Listen Up and Listen Good

January dawns. List season is over again for another year. Shame. As most corners of the internet started to tell me what it is I’m meant to be, ahem, losing my shit over this year, I found myself hurrying off in the other, non Haim-occupied, direction. My thoughts turned to the age old question of favourite albums. I get asked this a lot. When you enter our house, the entire back wall of the living room is dominated by records. As happened only the other night, invariably people dash as slowly as is polite towards them to have a quick nosey. I like it, obviously. It allows me to spout geekily in a way that anyone with a sizeable record collection lives to do. But what’s your favourite is the question everyone ducks. Narrow it down to one? Really? I often mention my album of the last year as a way to shirk the responsibility but don’t always get away with it. I have previously composed a list for music message board polls and the like but haven’t updated it for several years. But how often do I actually listen to my ‘favourite’ albums?

When I was a teenager, ‘Everything Must Go‘, ‘Parklife‘ and ‘Different Class‘ got a hammering on my CD player, at least in part because I didn’t have many CDs. Anything that stood out would naturally dominate proceedings due to lack of competition. But things have long since changed and even my moment of clarity some four or five years ago about abandoning the almost immediately worthless 5″ disc in favour of my beloved vinyl, even for new releases, didn’t seem to staunch the flow of additions to the library. I’ve increasingly realised that I don’t wallow enough. There are still albums which necessitate multiple plays in one sitting – the new Low and John Grant records for a start – but my constant quest for exciting and involving music has made me quite sympathetic to the slow listening cause. And then I visit a decent record shop or two, get a sugar rush and end up at the till with a few prime choices to cue up that evening. So do I really play my ‘favourite’ albums that much at all?

I’ve just drawn up a rough list and am slightly concerned to realise that I can’t remember when I last played at least half of the albums on there. Are they, therefore, not my favourites? Are they simply there waiting for me when new or recently discovered music simply won’t cut it? Have I got illegal download hoarder disease – only with physical product? Can favourites survive in the 21st century culture of having everything available, day and night? I mention all of this in light of the news that beleaguered (though evidently not as beleaguered as I thought it was a whole twelve months ago) high street retailer HMV is to commence a blue cross sale on Friday, offering 25% off pretty much all back catalogue titles. It is fairly clearly a last gasp money grab, trying to get as much cash in as quickly as possible before the various banking covenants loom large. When MVC and Music Zone were hurtling plughole-wards a similar approach was taken and a stickering system which allows easy altering of prices is hardly a sign of imminent recovery. Such sales are designed to get you in and get you spending. When MVC Derby was close to the end it had a £3.99 and £1.99 clearout and there I was, piling ‘bargains’ all the way up my right arm whilst browsing with my left. What did I buy? All sorts of shite, mainly. This is, essentially, the mentality HMV are hoping for in the coming week or two. Will 25% be enough to lure people in, especially in the post apocalxmas environment of January? Will the ‘ooh it’s cheap’ instinct override the ‘why didn’t I buy this when it came out?’ question? I used to glory in the acquisition. A bloody big pile of cheap stuff was an achievement. Except it wasn’t, was it? How many of those desperate clearance items go on to be one of your favourite albums? Not one of the titles on my list arrived in that manner and I’ve learnt the hard way that sales such as these are best avoided. When I broke my ankle in late 2011, the enforced sofa time enabled quite a bit of bargain vinyl buying but it created quite a backlog, what with me not really being able to manouvere vinyl around the house. In the end, I was feeling under pressure to listen to things and get them filed. And that’s not what the joy of music is all about, is it?

I’ve already started playing the albums on the list I conjured earlier so as to see if they still mean as much to me when heard as when simply thought about and it’s going well so far. And maybe it’s time for us to all put the music first once again. Spotify allows us to play pretty much anything ever but that encourages a distinct lack of commitment. iTunes lets us think of something and buy it there and then but how do we find it? Various surveys suggest as much as 80% of people’s iTunes library goes unplayed while plenty of the catalogue for sale via the store has never been bought. Rather than putting your hard earned towards a pile of stuff you hadn’t felt worthy of purchase at full price simply because HMV want you to think this is rare opportunity to fill your music boots rather than a vague and likely fruitless stay of execution, ferret through the racks, pick out what you would have ended up buying in cavalier fashion and then spend that amount in your local independent record shop by asking them to recommend something you might like. A bit like an Amazon or iTunes algorithm, only human. And useful. That might then go on to be something for your all time favourites list. At least eight of my list are from direct human enthusing. That is what we should be bemoaning the loss of during this prolonged and very public death rattle for Nipper and his tattoo-obscuring co-workers. The company didn’t adapt, the company didn’t keep up. But plenty of the staff in HMV and Fopp are out and out music lovers for whom this will be a pretty grim time. Don’t be a dick and delight in its demise, whike they’re having to sticker stock like mad. It’s hard to currently comprehend what the likely consequences of an HMV-less high street would be, but let’s not pretend Amazon management aren’t leaping around the boardroom in glee, even if the warm feeling that’s due to accompany it is still a day late being delivered by Yodel. It’ll be then that we need our independent stores even more than ever before and we must hope that clearance hysteria doesn’t result in the typically minimal sales of the first quarter of the year for such shops being diminished even further.

You can read more about slow listening and evaluate how you listen here:

How Do You Listen To Music? Site

Thanks to @adam_bunn on Twitter for the photo above.

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