I finally reached the end of the nightmare last night. The last compact disc disappeared from my shelves, digitally dismembered into the Cloud, its silvery blandness dispatched to one of half-a-dozen disc holders and sent to the bottom of a cupboard.
There’s a lovely line in Andy Miller’s terrific book The Year of Reading Dangerously when he says he had ‘confused reading with shopping.’ For years, I made the same mistake with music. I’d plunder HMV for bargains, soak up Fopp’s latest offers, and watch my shelves fill up with music I knew nothing about and rarely listened to. Then, the iPod came along, and like everyone else I was plugged into the infernal bloody device, awash with music as I walked down the street – not really music at all, actually, just an incessant ambient electronic noise to which I paid little attention even while I grew more and more irritated with it.
Was there a finer emblem for this disposable, consumerist, unlovable period than the compact disc? A shitty circle of mysterious material, encased in a fiddly yet enragingly cheap plastic case, its sleeve no better than a primary school mailing to parents? And when we shoved it into the players which, somehow, the music industry had conned us into buying in the 80s and 90s, what did we find? More often than not, a badly remastered mess, which seemed to offer no more than the baleful ability to ‘skip’. Music wasn’t something to be wallowed in anymore. Music was something to have time found for, to be boiled down to those elements we, as listeners, found most immediately engaging. Steven Soderbergh says he decided to stop making films when he was on a plane and saw a man watching edited highlights of action films – just the bang bang bits, with all the dialogue and story expunged. That’s what compact discs gave us. Well, sod ’em.
I don’t listen to music when I’m working anymore. I don’t listen to it when I’m walking around in the world, which has birds and people and shit in it, all of them there to be listened to. I’ve just disabled Apple Music, the perplexing complexity of which turns listening into personal lifestyle programming, and I won’t have it. I listen to Tom Cox and Pete Paphides on Mixcloud, I listen to Cerys Matthews and Huey Morgan on 6music, I follow musical clues from good soundtracks on Rdio (currently: the playlist for True Detective Series One, the music for which was collected by T Bone Burnett, and what fool would use iTunes Genius instead of him for music recommendations). My CDs have been ripped and filed away. And, yes, of course, the vinyl has come out again. Last week I bought a record on eBay by an early ’70s country rock band named Poco who I first heard on Tom Cox’s radio show, recorded by musicians in the same room as one another. It was magnificent.