware of grunge, and my influences at the time were Radio 1 and Top of the Pops (not the most alternative sources of discovery). Don’t get me wrong, Ace of Base were wonderful companions, but ultimately there was something more important, and exciting going on, and I was blissfully ignorant. Still, I don’t think my fragile, pre-adolescent heart could’ve coped with losing Kurt Cobain, so every cloud…
Spotify is recommendations from your friends on steroids. Like The Alabama Shakes? You might like Vintage Trouble.
I’ve discovered more new bands in 3 months on Spotify than I have over the past 3 years. Buying albums might make you choose wisely, but it also hinders you from trying new things. Growing up, my pocket money was enough for 1 album a month, and I wasn’t going to throw it away on an unknown quantity when I still didn’t have “Fat of the Land”.
I do struggle with the insignificant amount that artists are getting paid when I stream or download. It’s difficult to justify the guilt rising from not fully supporting the artist, especially being aware that musicians are regularly approached for free work for “exposure”. It seems consistent with any freelancers that don’t have a physical product. Good or bad, consumer habits have changed. People want their media content instantly, and they don’t want to wait for it. Blockbuster & Virgin Megastores will attest to the fact that you either adapt or die. Maybe it (almost) balances itself out with less money per sale/play, but a wider reach, significantly more plays, and that double edged sword “exposure”.
There is greater pressure on artists from risk-averse record companies. There’s so little money to be made from sales anymore that record companies are ruthlessly taking their cut from merchandise and tours – previously “hands off” areas. But the good news is that they’re becoming more & more obsolete, and that revolution puts a big ole’ grin on my face. In a world of social media, artists don’t need record companies to be heard anymore. Established artists are breaking away from their labels and enjoying full creative control
So what’s the next musical revolution? Maybe fully subversive VR gigs – that would be pretty incredible.
Collaboration is the hot trend at the moment. I’m intrigued & excited to see where this develops in the music community. There’s so much that could be done with this I feel that it’s just waiting for an online platform to catalyse the hell out of it. Or maybe the retro hipsters will take over, and we’ll be enjoying a sweet vinyl revival. Either way, I’m letting go of my roots (but never my CD collection), and I’m excited for the future!
Charlie Maclean is a music fanatic/snob, spotify convert, and has just popped her blog cherry - huzzah!