Last month, I reflected on the early years of my CD collection and how, as a latecomer in small town Wales, I took a little while to get up to speed. I left the story at the early days of university life, grabbing music from every direction and pouring my student loan away at a genuinely terrifying rate.
Things didn’t improve massively in the immediate months thereafter. By Christmas of the first term, I realised that the food budget probably should have been the priority ahead of the musical free for all. Still, I had a massive pile of CDs to show for it and several weeks to do even less than I had been for the term I’d just completed. A few weeks of parentally sourced food had me back to relative normality and the obsession was well and truly underway. I would never fly quite so perilously close to financial ruin again but, in the same way that I was already figuring out what percentages I needed across my course to get what I wanted, I had taken the time to deduce exactly how far I could push it. The early noughties represented the boom time of the remaindered CD. We’d all spent most of the nineties being robbed blind with prices starting at £12.99, often heading on upwards, and it was time for a change. Shops like the original incarnation of Fopp and the slightly ugly imitation, Music Zone, tapped into this market and took off. We were buying any old shite because it was £3. Ok, so that may not have been you precisely, but enough people were that these shops began to expand across the country. The first Fopp I ever encountered was in Nottingham, one of the most successful stores and, as a result, still open today under HMV ownership. It was genuinely overwhelming. Here was all of that music I’d read about, heard about and had played to me over recent years. And priced at £5 or less. I rarely left without a bag full and the sheer novelty of inflating your record collection without deflating your bank account massively was an addictive thrill which never wore off. Their genius positioning of piles of truly unwanted albums at £2 and £3 all along the front of the tills ensured that you ended up purchasing all kinds of stuff as a result of impulsive grabs whilst waiting to be served. Occasionally this was successful – Neil Finn solo albums, Ron Sexsmith, Pulp – but more often than not it was foolish decision.
Not that such logic ever stopped me, you understand. Indeed, the success of these shops encouraged many indie stores to develop their cheapo back catalogue sections in order to compete and the end result was yet more low price music upon which I could binge wilfully. The dear departed Selectadisc did a fine job of locking horns with Fopp and, after a couple of years of taking it on at its own game, appeared to be emerging victorious, offering better stock at even better prices and, for some time, the lure of Fopp was diminished. My time in Selectadisc resulted in a reignited affection for vinyl, the lure of their upstairs department of wax too tempting to resist. And so, to a room barely big enough for me, let alone any actual stuff, was added a cheap turntable from Argos and I was back up and running. Vinyl purchases were few and far between, mainly as a result of cost, and my love for the 5” disc was sustained. This was, at least in part, down to its convenience, used as it was to soundtrack frequent bus and train journeys, along with the fact that I could easily transport my current favourites with me wherever I was planning on being each weekend. I wasn’t yet an audio geek and the loudness wars hadn’t really got going. It was a handy, increasingly cheap format. What was there to dislike? It was destined to be the invincible format, no?
No indeed. Just prior to university, one of the last big releases of my school days was ‘Know Your Enemy’, the Manics album where they temporarily lost it and started loitering about in Cuba and making sweary, so-bad-it’s-good disco songs like ‘Miss Europa Disco Dancer’. As it turned out, it wasn’t worth all the excitement, but it provided me with my first taste of how internet piracy would be a thorn in the side of the bloated music industry. News was circulating amongst what was still a relatively nascent internet community about tracks from the new Manics record being ‘out there’. And so, there I was installing this thing called Napster to try and figure out what was going on. Next thing I know, Sony have had loads of users banned for sharing these leaked tracks and the ‘us and them’ approach becomes reality. From that moment on, I figured that the record companies had no idea what to do about this new opportunity to acquire music without paying or, to sum it up more succinctly, steal stuff. In retrospect, at the risk of sounding a little holier than thou (but fuck it, it’s Sunday), I’m quite glad we had the slowest dial-up connection in the world being run through one of the slowest computers in the world at home, because I never really saw what the fuss was about back then. Now, I don’t have a blemish free record, and I did briefly flirt with SoulSeek but I’ve never really seen the point of downloading day and night in order to have so much music you couldn’t actually listen to most of it even if you wanted to. I don’t get a thrill from a digital file, I don’t enjoy unzipping folders or making massive computer based playlists. It just doesn’t do much for me, despite my music geekery.
However, my mildly pretentious dislike didn’t count for much in a world let off the leash with broadband and a spindle of CD-Rs for company. Cliché though it sounds, I lost count of the number of times I overheard people in record shops saying, “Oh, don’t bother buying it, I’ll download and burn it for you.” There are those who want to say there’s more to the demise of record shops than downloading and, to a certain extent, they’re right. But I refuse to believe that a little box in the corner of people’s rooms, pumping out as much ‘free’ music as they could get their hands on didn’t fundamentally alter the way many thought about the value of music. Add in the bloated gluttony of the supermarkets as they tried to hoover up any remaining areas of possible money making that they didn’t already have under one roof and the increasing prominence of magazine and newspaper freebies and music was no longer something you saved each week for. You didn’t have to wait for Saturday, in fact your barely had to wait at all if you had decent enough bandwidth. I watched as the record shops in Leeds started to suffer, I saw stores around the East Midlands looking truly unwell before taking their final breaths.
My habits were changing by now. Forced onto the internet by decreasing local options, I was now lured in by the ‘cheap’ new releases that could be bought via places like CD WOW! and Play.com as a result of their geographical locations. And so yet more CDs ended up piling up in every corner of the room. While I never fell for the charms of downloading more music than I could even dream of, I think it would be fair to say that I had my own, far more expensive, version of that disease. I’m a little ashamed to admit that, for a little while, I think I gloried in the acquisition a little more than the listening. It was just so easy, so tempting and so exciting. Double CD reissues, limited edition digipacks, bonus tracks and bonus discs all kept me coming back for more. And then, ALL of the independent record shops anywhere near me closed. And it ended. The constant flow of ludicrously cheap, and often simply ludicrous, bargains dried up overnight and I was suddenly confronted with the strange experience of my own critical faculties sharpening up in front of me. CDs sounded like shite, looked like shite and were increasingly associated with a time of overindulgence. I’ve written before about the compression and loudness of modern records, apparently in order to make things sound good on iPods and in cars, and how it frequently results in vulgar sounding records and a complete lack of sonic excitement, but it was the final straw.
It was only a couple of years ago when things started to shift and only within the last twelve months that I’ve actively been reducing the number of CDs I buy quite drastically. I’m very much a vinyl man now. So much new music is now back to being released on the format that it’s far less of a problem to find things than it was only two or three years ago. Pressing quality is often excellent, even if prices are a little on the steep side at times. What was the precise breaking point? Last year, I returned from a holiday with a sturdy ‘bag for life’ from one of the nation’s supermarkets, full of CDs. An entire row of spine-up titles ran along the bottom of the bag, from end to end, with further bits and bobs stacked on top which had been picked up at various record shops I’d sought out across a week. Yes, most of them had been cheap but what was the point now? How many had I wanted beforehand? How many were impulse purchases? How many were simply because I could? How many was I still playing by the time I reached the end of 2009 and was rummaging through the racks? The answer, as I suspect you’ve already guessed, was not all that many. The return of vinyl to my affections, which began to gather pace around five years ago but truly took of in the last eighteen months, has reinvigorated my listening and returned me to fully appreciating the album as an experience, an intentional collection of songs in a particular order. It’s reignited my desire to seek out record shops wherever I am and to support independent retailers as often as I can. It’s put me in touch with music sellers as enthusiastic and passionate about the things I listen to as I am. And it feels very good indeed.