I know this dates me, but back in the day… Yes, back in the day, when I would buy new records – vinyl records, and later cassette tapes – a new record was a special occasion. I never had enough disposable income when I was in my teens or twenties to buy all the records I wanted. So when I did go to a record store – with the exception of trawling the used and cut-out bins in the stores in Greenwich Village where you could get a record for a buck – it was important to choose carefully what new albums I bought.
In some cases, the choice would be easy: new records from my favorite bands, records that I had been waiting for, some of which I had already heard at friends’ houses, or on the radio. But for others, I had to weigh the pros and cons. I might not have heard the records I was buying, but was led to them by their personnel, or by reviews. Often in the early 80s, I would buy singles by punk and new-wave bands, and then go on to buy albums. But those singles weren’t that cheap, because many of them were imports.
I read the British music press, and spotted the bands that sounded most interesting, then went in search of their hits. If I liked a hit, I’d buy an album. This is how I discovered bands like The Clash, The Cure, The Durutti Column, Joy Division, and so many more.
Every purchase added a new slice of music to a collection that was small enough that I intimately knew every record I owned; I had played each one a dozen times or more. It could take a while to appreciate some records: an artist who has changed direction, for example, or a new artist in a genre or sub-genre that I was just discovering.
One example I like to cite is Brian Eno’s Nerve Net. This 1992 recording was a departure from the Eno that I knew. I was of course familiar with Music for Airports and Discreet Music; or his four song albums of the 1970s, Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, and Before and After Science. But Nerve Net was a kick in the teeth, a raucous, electronic album, which seemed to have nothing to do with Eno’s previous music. I had found it in a used record store in Tours, France, where I lived in the 1990s, played it once, then shelved it.
Over the years, I would buy every other Brian Eno album, such as his long ambient works like Thursday Afternoon, his collaborations with other musicians, such as Spinner (with Jah Wobble), and Wrong Way Up (with John Cale), but I just didn’t get Nerve Net.
I don’t know when I finally did get that record, but it is now one of my favorites. I appreciated it even more when it was reissued in 2014, along with My Squelchy Life, a record made around the same time that had never been released.
If I had heard that album at the time on a streaming service, I might not have given it another listen. But having the CD meant that every year or so I’d put it in my CD player and try again, until it finally made sense.
With streaming services, we have a smorgasbord of music which allows us to taste a bit here, taste a bit there, but never commit to taking the time to try to appreciate music that doesn’t immediately grab us. I’m as guilty of this as other people. I find that, even if I do discover a new album that I like, and I spin it a few times – I often play a new record that touches me three or four times in a row – I may simply forget it a week later. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but I just have so much music, so much that I’ve lived with for a long time, so much music that is reflexive, that just comes to mind when I want to listen to a certain type of music.
(As I write this article, I’m listening to some live recordings by Bill Evans that I discovered around the same time as Nerve Net. This is music that I’ve lived with for more than 25 years, that I turn to at times when I want to feel the mood of late Bill Evans.)
This is a big problem for artists. While the “old” artists – those who made it big pre-streaming – will continue performing reunion tours, and re-re-releasing albums to a legion of fans who want something familiar, new artists will find it hard to reach the same level of critical mass. A few decades ago, you could pretty much keep up to date with every release on all the major labels, and many independents, in your preferred genre. Now, try to scratch the surface of new releases in any genre – and with more genres, and more genre-fluid listeners, the scope is so much broader – and you’ll be submerged.
It’s great that music is so much easier to make, record, and distributed. It’s great that music is easier to hear. But for people who really love music – beyond just listening to the hits – it is frustrating. There is too much music, and we have too little time.
As the new year approaches, perhaps some of us should make a resolution to spend more time with less music; to listen deeply rather than broadly. To discover and internalize new music that will stay with us for longer than the weekly new music playlist that shows up on the streaming services.