Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Collection-Ogling and Bus Journeys: The Sociological Aspects of Physical Music Formats

As some of you may have picked up in my previous posts, I have reservations about downloading as a format (both legal and illegal varieties). Not from a musical/artistic point of view especially – any outlet that allows an artist to get their music ‘out there’ can only be a good thing – but rather the sociological aspects. I truly, truly dread the day where I walk into someone’s house and can no longer browse their music collection, be it vinyl or CD. It remains a great ice breaker whenever you were round someone’s house you don’t know that well, and can send conversations off on all sorts of tangents even when you’re with your closest friends. In fact, not that long ago one of my best friends came round, and going through my CDs sparked off so many conversational topics concerning genres, band comparisons, sharing of our opinions on artists’ ‘best album’ etc that before we knew it we had sat up, completely sober, until 3am. Granted, the fact I had to be at work at 8am took the shine off it a bit, but that’s beside the point. Ultimately I can’t see how this little surreptitious joy that owning tangible music can ever translate into this new so-called ‘digital age’. Staring at a computer screen at someone’s 12gb of downloads just doesn’t resonate as much or as well. You can’t imagine Marr having a meeting of minds with Morrissey when instead of being asked to pick a 45rpm single from Morrissey’s collection he scoured his iTunes to pick a track from there……..

Of course, I’m willing to be as gracious as to admit that digital formats do have their advantages in certain situations. A recent pre-club-night gathering/drinking session saw everyone clamouring round a laptop to play being DJ via the wonders of the Spotify streaming service, and that worked brilliantly. Much, much better than the faff and fuss of either making mix CDs or having to keep swapping albums. It truly is, to use an oft-quoted platitude, horses for courses, and in this instance perhaps I’m just being some knee-jerk reactionary, or trying to live in a fog of utopian romanticism, but it’s certainly one of the quaint little asides of owning tangible music formats that I’m keen to hang onto, and would be very sad if it were to disappear in the near future.

The digital format has also removed the ‘excitement factor’ from buying music. I’m sure you’ve all been there. The bus ride (or car journey) into town to the record shop, browsing the musty racks of the independents (fighting between the dodgy stock and high prices to find the gems….or at least how it was in our local one), and the moment of triumph when you find something, be it something you’ve either been searching for for a while, or a new release. Then the agonising wait to get home to give it a first play (made slightly easier if you owned a car), seemingly only heightened the excitement. It isn’t very often I get to experience such a ritual these days, owing to the fact I order a lot of my purchases via the internet (albeit still in tangible formats), though the excitement is still there owing to the wait for purchases to arrive, and the great ceremonial tearing off of the cellophane wrapping .

Again, watching a progress bar slowly filling across a screen somehow doesn’t quite have the same mystique about the whole experience. Streaming services like Spotify can also take the mystique of the great first play. Having burst open the packaging hearing an album for the first time can also be a proper ‘event’. Using Spotify as a try-before-you-buy service as I have done countless times, while meaning you don’t buy a dud (in itself a good thing, don’t get me wrong), also – in my experience – tends to mean the eventual arrival of the release in question is met with a somewhat blasé response. I’ve also had it where I’ve played an album to death on Spotify to the extent that I’m sick of it by the time the actual release hits the doormat. Perhaps this is just me misusing the new technologies available, or not exercising sufficient self-restraint, but it’s still quite disheartening when you’ve waited ages to hear an album, to put it on and think ‘actually, I’ve heard this too many times already’, and have it put back on the shelf.

As mentioned in my other bit of writing concerning the digital/physical debate, I’m in no way preaching about how you should all down tools and go back to physical formats. The digital formats are great for mix CDs, playlists, playing Spotify DJ at parties, or a more convenient club-night DJ’ing tool (miles eaiser than carrying a ton of CDs around, I’m sure you’ll agree) etc (as well as being the only affordable outlet to buy certain Sarah Records releases such as The Hit Parade), and I wholly endorse them in an artistic sense. All I’m doing is thinking aloud on some little asides/quaint novelties that the tangible formats have, over time, brought us and perhaps have been taken for granted recently. I’d be sad to see these go, wouldn’t you?


  1. one day you're not going to mention sarah records in a blog post. on that day, satan's gonna skate to work.

    ahem. i'm kind of with you here, i like browsing other folks' cd collections, but at the same time i'm a bit more egotistical. i like my CD collection to show off to people. which is why it's a shame that my 180-ish CDs are in a box tucked away until i move flat this weekend!

  2. I think you'll find the first post I wrote doesn't mention Sarah records!

    Yeah, I like to show mine off too, but storage issues mean a large proportino of them live in plastic crates under the bed, which is far from ideal. My priority when I get my own place is buying a proper CD cabinet. Lack of funds (and space) mean i can't have one now (rather ironically)

  3. It's only recently I've started embracing digital music fully. A combination of it costing less, and my sheer impatience (despite the fact that there's a CD shop within 5 minutes of my front door, and two amazing independant ones within 10).
    You know what I really miss? The artwork. The design of the CD.
    I mean, you know me, and I'm a graphic designer, that's what floats my boat. When I downloaded 'Battles' it came with the artwork in a digital format, which is better than nothing, but just... not the same.
    And I've fallen in love with Interpol all over again recently... bought Antics when it first came out, listened to it a few times then kind of forgot about it. I find myself wishing I had the physical CD here with me (I seem to remember it was particularly nicely packaged), and regretting that I bought their other two albums from iTunes on an impatient whim the other day.

    Not to mention the fact that in my future career I like to think I might have the chance to do some CD artwork... the thought of it only ever being seen as a 100x100px jpeg on ipod screens does sadden me.

  4. I just hit the vinyl, after being a huge download and digital music aquiring fiend (over 200 GB), and found that both have pro's and cons, when i unwrapped a beatles vinyl from my girlfriend it made my day, all the art all the printing and designing that had gone into it just made my day, and it just gives me a nice warm glow inside, somehow more asthetically pleasing, but by far the nicest vinyl/download collaboration was unwrapping the latsest los campesinos! album on vinyl, and on further inspection a small card dropping out with aweb address and a download code, so i was able to enjoy the album on the move and the art and the "putting togetherness" of the vinyl at home.

    Gotta say if vinyl went, it would be a very sad day!

  5. Digital music sucks. Well, it doesn't. But I don't buy it where I can avoid doing so.

    I occasionally buy an EP from a small/little-known band on iTunes or respective websites but that's about it.

    I love listening to vinyl. I've inherited my Dad's collection from early 60s through to the 80s (Beatles to Traffic to Dire Straits) and the pops and crackles are magical.

    The habit of buying a CD, putting it on iTunes and then casting the CD aside is something that I have to get out of. The lack of space in my flat limits my ability to have a decent music system at the moment...

    I still buy CDs though tend to purchase them online. The anticipation for them to arrive, the unwrapping and the reading of the sleevnotes are still pleasures I find scintillating.