Thursday, March 03, 2016

Music Consumption

Bit of a longer piece today. Pop and get yourself a coffee. And the essay question is this; how do you consume music? Have your habits changed?

I did not grow up in a musical household. There were no musical instruments available. My parents had a pile of 78s gathering dust in the loft and a few vinyl singles and a gramophone in the lounge. I remember hearing Moon River a lot. And also Russ Conway. I liked him as a child so maybe my piano ability had its birth there. That I am only a reasonable pianist and not a great one is down to starting lessons too late. I was twelve.

I don't remember music on the radio. Sometimes on a Sunday we listened to Family Favourites, possibly waiting for the comedy to come on - Round the Horn, Beyond Our Ken - my memory is hazy.

I guess Top of the Pops (1964ff) must have started being part of my TV viewing. I recall Thank Your Lucky Stars (1961-66) with Brian Matthews on a Saturday night. It had a panel that gave a verdict on new music including a member of the public, Janice Nicholls from Wednesbury whose 'Oi'll give it foive' made my parents laugh. No idea how deeply that memory was embedded before I started writing but it just came out. Juke Box Jury (1959-67) was also on Saturday. David Jacobs asked a panel to rate a new record a hit or miss. Sometimes (cringe, cringe) the performer who had just been insulted was hiding out the back and had to meet the critics.

So my friends and I picked up on the Beatles and the Stones through the medium more of popular culture than music-loving. Aged eight you had to be able to sing 'She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah' if you wanted to pretend to know what it was all about.

There were no LPs in my house, to my memory, but one Christmas an album of Batman tunes by a band called Bruce and the Robin Rockers arrived (yes, really) and my sister and I sang along to it incessantly. Pow! Zapp! Wham!

I wasn't cool and didn't know what cool was. Secondary Education was a shock to my sheltered system. It amazed me that one could be derided for one's cultural choices. It hadn't happened before. (Parents, don't shelter your kids from any popular culture. The collision will be more violent when they hit it.) I was once caught singing along to Lily the Pink by The Scaffold (I knew all the words and thought it amusing) and mercilessly teased. I think about then I worked out that I needed to step up.

Of course those of you who know me will realise that I didn't just start buying Melody Maker and listening to Radio 1, although I sort of did but chose Sounds over MM or NME. I became a ruthless investigator. Not without a few false starts though.

There was a shop in Brum called the Diskery. It was in Hurst Street then but has been in Bromsgrove Street for a long time since. It had wall after wall of vinyl albums. I inhaled in there every Saturday morning, possibly breathing in stuff other than music. Simply listening to the conversation one became knowledgeable. The staff were discerning. Happy to sell Led Zep to hippies they also knew that, for instance, Gilbert O'Sullivan had a way with a tune. It felt new and happening but had been around since 1952. It now boasts that it is England's oldest record shop.

I bought my first two albums there. My first single had been Here I Go Again by The Hollies, which at least suggested I had a knack of recognising a decent guitar and vocal harmony effort. One album, by Frijid Pink, was purchased purely based on a heavy and interesting version of House of the Rising Sun they had released as a single. I hated the rest of the album, got rid of it, then a few years later listened again and found new depths and wished I still owned it. From then since I have never ditched an album.

The Diskery had a second-hand section. Here I found an attractive cover and, exercising a hunch, purchased Ssssh. by Ten Years After. They became my favourite band as a young teenager although they were not especially right on. They were the first band I paid to see, a gig I wrote about here. It's day seven of a post called Seven Songs in Seven Days.

Again I am unclear about dates but there were, by then, more ways to purchase music than vinyl. The stereo cassette had appeared and these, thanks to Sony and their amazing Walkman, could be listened to on the move. What many forget is that in the early years they had a serious rival - the eight track cartridge. This was an amazing device which had good sound quality but the four stereo tracks were all the same length so there was a pause and a click as the track changed no matter where the music was. I had a copy of Dark Side of the Moon which is, trust me, completely ruined by three random pauses.

Anyway I opted for the wrong contender in the supply war but was, amazingly, able to get hold of an adaptor which could play cassettes on a cartridge player. (In VHS v Betamax I was better at picking sides). But vinyl albums were my main diet.

In terms of working out what to buy or listen to I was a keen John Peel fan and listened to him in bed late at night. Music on the Noel Edmonds' Radio 1 Breakfast Show was not always rubbish but you needed to stop short of Simon Bates at 9.00 weekdays. I only ever listened to Radio 1 all day when off school sick. At this point the repetition became maddening.

And this was it for many years. I still loved singles but only bought them if the band hadn't yet made an album or didn't intend to.

I noted the arrival of CDs but stayed clear for a while; probably my experience with cassettes and cartridges influenced that. But on my fortieth birthday, in 1995, my family gave me a wonderful Kenwood CD player and my first four CDs. The Bends by Radiohead was one of them. From then on I changed format.

But I had also become distant from places where I heard new music. I began to become reliant on Q reviews (Sounds died in about 1990) learning to choose discerningly from descriptions of music type and only those titles that got four or five stars. Interestingly John Peel was still around and on many late night journeys as part of my work between 1992 and 2002 I encountered weird and wonderful music. I thank him especially for Witness (guitar indie from Wigan) and Lexis (drum 'n' bass).

My sons tinkered with grunge (not really me) but they also had interesting, and increasingly eclectic, taste. I learned stuff about hip-hop. On one, memorable, drive back to university with Junior I noted that he was playing me stuff from the 1970s I had missed and I was playing him new music.

All this time music still had a connection with touch and feel. I missed gatefold vinyl album sleeves very much but embraced the CD. I ignored the arrival of minidiscs, wisely it would seem.

In the last few years I have changed from being paper native to digitally native with my work documents, my diary, all notes and maps. I hang on to books as I like to lend them out if I enjoy them and I like the feel of knowing where I am in them.

And since Christmas I have become digitally native with music. I may have purchased my last CD. I will still buy the occasional vinyl album for reasons not unrelated to why I still like books, and I do like the vinyl sound quality, but in BBC 6 Music I have found a radio station where I like more than I dislike and in Spotify Premium (£10 a month to avoid the ads) a place to stream or save all the new music I want. In fact whereas I used to be restricted by budget to how many CDs I bought per month I now find I don't have the time to engage with all the music I can now afford.

What do you use CDs for?

'Gifts', says son senior.

Also, the algorithm used by Spotify's Discover Weekly service gives me a lovely selection of music I ought to like based on my listening preferences in the past. When I first started with Spotify I was mainly using it to seek out old music I had missed, or to hear tracks off albums buried away in the spare room. The Discover Weekly selection was then largely random, and awful, prog-rock. Now I have started exploring my four star Q reviews, using Spotify, my Discover tracks have become far more interesting. See illustration.

I did a survey of my Facebook friends. Lots of them report that they now download the digital version of a CD or vinyl album (usually provided free). A surprising number of my younger (30s and 40s) friends are Radio 2 people. One person objected to the wording of the question 'How do you consume music these days?' He didn't think of himself as a consumer.

There's lots of radio listening going on amongst these folk but a huge range of stations - commercial, BBC and internet only. Loads of you still use CDs, many because they are best in the car although downloading your own stuff onto iPod, SD card or phone is very common. Spotify is the strongest streaming service you use. A couple of you, probably my more musically educated friends, felt that downloading single tracks was against the spirit of what the artist intended. For that reason holding artwork and lyric sheets was also deemed important. I get this. If someone has gone to some trouble to arrange tracks in a particular order I have always felt the need to listen to them in that order for a while until I was sure.

My one regret about streaming music is that my collection will die with me. Of course I am more than my collection of tunes but, as I find when I visit people's houses and look at what is on the shelves, it says so much about you.

Change in all around I see, but not decay. Just the new normal.


JW said...

Excellent trip down musical memory lane. You were obviously a bit too young to get caught up in the pre-R1 days of Radios London, Caroline and many more.

Steve Tilley said...

Vaguely remember finding Caroline a few times.

Alex Hobson said...

Funny reflecting on why I still buy CDs (and still prefer vinyl). I think it's because I like to feel I own a thing, and can't be robbed of it by technological mishap. A download somehow feels too ephemeral (although I wasted hours digitizing some old vinyl for convenience). What that says about me, I'm not sure, but entertaining to read your thoughts as ever.

St said...

Thanks Alex.