How I Might Be Learning To Love Nothing

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I’ve recently become involved with a Pop Music Writing Group as part of my PhD studies at BCU. We meet once a fortnight and respond to an academic paper, or a book chapter, or some other provocation, with a few words of our own. The purpose is to get us all writing regularly, flexing the muscles so that the task of coming up with 80,000 words isn’t quite so daunting. This time around we were responding to Mark Steel’s 2003 article ‘How I Finally Learnt To Love Country Music’. Here is what I came up with…

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How I Might Be Learning To Love Nothing

He who binds himself to a joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sun rise

William Blake.

Tsundoku

A Japanese word meaning buying books and never reading them

I should begin by clarifying something: By saying that I might be learning to love nothing, I don’t mean that I’m moving to a point where I don’t love anything. The opposite is true in fact, and increasingly so as time goes by. By nothing, what I mean is the opposite of something, and specifically I am talking about music in tangible formats.

To begin again at the very beginning: I have been crackers about music for as long as I can remember, and that love affair has until recently been largely centred around ‘things’.

I wrote a piece for the Popfessions website a few years ago about a 7-year-old me playing an Eddy Grant 7” single, over and over again, in order to hand-transcribe the lyrics. In my teens I carried vinyl records to and from school, in plastic bags bearing independent record shop logos, for no other reason than to show off how cool I thought I was. In my twenties I sat behind the counters of record shops in Birmingham and London and played the role of the surly, judgemental sales assistant. I’ve spent a lot of time and money since then amassing thousands of records, and just last Sunday was on my hands and knees in a freezing cold junk shop attic, pulling out records by Tangerine Dream, Little Feat, Galaxie 500, and several others. I spent £12 on 15 more records that I don’t have the time to play. I drive my wife mad. Two days ago I bought a gramophone, which now means that I’ll start buying 78s. And so it goes on.

Like most vinyl freaks of my vintage, I have a sniffy disdain for the present ‘vinyl revival’ that, if I’m being completely honest, is based almost entirely on an annoyance that others are now encroaching on my turf. When it comes to records, and to pop music in general, I’m still that 7-year-old, that teenager, and that young man.

Much of what drives this has very little to do with music. It’d probably make an interesting case study for a psychologist. As a friend once said, “I wouldn’t want to get inside your head. I’d need wellies”. But, that aside, I can also confidently and honestly state that I am hopelessly in love with pop music. The common denominator between the love affair and the odd behaviour is ‘things’: LPs; 45s; 12”s; gatefold sleeves; limited edition poster-packs….The physical, the actual. Things.

At some point in the mid-late 1990s, however, whilst my obsessions with music and things were developing, there was the beginning of a change in the world around me. New records became increasingly hard to find on vinyl, or were never pressed on that format in the first place, and soon after came the explosion of internet connectivity and of MP3 culture that turned everything on its head. During this time I was still in love with music, but I never liked CDs, and I liked MP3s even less. This had nothing to do with audio quality, or notions of authenticity, which are common complaints and debates around these newer formats. No, the fact is that I just didn’t like or value them as ‘things’.

Despite years working in record shops during the height of the CD boom, I have less than 200 of them, and they are all in the loft. As for MP3s, I didn’t even bother stealing them when the rest of the world was busy filling their boots. My attitude didn’t change even when I started working for a digital distributor, in 2004, and the idea that MP3s were things worth owning pretty much came with the job. To this day great records with 50p price tags on CD format never tempt me, and my iTunes library remains almost empty. But I’m still in love with music.

…and then, from the mid-2000s onwards, with the advent of streaming, all-you-can-eat music services, and cloud-based libraries of song pumped directly to hand-held devices, ideas of ‘real’ and ‘ownership’ and ‘things’ started to erode, and are perhaps becoming redundant. I really, really like this development. I listen to more music, dig deeper into (digital) crates, disappear down more rabbit holes, and fall in love with more music, more frequently, and in more ways than I have ever done previously. It now transpires that I simply missed a couple of turns in the long-term format game. I sat out the CD round, missed the meeting on MP3s, and have now rejoined, fully refreshed and ready to press play, just at the point when there are no things anymore. In spite of myself, I think that I might come to like that very much indeed. Perhaps I might even come to love it.

For the first time since the scribal age and the invention of musical notation, today a musical work can be conceived, recorded, distributed and consumed without once leaving a physical, tangible trace. The entire process exists in memory, both as it relates to the physical storage of data, and to memory in the human sense. Both versions of memory are extremely fragile: human memory can fail for any number of reasons before death finally sticks the boot in. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on the longevity of computerised data. This raises questions about the future, and of the preservation of culture, and of what music means to us….and it’s probably why I’m so interested in popular music in the digital age.

It’s also why (along with the madness….the compulsive hoarding madness) that I can’t quite let go of ‘things’ just yet.

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One thought on “How I Might Be Learning To Love Nothing

  1. I’ve found a similar thing with Spotify. First phase of using it was ‘that new release sounds like it might be good, let’s give it a listen – then maybe buy it’, then finding myself listening to other peoples’ playlists more frequently, and now increasingly disappearing into rabbitholes of obscure stuff (unlikely I’d have heard much from the avant-garde end of the pedal steel repertoire from browsing record shops or iTunes). Sometimes there a sense that you’re finding things that – although available for all to hear on Spotify – you may be the only person to have actually listened to it in years.

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