Futuremusic – What to listen to?

FMTVOK

Many’s the time I’ve banged on about how I had to budget an extra tenner for each visit to my now deceased local music emporium in anticipation of me taking a shine to whatever they were playing while I was partaking of a little hot browsing action. But with good reason. I loved their shop stereo choices. I loved discussing new releases with the staff. I loved the little labels on the display products which told you about the album in a paragraph or so, hand-written and often peppered with exuberant exclamation marks. The less frequently mentioned record shop of my youth was offered a similar service, with James, owner and seemingly sole member of staff, frequently telling me that something I’d brought to the counter was shit or that what I was offering to trade in was too good to get rid of. Perhaps this delightfully honest approach to music retail played a little part in his business becoming unsustainable, but it was critical in helping to shape my musical taste. As all of our record shops die and we’re left with the increasingly dominant download, where do we get our recommendations from?

Both Amazon and iTunes invite copious reviews from the general public. Anyone who’s ever listened to a radio phone-in or watched a rolling news channel knows that, largely speaking, the people most willing to express their point of view are largely unable to express a point of view. I am well aware that writing a blog and espousing such a line of thinking is more than a little hypocritical but sod it. Go with me on this. For example, look at La Roux‘s ‘Bulletproof EP’ on iTunes and you’ll find numerous reviews, with varying degrees of coherence. One of the few currently displayed when you land of the page for ‘Bulletproof’ comes from Musetasticeldo, who writes:

But, it’s rubbish

That high pitched sh*t that we heard last time was rubbish, and amazingly, this is even worse. why the hell do people like the cr*p (sic)

Now, I’m assuming that that’s self-censorship rather than an aversion to naughty words – after all, what’s someone who listens to Muse supposed to say after it’s finished? – and the errant deployment of punctuation can be forgiven in a quick online review, but what was the writer’s purpose here? Seemingly, they truly hated ‘In For The Kill’, and yet they have returned for more. Presuming that they weren’t quite thick enough to purchase a song by an artist they don’t like, did they base their review on the iTunes thirty-second sample? In which case, it’s hardly fair and if, as I suspect, they have actually heard it numerous times elsewhere, what made them feel that it was a good use of their time to actually seek out the song on iTunes in order to contribute this rather vacuous comment?

Amazon reviews operate within similarly lax boundaries, resulting in the violently sarcastic reviews of the Peter Andre and Katie Price album and books by hateful figures like Jon Gaunt. Occasionally you hit upon someone who seems to have actually listened to the music a few times but it’s a very unreliable way to garner recommendations.

resident

It was possible to tailor your music purchasing to whichever shop seemed to most closely match your musical outlook. Certainly, if I lived near Brighton, Resident would receive at least one visit a week as it does all of the stuff I nostalgically bleated about above and more but, as is the case for so many of us, I don’t and the local options are all gone. That said, it’s not as bleak as it first seems and there are still some decent places to seek musical guidance in these troubling times.

Online record shops are a curious breed. They are becoming increasingly important to the indie kids of the world and yet they are competing against the cheap big boys in a fashion not dissimilar to the days of the independent record shop co-existing on the high street with HMV, Virgin and Our Price. The way they seem to be getting around this is the personal touch. I’ve talked about the wonders of Norman Records before, but I’ll briefly recap. Phil, and his team of slightly odd but hugely enthusiastic music warriors, get very involved in your access to new music. An order will receive a personal reply, a query will get a good (and often comical) paragraph with the information you require and pretty damn sharpish too. Each week, the site publishes its reviews of new music with an opinionated and irreverent edge that is far less prominent on the next site worth a look; Boomkat.

Rather more specialist than Norm – which is to say less riffs more bleeps – and considerably more aesthetically pleasing, Boomkat is an increasingly dependable source of exciting and intriguing new tunes. As well as doing a decent line in CDs and vinyl, they also offer a very impressive download service, allowing you to download your music either as 320kbps MP3s or, for a bit more cash, admittedly, FLAC files, giving you a lossless fix that iTunes don’t think you want. Try recent curio from glacial minimalist Max Richter for size to get an idea of the presentation and purchasing options provided by Boomkat. What you will notice is that the reviews are a little too earnest but sound clips allow you to balance out the bullshit. I suppose it’s possible that they only stock stuff they love – it’s certainly pretty select – but they do seem to love most of what they sell. The page is full – some might say cluttered – with all kinds of recommendations for you, including other stuff by this artist, other stuff on that label and what other people buying this item bought.

Boomkat also runs a small download boutique, if you will, entitled 14 Tracks. The idea being, the site offers you the chance to buy download batches of 14 tracks at a time, each curated by Boomkat and offering a guide to a genre, musical theme or whimsical concept. While you won’t like each one, there’s some bizarre and beautiful stuff to be heard via that method and I’d recommend a browse when you have a spare hour or two. You can search back through all of the previous collections offered.

Hardly fresh and exciting, but just as good at doing what it’s always done, is last.fm, a site which allows you to monitor your listening habits, develop musical ‘neighbours’ and compare and contrast your libraries in the hope of finding things to try. I have to say, I’ve only recently started to use it seriously, so my numbers are pretty low and it can be a little swayed if I choose to do my listens to something I’m reviewing via the iPod, but, it’s nevertheless quite an entertaining way to draw up yet more of what every muso loves. Lists. Click here and you should be able to see the list for my all time top artists on last.fm, but as, at the time of writing, even my top act only has 98 plays, it hasn’t yet got to the stage where it is a truly accurate reflection of my listening, but it’s getting there.

Once you’ve listened to enough stuff, last.fm will be able to show you people with similar tastes to yours and then you’re off. Furthermore, plenty of labels seem happy to have tracks uploaded to the site to allow you an instant listen. That said, for me, last.fm is where I get the names of potentially great artists from, before searching for them on Spotify in order to have a listen. I think Spotify’s been covered enough on here of late, and you can certainly find enough links to it across this page, but it’s worth remembering that it’s still a relatively new and fragile device. Enjoy it while it lasts.

The most conventional method of receiving musical recommendations remains. Radio is still very much alive and well, even if there’s less decent new music broadcasting going on. Zane Lowe does a reasonable job of alerting you to new stuff via his Radio 1 evening show, but the likes of Huw Stephens and Rob Da Bank are far better at digging below the surface. Over on 6music, Marc Riley and Gideon Coe are always worth a listen, both having full blown music obsessions and forever seeking out new music that’s both challenging (Riley) and easy on the ear (Coe) on a nightly basis. last.fm can knock you up a radio station of either your library or recommendations for you based on your library. Sadly, this is restricted by what’s on their catalogue and so the recommendations station isn’t always as glorious as it first seems. California based radio station KCRW offers up the rather splendid ‘Morning Becomes Eclectic’, until recently hosted by music biz legend Nic Harcourt, but now helmed by Jason Bentley. Weekday mornings from 9, 5-8pm for UK listeners, are a wonderful mixture of all kinds of stuff, described by their webpage as, “progressive pop, world beat, jazz, African, reggae, classical and new music.” Indeed.

Finally, there’s the method you’re using right now. Blogs. I’m also going to include message boards at this point as I think they serve a similar purpose. At this relatively advanced stage in internet usage, it’s pretty easy to find people with similar interests to you and to join any number of different communities. I actively participate in only a few music forums, but those few forums offer me all kinds of musical recommendations and have noticeably shaped my listening habits over recent years. The few blogs that I frequent are suitably attuned to my taste in music and I know I can pretty much trust whatever they’re banging on about. For example, the previously mentioned teatunes site, which mixes musings on music with reviews of various splendid teas, covers music that is almost entirely to my taste. Indeed, they’ve only today published an article about Charles Ramsey who you may remember Just Played looking at only last week. If I see something recommended on there that I’ve not heard, I’ll endeavour to hear it as, chances are, I’ll like it too.

The final word on this issue can go to Thom Yorke. I have to confess that, sadly, this isn’t something that Thom personally confided in me; he said it as part of an interview with Believer magazine, which in turn got parped out to the UK via The Guardian. That said, it’s a decent comment and pretty neat summation of everything you’ve just been reading. Feel free to hurl alternative suggestions for where to find good new tunes at me via the comments option below.

“I don’t spend my fucking life downloading free MP3s, because I hate the websites. No one seems to know what they’re talking about. I’d much rather go to sites like Boomkat, where people know what they’re talking about. It’s brilliant. To me, that’s a business model. It’s like when I used to go to music shops in Oxford. You’re looking at this and you’re looking at that and there’s a whole line of other things going down the side saying, “You’ll probably like this,” and “You might like this.” Boomkat is very specific with the type of stuff they flog there, but I can’t see why that wouldn’t work for all music.”

It will make you spend more. Be advised.

Long time readers of this blog will remember how I used to get ever so slightly too excited about Bank Holiday Monday trips to my local indie emporium when, with literally no logic to back this up, I used to spend with impunity, somehow convincing myself that money spent on a bank holiday doesn’t count. Actually, now I think about it, what with it being a day when banks have a holiday, that’s not quite such an idiotic idea. Still quite an idiotic idea, mind.

Anyway, said days are long since gone, what with most of the record stores in the whole world having closed down. I’m now left to take my chances with whatever I can find. And so I found myself in a hotel in Derby this morning, flicking through boxes of mainly second-hand vinyl. Most of it, it must be said, was toss. If you ever need a battered copy of any Tina Turner album, a record fair’s the place for you. In fact, if you ever need seventeen battered copies of any Tina Turner album, a record fair’s the place for you. Sadly, it also appears to be the place for people who get so lost in the supermarket that they never quite find the aisles for soap and deodorant. Sadly, despite the late, great Joe’s claim, they can still shop happily. Still, there should be a little corner of the world for everybody and, just like the New Year Sale in HMV is the place for the chronically flatulent, record fairs seem to be the place for the slightly unwashed.

Not me, I hasten to add. I smell perfectly fine, thanks. Anyway, after flicking through the aforementioned tat, I alighted upon a stall selling new stuff. It dawned on me how infrequently I actually get to physically hand over the cash for vinyl these days. The charming bloke I ended up buying a few records from, whose name I can’t remember – something like Dave, told me that the record-selling business is so shit these days that he’s just resorted to record fairs and “my Vauxhall Cavalier.” As a result of these circumstances, most of my record buying occurs online. Not through choice, so much as lack of options.

This neatly dovetails with a request from a rather splendid chap (who has recently directed people to this site from his own rather fine corner of the interweb) for a general guide to picking up vinyl at decent prices. So, provided you don’t all start buying everything I want before I can get it, I present:

The Just Played guide to buying vinyl

I know, imaginative title, eh?

1. Indie stores online

First and foremost, if you’re after new release vinyl that isn’t just the latest overly-loud, overly-pompous and overly… well, shit, U2 album then you’ll need to identify a few indie retailers who cater for tastes similar to yours.

My chosen benefactors are the splendid people at Norman Records, who I’ve mentioned previously.

normanrecords-logo-white

They stock pretty much all the new release stuff you could wish for and, almost always, at the best price you’ll find online. They ship the items in very sturdy packaging and turn around orders pronto. Their communication is second to none and often rather amusing. Decent sized orders tend to come with a few sweet – works for me – and they publish weekly reviews of an irreverent nature which carry the following advisory message:

Warning: stay away if you’re going to be all offended by us slagging off your favourite artist. We reserve the right to hold an opinion!

The one thing to bear in mind is postage. Vinyl is heavy and bulky and will always require a few quid bunged on top of your order. That said, order more than £50 worth in one go and shipping is free!

There are a few other indie retailers I frequent:

action

Action Records – The shop in Preston is lovely, the web service is quick and pretty competitively priced. I use them for reasonably recent back catalogue stuff. If you’re after something from the last five years, and it’s not already super-rare, Action are a good bet.

what

What Records – Now online only. Vast stock, lots of upfront listings in order to ensure you can get hold of very limited pressings and very secure shipping. Neither particularly keen on obscure stuff nor the cheapest, What is pretty dependable for the rare stuff.

boomkat_logo

Leaning more towards electronic music than Norm, but covering similar ground, Boomkat is another place to go to for the very limited indie store only pressings and it also does a nice line in flac downloads – not that that’s what this post is meant to promote!

2. Catching the big boys getting it wrong

I do so love benefiting from a mis-price by Amazon or HMV. It’s double satisfying: knowing you get a bargain and that bargain is directly linked to one of the indie-slayers not making so much money. As a technique, it only really works on pre-orders and you’ll need to get in early. Online retailers, or etailers if you will, try to outdo each other in terms of getting things listed first in a bid to get extra sales. As a result, this doesn’t always lead to entirely accurate listings. HMV listed the Oasis vinyl box set for ‘Stop The Clocks’ as a single vinyl at £12.99 delivered for a month. Amazon were gladly flogging the recent Aidan Moffat and the Best Ofs vinyl/CD/bonus CD/7″/Valentine’s Card/board game box set as a piece of single vinyl at £13.69 delivered. Peter Doherty‘s ‘Grace/Wastelands‘ vinyl pressing was £7.98, the same as the CD, delivered for a month. It’s all about luck and it’s not a guaranteed route to bargains, but it throws up some decent stuff.

3. Caiman on Amazon Marketplace

If it’s an album that’s getting a release in the US, then a good source of cheap, new vinyl is Caiman USA, Caiman Zone, Caiman Bargain or whatever they’re calling themselves at the exact moment when you order. Often charging £8-9 per item, with the stock £1.24 postage on top of that, you can get some real bargains. They tend not to list items until a week or two after release, and those prices don’t stay around for long, but they’re worth checking for on most new releases.

As for second hand stuff, I can’t really offer much more than you already know. Track down your nearest second-hand retailer, keep an eye on eBay auctions that finish in less ‘busy’ times and search via places like Gemm and Musicstack. That said, car boot sales and record fairs remain the best places to pick up second-hand bargains.

Feel free to leave a comment correcting me, adding extra info or simply sharing your experiences. I enjoy reading about this sort of stuff, honest!

Oh, one last thing. I write a reasonably well-followed blog (which has already been visited by the rather splendid Thomas Pugwash) and yet I’ve not been sent a promo of The Duckworth Lewis Method‘s new album to review. I’m quite hurt. That said, a rather positive review will be appearing at the aforementioned splendid chap’s aforementioned site shortly.