Wednesday, 15 February 2012

One more aural wafer, monsieur?

Can one ever have too much of a good thing? The thought crossed my mind as I looked at my music collection and I wondered whether I was a fan or an archivist. Perhaps it's an age thing, but it seems that the thrill of discovering new music is starting to pall.

Some of this is because, having reached my mid-thirties, most things don't sound innovative to me: I can see the roots and understand the context. It makes me more discerning - never again will Menswear feel like the future - but there's a cost: there was something wonderful about discovering exciting new things: part of the thrill of running the record shop gauntlet was in the gap between the staff's weary cynicism and your own neophyte enthusiasm.

My music is both very dear to me and a source of shame. Apart from my inability to stop buying books, music is where the greedy consumerist in me comes to the fore. Modern capitalism has made buying music simultaneously easy and supremely dull. When every excessive penny I spent on music meant cheaper beans or another night in, each vinyl disc or cigarette-box cassette tape meant something special. Some things - Japanese imports of records I already owned in a UK release, for instance - gave me instant credibility with fellow victims, and marked me out amongst the wise as an easy target, not that I cared.

I still buy an awful lot of music by most people's standards, I guess. Getting a proper salary (though after 12 years, not a permanent contract if you're reading this, Vice-Chancellor) meant that I could fill in the gaps in the back catalogue so it looked like I was in on the start of a band's career. I could (and did) obsessively buy every side-project, solo album and post-split utterance by members of bands I liked. I bought music according to the record label too: if Darla, Wurlitzer Jukebox and Drive-In released Hydroplane and The Cat's Miaow's fine albums, I reasoned, I probably shared their tastes, and bought everything else they did.

At some point, I crossed a line and started acquiring for the sake of it. Having money and an internet connection at work meant that I didn't need the intense connection to a piece of music to buy it: I now often buy music on a whim, or if it sounds like it might be interesting - leading me to interesting places, of course, but the sheer volume has got on top of me. I've got upwards of 20,000 vinyl records, several thousand CDs, and 18772 tracks on my computer, or enough for 53.8 days, iTunes tells me. For instance, I've just bought Philip Glass's 9th Symphony: not because it's specially wonderful compared to his previous work, but because I'm a completist. Similarly, I've bought a box set of Saariaho's orchestral work because a discussion about female composers led to a recommendation from Dan. Will I listen to much of it more than once? Hard to claim I will when it's competing with almost 19000 tracks.

The effect of this is that music has become a disposable commodity. I buy something, listen to it for a few days, then it disappears into the hard drive, rarely to be seen again. My iTunes list is so long that the only tracks I see on the screen when I open it are albums by Acetone and The Accidental. The odds on alighting on a Proustian gem are negligible. Sometimes a tune pops into my head and I hunt for it, but by and large the music is becoming wallpaper. I don't rush home to play a particular track any more - my iPod and computer means it's all instantly accessible. Music is no longer an essential element of my identity - it's something I consume at my convenience, and I'm not sure that's entirely a good thing. When the Saariaho box set turns up, I'll listen but unless it's astonishing, it will simply fade into the background like all the rest  - how very jaded I've become!

Have I become the equivalent of the banker who buys art 'as an investment' and leaves it locked in a bank vault? Is this the condition of the age? That genius is to be swamped by too much information? Music still thrills me, but devotion is becoming more difficult. Maybe I'm just turning into a grumpy old man. I assume 'the kids' still obsess about particular musicians/sounds/scenes - it'll all be OK as long as my generation think that 'it's just noise'. Instant accessibility means that they'll have a much richer palette on which to draw: when I was a kid, music from the past was largely lost - bands would talk about Beefheart or Badfinger or whoever, but they weren't available in shops - now time is irrelevant.

Oh to be 15 again… (apart from the actual misery of being 15).

1 comment:

Phil said...

Spot on.