Saturday, July 05, 2008

Feast and Famine

From the ages of 16 to about 24, I spent every cent of disposable income on an addiction.

Black and tactile, with reassuring heaviness and warmth, everything about vinyl fascinated me. Like many obsessives, I dug through record bins and yard sales; I would scour e-Bay for old Scott Walker records, check bulletin boards for rare Mo’ Wax “Headz” compilations and order countless drum and bass 12’s from shops in London -- exorbitant shipping fees and all.

Many others still share this addiction. Vinyl sales – spurred by DJ culture, audiophiles, and perhaps for the reasons I’m about to outline – are actually up in the UK today.

Thinking about this act of collecting and experiencing vinyl as a physical manifestation of sound, I started considering the current climate of digital media, and how, when records are reduced to easily distributed files -- intangible 1’s and 0’s -- content can be devalued.

It’s almost too easy to overdose, flailing softly amid notifications and options, losing precious moments in the white noise of constant information.

We live in a time of tremendous access. Obscure film and television clips previously relegated to memory and subconscious are now on YouTube. Music comes from peer-to-peer networks, connected friends and, often as a last resort, through legitimate download sites.

In many ways, this is great. Palates are becoming more and more refined and the barrier to hearing new sounds and genres is lower than it's ever been. As a result, people have developed more of an open mind. Self-described fans of indie rock, who might have never listened to anything urban and/or electronic ten years ago, are now checking out Dubstep nights. Shoegazers are discovering freak folk, dub-techno and countless other genres with ease – and in ways they inform one and other. This is all incredibly positive.

But, in the wake of this digital feast, there is a famine. Infinite accessibility and portability means many people aren’t experiencing music as deeply as they once did. I suffer from chronic iTunes attention deficit syndrome, clicking through the best bits of several songs and mixes throughout the course of an hour. It’s a forgotten luxury to let an album play through and listen with undivided attention.

I think back to the time when I ordered Sigur Ros’ Agaetis Byrun from Fatcat’s mailorder site and spent much of a year drinking it in, learning every little nuance and texture of the album. Later I played Radiohead’s Kid A over and over so many times on my headphones that I still recall every seamless segue between songs.

Skip forward to today. I recently declared promo bankruptcy. I’m fortunate enough to receive piles of free music in my mailbox, digital zip files of new singles, and enthusiastic recommendations beamed from friends over instant messenger. Inspired in part by the late John Peel, for several years I tried to give everything a listen -- however cursory -- to make sure I wasn’t missing out on something truly special. But in this effort, combined with personal music buying, mix-making and live shows, I suffered a figurative death from a thousand cuts.

For a fleeting moment, I lost all perspective. I didn’t know what was good or bad anymore. The constant onslaught of new music turned into a pink haze of static—as overwhelming as the first time I heard Loveless, but nowhere near as sublime. The consumption of music had lost its pleasure.

To remedy this, I had to force myself to remember everything that goes into creating a single piece of music: the nuances of writing and recording, the creative tension, frustration, aspiration, and the seemingly simple goal of making tones sit nicely together in a mix. The mastering, re-touching, editing and hiss of the tape reel. The magic when things congeal into something special. All of the things that happen behind the new barrier to entry, that little icon you click on your desktop, the bubble mailer with a promo CD in the mailbox.

Things are better now. The panic has subsided. But I learned a valuable lesson that’s starting to seep into other areas of my life: Take your time. Respect the craft and remember the process. Put a record on the turntable and listen all the way through. Enjoy the permanence of physical things and what goes into their creation.

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