A voyage of disc-overy. And the come down.

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.

fopp

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.

selectaclosed

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?

25966-hi-napster

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.

fopp closed sign

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.

My CD first experience

They were well meaning, even if they fell rather wide of the mark. My parents presented me with my first CD player, some eleven years after the fuss had begun and a good three or four after most households had succumbed. As part of a hi-fi system that also allowed tape-to-tape dubbing and had a mini-turntable atop that always played things ever so slightly too fast, it represented a new dawn and a crucial moment in the construction of my record collection. How did they fall wide of the mark? I was presented with a selection of reduced CD singles from Woolies with which to christen the beast and, as a result, the first sounds to emanate from this groundbreaking device were The Original’s ‘I Luv U Baby’ and PJ & Duncan’s ‘Stuck On U’. Still, at least they were finally being played off a CD. Additional birthday funds were quickly sought out and a hasty retreat was beaten towards the doors of the aforementioned local Woolies, from which I emerged soon after with a copy of Pulp’s ‘Different Class’, feeling rather happier about the prospects for the new CD player.

PJ & Dunc

It’s strange to trace back fifteen years of rabid musical purchases to that day. The moment when it got serious, even if it wouldn’t be until the arrival of the first instalment of my student loan for things to get truly messy. I’d spent so long being told that CDs were the only way to listen to music, so long oggling the cases in local record shops and so long pestering the family to finally give in to modern technology, that the very act of playing a CD was a reverential experience, savoured from the prising open of the case and the liberating of the disc from within, to the ejecting of the tray ready to receive the hallowed item. Though probably not if playing PJ & Duncan’s ‘Stuck On U’. Early purchases were infrequent and agonised over at great length, resulting in strategic spending plans in order to ensure that, for example, both Manic Street Preachers releases for ‘A Design For Life’ could be purchased in the week of release. Sleeves were pored over, just as I previously had with vinyl and after a while the lustre surrounding the format du jour (I would have put the French for ‘the format of some years previous that I’d just caught up with’ but don’t know the translation) wore off a little as it simply became the way I listened to music now.

ADFL 1 and 2As labels the length and breadth of the country queued up to convince me to spend £2.99 per version, I was utterly convinced that multi-formatting was a wondrous thing providing access to a previously unknown wealth of splendour. Looking back, there are slightly too many ‘Chemical Brothers remixes’ and ‘Radio Edits’ for my liking across many of those vintage indie singles but at the time it was truly exciting. As such, my CD habit only expanded. Slowly but surely, the shelves filled and I gradually began to realise that the prices I had to pay for records in my small Welsh town weren’t all that cheap. Occasional visits to Cardiff for gigs along with accidentally on purpose becoming separated at lunchtime from the group when on a school trip provided opportunities to explore enormous record shops with exotic names like ‘HMV’ and ‘Virgin Megastore’, where some titles were actually…gasp…reduced. Flicking back now through magazines from the late Nineties, it’s hard to believe all those Woolies adverts pointed out how new releases would be ‘only £12.99’ in store. £13. For a CD! However, back then, I had two options. The aforementioned Pick & Mix retailer and my local indie store, Dominion Records. Neither were what you called cheap, but it was all I really knew. Our Price in Newport fared little better although I still vividly remember the day I found ‘The Holy Bible’ in there reduced to £5.99 and thought all my Christmases had come at once. Then I played it. I was still a little bit too young to understand at that point, I think. Plus, I couldn’t really play it loud in case my parents heard the lyrics. So thoughtful. So timid. Anyway, that particular bargain was the sole delight in years of wandering around Our Price during its death throes and so I remained blinkered when it came to the potential to seek out bargains and I was unprepared for what was soon to come.

Give a child too many brightly coloured sweets and they may never calm down. Have seven pints of Guinness and half a dozen flavoured vodkas for your first night drinking and wait for the carnage to ensue. Present a Welsh lad in his late teens with a student loan, a city full of record shops and no sense of perspective and wait for the food budget to evaporate. The autumn of 2001 will forever remain one of my happiest music buying periods. I, incorrectly as it turned out, believed I was in a position to hoover up CDs, left, right and centre, without any consequences. The HMV sale deliberately timed to coincide with the issuing of the first loan started the damage, only for numerous second hand shops to truly render me a consumer of 18p a tub fluorescent ‘spread’ from Morrisons on bread that cost even less. It was then I finally got to grips with what has become one of my all-time favourite albums: Teenage Fanclub’s ‘Songs From Northern Britain’, which was only £4.99. Elvis Costello’s back catalogue was suddenly available to me in its entirety, and at a very reasonable price, and finally those early Eighties R.E.M. albums were to be mine. It was glorious. There was more wonderful music than I ever imagined I could own and then it got to the end of November, when I read my balance sheet and struggled to keep my balance.

It was the first time that the record collection truly demonstrated its hold over me. The first of many times, it must be said. As I attempt to thin down the shelves, sift out the mediocrity and further cement the reliance on beautiful vinyl pressings, I’ll be detailing a decade or so spent overdosing on 5” discs of delights and recalling the moments when I probably should have exercised my right to say “no” to a special offer or seven. I’ll consider how the love affair peaked and what caused its eventual decline, how vinyl gradually usurped it in my affections, what the mp3 meant for my music consumption and ponder what a wall full of CDs means in 2010. There’s every risk it’ll be self-indulgent, but feel free to chip in at any point and broaden the story.

More soon.