Monday, May 28, 2012

Chapter 3: LOST IN THE SHUFFLE: Record Collecting and the Twilight of Music as an Object


"what will happen to my records after I'm dead?"

 Cherrystones's Gareth Goddard, who owns around six thousand LPs and 2500 singles, told me he  rarely thinks about death as a fate that will inevitably befall him but does "get worried about whose hands my [collecting] efforts could fall into. I’d hate the idea of it being just another easy financial conquest to somebody who would not fully appreciate them." He's toyed with various complex arrangements of dividing up his legacy and bestowing it upon record-loving friends who'd cherish the records properly, but concedes "there is no peaceful sleep solution to this dilemma… I guess if we are dead that has to be a time when the worrying should stop?"

It’s an existential fact and a spiritual truth that “you can’t take it with you”. But the true collector resists that with every fiber of his or her being
 Alex Shear

"I deeply feel I have a mission: to cull and collect for this national archive of the American dream."

interview at New Sun

interview at PBS

Shear calls himself "the steward of innocence".

Seriality a/k/a collecting the whole set

Susan "On Longing" Stewart writes: ""to play with series is to play with the fire of infinity. In the collection the threat of infinity is always met with the articulation of boundary." 


My record collecting has never quite escalated to the "serial" level:  it's always been about the music first, the packaging second, and the question of completism, a distant, almost never-occurring third.   I can only think of a handful cases where I pursued the entire discography of a label (Moving Shadow, Skint), but I've always given up long before completing one because my critic's nature (and my tight-wad nature too) recoiled at the prospect of buying the mediocre releases you'd need to complete the series. Also nearly all labels have a golden phase, albeit sometimes quite a long one (M. Shadow) before a drop-off in quality OR an evolution towards sounds that you have no interest in or feeling for.


collecting and pets: the domesticated animal as midway between companion and chattel

C.f. the child's cuddly stuffed animal toy, or the dolls. A/k/a a mute mirror for one's narcissism. Which is often wounded narcissism. Hence the unique solace offered by the obedient and loyal pet.  The father of one girlfriend of mine used to go for long walks with his dog, who "listened" patiently to his owner's venting; I recall him once opining that "most people on this planet aren't fit to lick my dog's arsehole."

A less imaginary version of the imaginary friend? 


collecting versus the anxiety of time (aka the void, eternity, Death)

Maurice Rheims observes that "a phenomenon often associated with the passion of collecting is the loss of all sense of the present" ; Baudrillard goes so far as to assert that objects " help us, by virtue of their being inserted into mental sets, to establish dominion over time …  Collecting simply abolishes time."


time traveling record collectors

But how would they pay for their purchases? It'd have to be in cash, in which case they'd need to procure old fashioned currency somehow, different sized bank notes, or coins that didn't have an anachronistic date stamp on.


Asperger’s Syndrome

Other aspects of the syndrome, at least according to an insanely erudite blogger I know who suffers from it, include an acute sense of nostalgia and pedantic-ness. It all sounds like a recipe for a record collector, if you ask me. Especially if you factor in the fact that Asperger's skews male by a ratio of fifteen to one.
 the thrill of the hunt

A collector pal of mine describes tracking down specific records in terms of "dowsing": being attuned for vibrations, going out on a quest for one elusive record "and it's almost manifested itself in the store."  

sharity blogs

A roundtable discussion on The Rise and Fall of the Obscure Music Blog, convened by Mike Allen at The Awl, and involving Eric Lumbleau of Mutant Sounds,  Liam Elms of 8 Days in April, Frank of Systems of Romance and Brian Turner, Music Director of WFMU.

The golden age is construed as 2004-2008, and while it might have thrived a little longer than that, it has discernibly dimmed in energy in recent years (meaning 2010-2012), for various reasons discussed in the roundtable (prosecution threats, major filehosting services taken out of action, but also, i think, a general exhaustion of the Project (i.e. the making available to all of arcane, hard-to-find, out-of-print, barely-ever-in-print, sometimes unreleased music). All the even halfway good stuff dug out and put out there. 


Mutant Sounds

The blog's remit encompasses the more recondite recesses of postpunk DIY, Euro-prog, American freak music in a zone roughly  bounded by Zappa and the Residents, minimal synth, acid folk, analog-synth space rock, second-wave industrial cassette compilations,  and much, much more.

 Jim Mutantsounds notes wryly that "Mutant Sounds" has already become shorthand term used by record dealers, "especially on Ebay… trying to sell their items for higher prices" and says he'd "consider the blog a disaster" if it contributed to the inflationary spirals of over-pricing and over-rating that characterize collector culture.  The rise of "appeared on Mutant Sounds" as a sales pitch shows that the blog has become an updated, vastly-expanded, work-in-process version of the famous Nurse With Wound List, a list of  "out-there" artists that appeared on NWW's debut album.  Indeed in the late Nineties MS's Eric Lumbleau actually  wrote a "reply" to the NWW List in tandem with Matt Castille his band-mate in Vas Deferens Organization, while some of the early sharity blogs were attempts to locate and upload every last one of Steven Stapleton's recommendations.



Operator \m/etal\m/inx  discovered the sharity scene in late 2007 and "after a few weeks of maxing out my downloading band with as much as possible", decided it was time to give back  and founded Sickness-Abounds. She brings up a couple of intriguing analogies for the sharity scene. The first is college radio, which in the Eighties "changed my life forever.  That's what the music blogs of today recreated for me. It was College Radio x 100!" (Meanwhile, the college radio network in America seems to have dwindled in importance in parallel with the rise of the web and with the increasingly post-geographical nature of music culture). Her other comparison is with the tape-trading networks of the early Eighties. "I'd buy Metal Forces, Maximumrocknroll, and any other zines I could find and attack the 'pen-pal' sections something fierce! I really worked at it as if it was a full-time job. I had over 200 traders from around 30 countries by the time I was 16. We all referred to it as 'The Underground.' It was our P2P network, but without computers." 

 \m/etal\m/inx also mounts a provocative case in defence of the music-blog's disregard for copyright, comparing sharity favourably with second-hand record retail. "Neither the label nor the artist benefits," she notes, when a second-hand copy is sold. "I like used record stores, but I feel music blogs offer a wider promotional benefit for the artists than shops do." 



As a quasi-legal figleaf, blogs often have a line saying "this music is made available for research purposes only", insisting that the downloader delete the file after 24 hours, or include a link to where you can buy the record online, complete with the clarion call "Support Your Favourite Artist". (But will it stand up in court, I often think when I see this kind of over-compensation).  Online music discourse abounds  with protestations from fans that they often buy the record after having downloaded it, if they really like it.  Oh yeah?



download addiction

Spiraling beyond need or pleasure, downloading becomes a pure purchase of the moment, except the moment has shriveled to almost nothing and there’s no actual money involved


 quantity as the enemy of quality
 Some of the most eloquently plaintive complaints about the downside of downloading came from guitarist Ben Chasny, who makes psychedelic folk music under the name Six Organs of Admittance.  He argued that "we are becoming addicted to information. You only need to look at those people who have hard drives filled with songs that they have never even listened to. They are not even collecting music. They are collecting information…. The more people become addicted to information and the faster they can obtain that information, the less they will be able to contemplate that information, and it is the contemplation of the information which makes it art." 

The informatization of music (and all culture) has a further effect on quality,  in the sense of audio quality -- presented with such a superabundance of choices, you listen to music increasingly to keep up with it, to stay on top of it...  immersive listening is not a priority, checking it once becomes the norm, so MP3 or YouTube or Soundcloud/Bandcamp stream suffices, since it is the informational outline of the music that you need to acquaint yourself with -- where it fits in the scheme of music in terms of its influences, contemporary coordinates; the basic melody, structure, lyrics, etc. Similarly you keep up with movies or TV shows when and where you can find the time too, so that means watching Netflix or its equivalent on your laptop, tablet, even phone... the informational outline of plot, dialogue is more important than the full sensory immersion, which you sacrifice for convenience, placeshifting flexibility, and economics (getting the stuff for free, or at least renting it cheaper than going to the movie theater).

Basically,  the more informatized culture becomes, the more it's experiential and immersive qualities get reduced.


 loss of appetite

The bloated, crammed-to-capacity computer, the silent computer speakers--this seems not just the logical destination, but quite possibly a fairly common outcome. Love of music snuffing itself out through the perverse misdirection of passion


franticity / ant city

Like many people who start the day surfing the web and end it flicking through the channels on cable TV, I spend an unhealthy amount of my time skimming across the shallows of culture, trying to process too much opinion and information, check out too much music and assorted stimulus. It's a hyper-mediated existence of data-processing and sign-decoding.

Franticity is the neurological pulse of pure capitalism: restless and desirous, perpetually poised at that cusp where sugar rush switches to sugar-coma.

Disconnecting from the bustling unrest of hyperstimulation would allow you to reconnect with slower, more immersive experiences: musical works that unfold gradually, the “deep time” of reading and reverie.   There is actually a theory about attention deficit disorder that believes "attention restoration" can be achieved by spending time communing with nature, whose "soft fascination" (clouds in the sky, the movements of water, and so forth) actually help people to concentrate better.


iPod / Apple

ipods and ipads and smartphones and all the rest of the portable tele-tech are one of the few things in our everyday life that actually feel like the future we were promised -- they are what I call "mundane miracles", not just in the sense that we've got used to them and they're all around us in our everyday lives, but because the things we accomplish on them are miraculous in their defiance of time-and-space but are so fucking mundane and non-heroic: sharing snapshots the millisecond they're taken, finding that restaurant or bar we're looking for, downloading a track as soon as the itch to hear it hits no matter where you are... 

a piece by Andy Crouch on the cultic aura around Apple products, the love for these exquisitely designed and life-enhancing devices seen as a modern form of religion -- in a world that is deteriorating and seemingly going backwards on so many fronts, a rare repository of  the belief in the-future-as-better-than-the-past, in the human will-to-perfection. 

"This is the sense in which the tired old clich√© of “the Apple faithful” and the “cult of the Mac” is true. It is a religion of hope in a hopeless world, hope that your ordinary and mortal life can be elegant and meaningful, even if it will soon be dated, dusty, and discarded like a 2001 iPod...  
Steve Jobs’s gospel is, in the end, a set of beautifully polished empty promises. But I look on my secular neighbors, millions of them, like sheep without a shepherd, who no longer believe in anything they cannot see, and I cannot help feeling compassion for them, and something like fear. When, not if, Steve Jobs departs the stage, will there be anyone left who can convince them to hope?"

The piece inspired Andrew Sullivan to co-sign thusly:

"This is certainly why my own conversion to Apple, and my deep loyalty to the company and its products, somehow felt comforting in the last decade. Their style elevates me, their power and reliability I have come to take for granted. Their stores have the innovation and beauty that a renewed Christianity would muster in its churches, if it hadn't collapsed in a welter of dogma and politics.From time to time, my Tory pessimism asserts itself and I have become convinced that our current Tower of Babel will fall to the forces of religious fanaticism or technological destruction or some demonic combination of the two. And then I see an iPhone that can fucking translate, or a Pixar movie that transports, or a Gehry building that takes the breath away. How can a civilization this astonishing destroy itself? And in that, yes, Steve Jobs has provided some secular hope. May he recover and thrive and be who he is."


iPods and List-o-Mania

"Some day music will only be air," Paul Morley writes in Words and Music. "There will be no objects to hold or fetishise, and people will simply collect lists." (There's a long section at the end of W&M that consists entirely of lists, music history mapped out according to different chains of connection). 

The playlist aspect of the iPod is connected to its status as a Zeitgeist device. Because the 2000s was the decade that list-making went into hyperdrive.  Magazines were full of them, easy ways of creating content without actually creating anything. You had endless mixes given away on the web, and what is a DJ mix but a kind of list?   

Traveller in hyper-reality Umberto Eco, speaking to Der Spiegel in 2009, defended the list as "the origin of culture" and described it as a way of making "infinity comprehensible….  It's a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don't want to die."

Every record collector has a want-list, and some I know carry them with them wherever they go, on small pieces of creased paper scribbled in tiny handwriting


 music as utility / current  = devalued currency

Again, the Walkman-detractors spotted this first: music critic Norman Lebrecht said of Sony's portable tape-machine that it turned sacred music into "a utility, undeserving of more attention than drinking water from a tap."


plus/and and the poverty of abundance

It is true that you could become bloated and bored before MP3s.   Still, most people's capacity to acquire music was limited by the expense.  People who could glut themselves numb on music prior to the MP3/file-sharing era, were those with a lot of disposable income, and those who got most of their music for free because they were journalists or radio deejays.  What digital music and illegal downloading have done is place everybody in the position of the critic or DJ who gets music for free (or the aristocratic listener for whom money is no object). 

I've been living with the condition that Karla Starr and others complain about since the early Nineties, it's just that the problem took the form of stacks of vinyl and CDs that hadn't been listened to yet or only distractedly listened to.  One of the fundamental contradictions of being a professional fan a/k/a music critic is that you become steadily more removed from the conditions in which music can be meaningful. Which is relative scarcity, resulting in fully immersed listening to a new purchase as opposed the critic's mode of working one's way through new releases you've been sent while you're writing about different records completely.   It takes a certain temperament and a long-haul hardiness to listen to so much music and such a variety of kinds of music, year after year after year. Quite a few critics fall by the wayside, because the nature of the job ends up killing your love and enjoyment of music.


Slow Listening

Michaelangelo Matos's notion of "slow listening" resonates widely. As Miles Raymer noted in a piece about the  Slow Listening Movement,  a Italian design collective developed the NVDRS Tape:  an MP3 player that looks like a cassette tape and that only held the equivalent of a C45, C60, or C90 worth of music at any time.  The principle was the same: immerse yourself in one piece of music, rather than drown in the sea of sonic information.


Eric Harvey on forced/false attempts to reinsert us back into analogue time

This post by Eric Harvey at Marathonpacks was initially prompted by  an opinion column for The Wire by  Kenneth Goldsmith (recreativity maven, doyen of unoriginal writing, experimental poet, and archive-fevered founder of UbuWeb) in which he gushed about his joyous surrender to the addictive logic of downloading digital music  and didn't seem the slightest bit bothered by the fact that he never listened to the stuff. (Goldsmith:  "As a matter of fact, records that I’ve been craving for years (such as the complete recordings of  Jean Cocteau, which we just posted on Ubu) are languishing unlistened-to. I’ll never get to them either, because I’m more interested in the hunt than I am in the prey. The minute I get something, I just crave more. And so something has really changed – and I think this is the real epiphany: the ways in which culture is distributed have become profoundly more intriguing than the cultural artifact itself.” (This led to a whole series of essays by people debating the implications and affects of digital music culture in the Wire, well worth perusing).

But back to what Eric said:

"I sort of goofed on Bill Wyman’s new Slate piece about just this phenomenon the other day, but I think he’s completely right on in it. It seemed sort of dated for Slate, but at the same time, it perfectly holds with their contrarian ethos by ending on a celebratory note that pushes back against the capitalist culture of scarcity: “I remember the joy of the find. But it’s hard to feel bad about the end of rarity; didn’t a lot of the thrill come from feeling superior when you had something others didn’t? You really want to get nostalgic about that?”

"Of course, plenty of people want to get nostalgic about that: that’s why yearly rituals like Record Store Day have popped up, founded on the principle that music fans still love the idea of the hunt for purposefully scarce musical objects, many of which are purposefully made to just look old. I was at Landlocked Music in Bloomington last Saturday, standing back from the doors when they were unlocked. The second the doors opened, people streamed in and attacked the endcaps like picnic ants swarming around a dropped piece of watermelon.

"In the same way, South By Southwest has evolved to allow music fans to similarly perform the rituals of scarcity that have always been associated with live music: waiting in long lines for shows that are purposefully oversold, RSVPing for parties that “put them on the list,” asking everyone in sight where the “secret” show will be, getting a little scared when too many fans get too rowdy in too small of a space.

"Record Store Day and SxSW are constructed annual music rituals that allow fans in the age of digital abundance to still, in a way, “feel superior” about their access to music, and especially in the case of SxSW, broadcast it to others as it happens—via Twitter, to followers who then complain about having to read endless updates on something they can’t access. They’re based on traditional 20th century ways of encountering, buying, and socializing through and with music, but they’re also, in a way, reactions to the current state of technologically-afforded circulation. They’re residual and emergent at the same time, in other words, in the same way that records, to a lot of young people right now, are very much new media."
 Eric is working on a book about the social aspects about filesharing and post-MP3 music culture

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