Last year I started writing about things I’ve started to learn from watching my kids grow and how they see things. I’ve started to realise how much I take for granted. Or rather I’ve started seeing things through their eyes and realised that, for them, the world can be simpler, yet harder, than I thought.
My first memories of music are of my mum playing the guitar. No idea what she songs she played, but I loved the sound of it (I’ve found out since it was a few Beatles songs she was learning). From there I remember listening to the radio with my dad, nodding along pretending to either like the song or feel the beat. Or just copying him as he enjoyed the radio as he painted or mended something.
In my teens I listened to, and bought, plenty of vinyl records; LPs, 12″ and 7″ singles. I copied them to tape (cassette) and saved enough to buy myself a Sony Walkman (pre-CD days here!). I inherited my grandfathers turntable (it was old when I got it, but still perfectly usable) and I had something to play my own expanding music collection on. I used to love getting the bus into town at the weekend and flicking through the vinyl bins in Our Price, HMV, and the local 2nd-hand shop (which is still going strong today!).
I bought some albums based purely on the cover. No idea of the band, no idea of what it would sound like, other than the fact it was found and categorised (hopefully) in the right bin. I found some amazing albums from groups I still treasure today, I also bought some right pups I have long ago managed to lose or give away. Some purchases were based on the cover art, some from recommendations from friends, some from what was being played on the radio (anyone remember the Friday Night Rock Show with Tommy Vance?), and not forgetting BBC Top of the Pops (in the late 80’s it was a good time for my taste in music!). Most, however, were bought because they were either bands I already loved or on the fly, no idea what I was getting.
Fast forward some 25+ years (yikes) and I’ve started buying vinyl LPs again. Yes, vinyl is back! I have an extensive CD and MP3 collection (+11k tracks in iTunes), but now I have a new turntable that, with a USB stick plugged in, will record the vinyl. I can now rip my vinyl, load to iTunes, and play in my car. Crackles and jumps galore!
But here’s the thing. As my boys grow up they want to listen to music too. I also wan them to find their own taste, their own bands, their own way through music. They like some tracks we play in the car, dislike others (quite a lot, in fact). I’ve bought a DAB aerial for the stereo in the kitchen and am now making an effort to use this and not my iPod so we listen to different styles of music and a more varied type of music. I’ve also started a trial run with Amazon Prime (to see what the ‘prime’ delivery is like as well as the TV and music offering). I’m making it as easy as I can so we can all browse and find new music for ourselves.
For my own listening pleasure I’ve found some great new bands – Halestorm, Panic! At The Disco, Shinedown, All Time Low, and Theory Of A Deadman – I wouldn’t have found otherwise just listening to standard radio.
Is this enough for them to find their own music? There are fewer stores around they can go and flick through the shelves and bins like I/we used to. They’re not old enough, for me, to be allowed online unsupervised to search for their own music. The cover art is, for me, an important element of the music, and a small 200×200 pixel image of the cover doesn’t offer any detail or emotion of the music. Think of the Iron Maiden cover for their 1986 album ‘Somewhere In Time‘. You need to see it close and personal to see the very subtle and easily missed jokes and references to other Iron Maiden songs, characters, etc. (the Aces High bar, part-obscured road name ‘Acacia Avenue’, clock showing 23:58, building called Tyrell Corp, etc.). You would not see that detail, and fun, even on the CD cover, let alone cover art in iTunes on Spotify.
You just don’t get that when you browse music online. Front and back covers can have had, for me, a profound impact on the music, not to mention the inner sleeve artwork, lyrics, etc. And limited edition prints, numbered releases, signed copies. Where has that care and attention gone in the digital world?
In some respect it’s easier for them to find new music because of websites like Spotify and YouTube or BandCamp, browsing Amazon and iTunes (and listening to the short clip of each track). Will they still listen to albums or just search and buy/download one track at a time? Are online services making it easier or more difficult to find music we love and will cherish, or is our need for immediate satisfaction slowly killing the idea of a band. Can a band starting now still be around as long as some of the more famous bands of the past like AC/DC, Rolling Stones, Queen, or even artists like Madonna?
In some ways they’ve got it far easier to find new music, but I think they’re also missing out on the good/bad experiences of hunting for new bands and albums, buying something you later regret, and making and sharing musical tastes with friends (I’ve not even covered mix-tapes here. Oh the days/weeks spent making the ultimate mix-tapes!).
Reflecting on my experiences of buying music above has also made me think about all the live gigs I went to too. From seeing the likes of Metallica, Def Leppard, Thunder, Status Quo, UFO, Motorhead in Bournemouth or Poole in the 90’s to a few trips to London (Hammersmith and The Marquee Club) and Donnington (Monsters of Rock) festival, I loved live music. New bands were an unknown quantity: you never knew whether the studio sound would be any good live, and they inevitably supported a more well known act before headlining their own tour. Old favourites amazed the crowd with new tracks, changed line up, new light show, etc. These days you don’t get these experiences (?) as everything can be searched and seen before you get there. Want to know if the live act is any good, YouTube it and see, well, the whole gig online thanks to some shaky phone-footage.
For me the changes have made music far easier and more accessible, but it’s taken so much of the fun and social aspect away from discovering it. Yes, if anything we can be more social about it with Facebook and Twitter, but are we seeing so much social it’s less personal (I used to share new music with my brother regularly, now less so as we both find so much new stuff, where do we start?). Browsing album or track covers online is not the same as flicking through vinyl or CD racks, flipping it over and reading the cover notes & track listing. If I had the opportunity to hear 20 seconds of every track before buying most of my albums I’d not have bought it – some tracks need far more than 20-30 seconds to warm up before the fun begins, you’d miss (don’t believe me, pick a track you love and listen to the demo on Amazon, I bet it’s not the bit of the track you love).
No, for me music is less personal and less engaging than it used to be. There’s so much out there, and so easy to find, it’s lost the magic and euphoric feeling I got when I found the next big band to follow. Often by chance. Amazon Prime, Spofify, etc. have spoilt it for me, it’s just damn easy now.
Image source: David Hopkins (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)