Monthly Archives: April 2011

Record Store Day

Only two of the new records we’ve bought this year weren’t purchased in a real, physical shop; Nicolas Jaar and Iron and Wine. The latter could have been bought in our local HMV, and I’m not sure why it wasn’t, but Jaar was sadly nowhere to be seen in Exeter’s emporiums. I like the feeling of coming home from town with a new record; I have for years.

There’s been a lot of guff written and talked about Record Store Day, not least by Rick Martin from the NME, who wants to be rid of the constraints of physical possessions. Well, those that have music on them, at any rate. (iPods and hard drives excluded, presumably.) Plenty of people have responded to him, including The Quietus’s John Doran, who espoused his love for vinyl, and Bethyn Elfyn, who wrote a BBC blog about how much she loves Welsh record shops. As ever, I feel like I fall between two camps, even though I’m far, far closer to John and Bethyn than Rick.

Because, as a rule, I don’t love independent record shops. Well, not unequivocally. The record shops I frequented in my youth and young adulthood were the big chains, mainly; my older brother worked in HMV and, when we first met, my wife worked in Virgin Megastore. I shopped in Solo Music in Exeter often enough, and knew some of the staff, and when I was at university I shopped in Spinadisc on Northampton high street, too, but other indie record shops, the ones full of vinyl with someone dripping ennui behind the counter, I found uncomfortable, most of the time. Maybe it’s that the ones like that near me were rubbish, and the ones I popped into, tourist-like, on Berwick Street during trips to London I never frequented often enough to become familiar, and thus comfortable, with.

Also, and this is a serious consideration, I’m of that odd generation that falls between vinyl and MP3; I’m a CD lover. I have hundreds, thousands of them. In neat rows. With alphabetised dividers.I have always and will always prefer them to vinyl. Where others hear vinyl’s warmth I hear lack of clarity. Where others see gloriously big artwork I see tatty card sleeves. I love the way they refract light. I love the size, the portability of them; unlike vinyl, which you can’t really take anywhere without a proper box or bag, and unlike MP3s, which you can take all of, everywhere, all the time, in your pocket, you CAN take some CDs everywhere you go, but they have to be precious ones. Ones you really want to listen to. I know that sounds ridiculous. I have an 80gb iPod. I have an iPhone in my pocket pretty much all the time with several hundred songs on it.

Last week when I was in London I hopped off the tube in Covent Garden before I headed for Paddington and home, as it was the most convenient place for me to jump off and find a record store. Rob wanted me to pick up the PJ Harvey album on vinyl, and I wanted the Bill Callahan on CD for Devon Record Club the next day. So I exited the station and headed for HMV. It wasn’t there. So I tweeted, asking where there was still a record shop in Covent Garden, and googled on my phone too. Googling suggested Rough Trade in the yard; I followed the directions, but couldn’t see it. I wondered around aimlessly, looking for the Fopp that I always seem to stumble upon round there, but I couldn’t find that either; it looked as though it had been replaced with a Fred Perry shop, or else was boarded-up for renovation. Rob tweeted back at me with directions to the Rough Trade. I went back to the yard. Not there. I asked a guy sitting opposite where it was meant to be. It had closed. The HMV had closed. Where the hell could I buy a record in Covent Garden?

With some more directions, crowd-sourced from Twitter, I found the Fopp – I’d been at the wrong end of the street when I thought it’d become Fred Perry (I was wearing a Fred Perry at the time, for double irony) – and bought the records I was after. The guy who served me was an Exeter alum. We talked about how the Fopp in Exeter had closed. He’d worked in the same Virgin Megastore as Emma, too, when he was a student (after Em had left to become a student herself). That had closed too. MVC had closed. Solo had closed. The picture at the top of this post is of what used to be Exeter’s Fopp. Before it was Fopp it was the HMV where my brother worked. I’ve been buying records from that shop for the best part of 20 years. It’s almost a straight-line walk from my house. It takes seven minutes. I’m pretty sure there are more musical instrument shops in Exeter now than record shops.

Em is of the opinion that the beginning of the end for Virgin was when they moved to centralised ordering, effectively losing local knowledge and expertise, and customer service, in favour of “efficiency”. Efficiency doesn’t work if your customers don’t want to shop with you. She says Thresher suffered the same problem; moved to centralised ordering, lost touch with local trends and tastes, and collapsed. I’m inclined to agree. Attempting to cater to people who don’t really care about music has brought the big shops low. I can buy a plaid shirt or a Beatles mug in HMV but I can’t, the day after a prominent documentary about him airs on TV, buy an in-print Ron Sexsmith album. It’s people like me and the other Devon Record Club dudes, essentially the NME’s mockable £50 man (I’m in my 30s, I work a professional job, I have a mortgage, I don’t “party” like the kids), who are willing to still pay money for physical records. Our tastes are diverse and intense. We don’t want to buy the Take That record in Sainsburys. We want to pick up things that excite us. I’d have bought that Emeralds record last year if I’d ever seen a copy. I’ll buy Panda Bear’s Young Prayer at the weekend if I see it, or Ron Sexsmith’s debut, or something else that I’d never find in Tesco, or Sainsburys, or HMV as it is now.

Invisible music is a convenience for me, but it’ll never be a passion. I tried it, years ago, and didn’t get on with it. It made music into consumption, acquisition, rather than appreciation. I know new methods of distribution like Spotify go some way towards preventing that, but revenue models are still not fixed, and are far from benefiting the artist the way that physical sales can. Where’s the thrill or heart in downloading an MP3? I doubt anyone ever tells excited, reverent stories about the night that Tomboy leaked and they found a Mediafire link to it the way I tell people about how I felt making a 30-mile round trip, a pilgrimage, on the train up and down the Exe, to go to HMV and buy Kowalski and the Fireworks EP on the May bank holiday before my 18th birthday. I can still remember how I felt all the way home, imagining how the songs would sound (even though I’d heard some of them on the radio), delighted that I could play them endlessly when I got home. And besides, it’s a lot easier “curating” a physical collection than a digital one; all that tagging, sorting, finding covers, backing-up, sorting, searching, filling in a database, sitting at a computer being a librarian, like you’re at work. I just put them on shelves.

In the sleeve for Spoon’s last album it says “BUYING RECORDS IN RECORD STORES IS COOL.” I agree. It’s not only cool; it’s also delicious. I wanted to buy a handful of Cluster and Harmonia albums for months at the start of last year, never saw them in Exeter, and could have ordered them at any time online, but I knew I was going to New York at the start of May for our honeymoon, and who would pass up the chance to go record shopping in New York? Even in NYC I couldn’t find them all, but I got to buy two of the four I was after.

When I went back to Northampton, a year after graduating, and got drunk in old haunts with friends who had hated it as much as I had, we discovered that Spinadisc on the high street had closed. It had been replaced by a guidance centre for young people, which seemed ironic.

On Saturday I’m going to go to Totnes, to The Drift Record Shop, because it seems like the best thing to do.

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What was the #musicdiaryproject for?

Quite a few people have asked me what the point was of the #musicdiaryproject. Alex even went so far as to ask on the ILM thread about the project whether anyone could let him know if they were even remotely interested in what he’d been listening to, as he couldn’t see the point.

In many ways, this is because there was no point to it. No point beyond a simple desire on my part to get people thinking about how they listen to music.

Because to be honest I was never really interested in the specifics of what people listened to during the week (which is why I didn’t want the spreadsheet sending back to me; it was just a tool to encourage people to engage). But I was and am interested in the ways that people listen; where we are, who we are with, how we chose music, what equipment we listen via, what purposes we use music for. I said at the outset that I wanted people not to adjust their habits from the norm, but rather just to record them; this was only ever a diversion though, because by observing you always affect that which is observed. Taking part was always going to make people think more, take notice more; but this is what I wanted. Riz gets it; he’s been watching me try this for years by cajoling and recommending and insulting and challenging people online. This time I thought I’d just ask people to join in, albeit in a roundabout way. I couldn’t really have done this at any point in time before now; the rise of social media has encouraged participation in a way that just didn’t happen up until now.

There have been some unanticipated but very pleasant side-effects of this project, too: primarily it’s encouraged people to write, both those who started anew, those who resurrected old habits, and those who simply notched-up the frequency of their usual output; whichever it was, I think writing is good for the soul. Reflection is good for the soul. That’s what the project was about, I guess; reflection. Slow down. Listen. Think. Write. It’s also upped the hits on my blog far more than I had expected, which is always nice, and enabled me to run a kind of mini social media experiment, building an instant, temporary online community using little more than an idea and a hashtag. Hopefully, this has lead to some new connections, not just from myself to other people, but criss-crossing amongst everyone who took part. And, perhaps most importantly, an awful lot of people who took part have told me how much they enjoyed doing so.

The survey
I didn’t pay for a premium Survey Monkey account, so was limited to only ten questions and minimal analytics. I’m also not a market researcher, so perhaps didn’t plan the survey as well as I could have. Had I extended the survey I would have harvested demographic data too; though I know that when it comes to jobs we had music journalists, computer programmers, auditors, market researchers, photographers, health service administrators, cinema managers, students, and web editors all taking part part; in terms of ages people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s took part; and in terms of geography we had people from the UK, the US, Mexico, and Australia. I probably would have sought information on the actual music that people chose to listen to, too; how many artists, how many songs, what genres, how much repetition, etc. But, with 10 questions, I went after answers about our methods of listening, because that’s what interests me most.

So, over the course of one week, #musicdiaryproject had over 100 blogs, Tumblrs, Twitters, and so on taking part, and 75 have completed the survey at the time of writing this. These are a few choice results:

• Wednesday and Thursday were the only days that everyone (who completed the survey) took part; a handful joined in after the first two days had passed, and a few more people didn’t continue through the weekend.
• MP3s were by far the most popular format, with 70.7% of people listening to them “mainly”, and 9.3% listening to them “exclusively”. No other format was listened to exclusively except for one person who listed “other” for this; I can’t tell from the results which “other” was theirs, but I’ll assume it was Spotify, which was a popular format choice I’d neglected to offer (as was YouTube).
• 30.7% of people didn’t listen to CDs at all; 45.3% listened to CDs occasionally, and 24% listened to them mainly.
• 77.5% didn’t listen to vinyl at all; 18.7% occasionally, and 4% mainly.
• 2.6% of people listened to Minidisc at all (one each for mainly and occasionally).
• Unsurprisingly, MP3 players via headphones were the most listened-via device, with 56.2% listening via them mainly.
• Computers, whether via headphones, internal speakers, or external speakers, were more popular than hi-fi separates and minisystems.
• 1 person (1.5%) listened exclusively via their car stereo.
• 76% of us were “usually alone” when listening to music; 6.7% were always alone, 17.3% were sometimes alone. No one was “never alone”.
• When we did listen with other people, 42.3% of the time we listened together and had chosen the music. 23.9% of the time we were the only person listening to music as far as we knew. 4 people out of 75 skipped this question.
• 44% of people published their results via Tumblr; next highest was Twitter, with 29.3%.
• A handful of people wrote in physical notebooks (some of whom then photographed those notebooks and stuck the pictures online).
• 60% of people didn’t attend any live music or nightclubs etc during the week. 21.3% went once. Four people (5.4%) went three or more times.
• The vast, vast majority of us were doing other stuff while listening: walking/commuting/travelling was most common (71.6% said often), then writing/working/etc (66.2% said often), and then browsing the internet casually (61.3% said often).
• Only one person exclusively did nothing but listen while they had music on; 61.1% of us managed this “occasionally”, and 25% didn’t manage it at all (plus another three people who didn’t respond to this line of the question).
• 60% of people reported that they generally gave music “most of my attention” while listening. Correlating this with how often we work while listening, and line managers everywhere should perhaps take note… Only 5.3% said they generally give music “all of my attention”.
• 14.7% didn’t notice “incidental” music at all; 65.3% noticed it a little, and 20% noticed it a lot.

All of this adds up to a picture of very utilitarian listening; listening on the go, on the job, listening as distraction, as an aid to other activities, rather than listening as an activity in itself. In 2011, of course, this is hardly revelatory stuff, but it does make me, as an individual, want to try and savour music more, appreciate it more, show it more respect. I love music, dearly, and all it does for me, but I rarely pay it as much direct attention as I do television or film or even the internet. I spend £10 on an album, that an artist may have sweated blood to produce, and then I pay it scant attention while I chop onions, or edit photos, or drive to the shops, or… If I love music so much, doesn’t it deserve a little more than that? And what more could I get out of the experience if I just invested a bit more into it?

Someone asked whether #musicdiaryproject would be an annual event. It hadn’t occurred to me. Maybe we should.

Panda Bear – Tomboy

Imagine if you will, just for a moment, a strawman music fan who likes “real” music, played on “real” instruments by “real” people. I come across this kind of person less and less these days, but I used to encounter them all the time. My counter to their insistence on “real” music was always that it sounded boring, and that I preferred the idea of “unreal” music, which surely must be more exciting.

Panda Bear makes “unreal” music, both with Animal Collective and on his own. Music that doesn’t sound real, music that floats, that can’t be touched, that doesn’t seem to stem from anything physical. It’s a remarkable trick; one that has actually, despite my pining for “unreal” music, given me many problems over the years.

Tomboy is not so much drenched in reverb as dissolved in it. Listening to it is like trying to watch a 3D film without the polarising glasses required to bring the two images into alignment and thus (pseudo) reality; so many repetitions of the same sonic image are presented that your brain can’t quite follow them. Because of this, no matter the identifiable human elements (voices, emotions), it remains unreal, strange, other.

This shouldn’t be a surprise; Person Pitch is similarly untouchable through the echo. Some people have complained at the replacement of the bizarre sample-bed of Panda’s last solo outing with a more prosaic soil of guitars and drums, but really both albums are so defined by the reverb, by the haziness, by the repetition (be it the instant persistence of sound reverberating, or the prolonged repetition of a beat, or a vocal), that it’s often difficult to identify the sound sources anyway. The strummed acoustic guitars and 4/4 beats that make up swathes of Tomboy’s sonic architecture might as well be layered, looped collages of samples, because they feel the same.

Even the sleeve art, which appears to have been originally drawn on tracing paper, and might have been recreated similarly, like the sleeve of Lambchop’s What Another Spills (i.e. In tracing paper), is instead printed onto card, giving the illusion of another texture and making the actual texture seem unreal, untouchable, defying expectations. Likewise the words; once again I have no idea what Panda is singing, even when it’s obvious; is he being duplicitous on the opening track? Is he singing “know you can count on me” or “no you can’t count on me”? I know it’s the former, but I hear the latter as much, if not more; yet more obfuscation, more unreality.

As such, Tomboy really isn’t a million miles away from Person Pitch, though I’ve seen some suggest it might be. I don’t think of its precursor as being the unadulterated classic that so many claim; I love the moments of beatific, Gregorian-chant-Beach-Boys mantra, like the second half of Take Pills or the first half of Bros, which attain a state of euphoric tedium. But then so much of Person Pitch also becomes simply tedious, without the euphoria. Tomboy is equally touched with moments of blissful repetition (the title track’s close), and moments of boring repetition too (Drone). This is fine. So is life.

There are more songs here than on Person Pitch, and shorter on average, with only two stretching beyond five minutes and most done in around four. This means there’s no 10-minute centerpiece, but also that nothing outstays its welcome too long. This doesn’t necessarily make Tomboy easier to digest or poppier; thus far I’d say that nothing quite achieves the highest peaks mentioned as existing in Take Pills, but it might just be that Slow Motion and Last Night At The Jetty will take some time to settle in. Already, though, I prefer the tedium of Afterburner’s delicious exit groove to Good Girl/Carrots.

Noah Lennox and I are similar ages, and we’re both married. I don’t have a child but I imagine our wants are similar; two walls and adobe slabs, for our girls. Very real things, in which to keep safe our emotional lives. But sometimes emotions are best expressed through unreality. Even at his most ostensibly organic, acoustic, and “real” on AC’s Sung Tongs, Panda Bear managed to turn the same trick, to sound unreal. Sometimes the buzzing, reverberating unreality of it all gives me a headache; but mostly nowadays it makes me smile.

Sunday’s listening

Not a great deal to report today: I listened to Magical Mystery Tour twice while writing (once in the morning, and again in the afternoon), and All Eternals Deck once again, while finishing off a review of it for The Quietus. In the car I listened to Monkey Wrench by Foo Fighters and The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret by Queens Of The Stone Age; these played off my iPod Shuffle, which I made a 130-song playlist for this afternoon, and intend to keep in the car from now on (the new car has an aux-in socket).

And that was it. #musicdiaryproject is over for me. Well, sort of. There is still the survey for people to take, and my conclusions from it, and my thoughts about the week as a whole, to ponder on and write up, but the actual listening is all over.

Thank you to everyone who’s been involved; as mentioned, over 10 blogs, Tumblrs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds have been involved, and it’s been fascinating watching it happen.

Edit. Then I got hold of the new Battles album and listened to Ice Cream for the first time, via headphones. And that really was it.

Saturday’s listening

0645: Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92
I haven’t listened to this properly in a long time. Whenever I’m picking music to write or work to, and I think of ambient sounds, I reach for Stars Of The Lid, or The Necks, or The Field, as evidenced by Thursday’s listening. But arguably the two absolute kings of ambience, Eno and Aphex, seem to be forgotten.

So I put this on while I wrote Friday’s entry, and it’s on still as I write this part of this entry, immediately afterwards, although it will be published much later. It reminds me of university, of Northampton, of Oliver and James and Ben, of 6-year-old Asian kids throwing fireworks at the old man next door who tried to run them over. It is a disconcerting record, and that is probably why I overlook it as a writing or working aid; it isn’t ambience. It’s dark. It’s unpleasant. But only in parts. Other parts are absolutely beatific.

It’s now Sunday morning (I know; who’d have thought a paragraph break could take so much time?) and I’m finishing this post with the rest of yesterday’s listening. After Aphex Twin I listened to The Field’s second album again, while I prepared the survey for the project. I finished sorting the survey with five minutes left to go of the album; the last five minutes are my favourite, but I wanted to get away from the computer, so I turned it off and left the room.

Then I listened to All Eternals Deck by The Mountain Goats while playing a video game on an ancient, borrowed PS2. I only ever play one ancient football game, and with increasing rarity; it’s fair to say I have little interest in video games. This one game, however, I have played for so long (over a decade in different iterations) that I now play it almost unconsciously; thus it affords me the opportunity to soak in music in a much more attentive way than I usually can while writing / browsing / working, etc. I’ve been asked to review the Mountain Goats album for someone, so I took occasional notes on the iPad while I listened from the comfort of the sofa.

Later on in the afternoon, after lunch and a walk along the river, I listened to All Eternals Deck again, and then the new Bill Callahan that I’d taken to Devon Record Club, and then the last Bill Callahan, because mentioning Eid Ma Clack Shaw in yesterday’s post, and listening to Apocalypse!, had given me impetus.

And that was it. We went out for dinner with Emma’s family, came home, and I fell asleep during CSI: New York.

#musicdiaryproject – survey

I’ve put together a short (10 questions) online survey for people who took part in #musicdiaryproject to fill in. You can fill it in at any point from now onwards until the end of Tuesday, when I’ll start harvesting the answers and perhaps write-up any conclusions I can draw from the responses.

Click here to take the survey.

Friday’s listening

“Heard melodies are sweet” wrote John Keats in 1819, “but those unheard are sweeter.” Perhaps he had dreamed the perfect song, the secret chord that David played and it pleased the lord, the harmony that unites nations in peace, the sleep melody that elates the subconscious mind while at rest but which, when one wakes, and tries to capture it, becomes Eid Ma Clack Shaw.

Or maybe he was just writing about having the entirety of Your Mother Should Know by The Beatles spin around his head while he took a morning shower. Because that’s how my musical life started yesterday, and how it continued (bar a real moment of Love Spreads and an imagined moment of Against All Odds), until circa 6pm, when I got home from work and listened to The Milk Of Human Kindness by Caribou while I made myself dinner and wrote yesterday’s entry. When I sat down to write, I had to turn the volume down.

After the record had finished, with writing still needing to be done, I reached for the nearest unobtrusive (read “without prominent words”) music to hand, and found The Field’s second album again, which I put on to sail me through the last of my prose extraction. I got to the start of the end of track four, the title track, when everything fades away and leaves just the bass and the (real) drums, and I had finished. Which meant I could stand up, volume up, and do a little dance in the backroom, with the cats, because that is my favourite bit of that song, and one of my favourite three bits of that album, and I wished that it lasted forever, as I always do, and I wish that someone could point me in the direction of music that sounds like that 2-minute glimpse, but for more than two minutes. Just synthetic-sounding, trance-y bass, and John Stanier drumming, swinging, percussing.

And then I went back to the pub, where I had been briefly straight after work, and spent some time with my wife and her colleagues. And then I came home and watched a little of the tellybox.