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coverpic flag Mare Smythii - Full Moon 97 - 08/30/04

The record collector is dead

Back in the day I had a stack of CDs that could fit into a suitcase, a supply of C90s, and an irrepressible desire to make compilations for anyone I met with a vague interest in music. Each track on each CD was precious, and I would handle those jewel cases as if they were cut glass. As I pieced together a compilation for a friend I would listen through each song and make sure all the transitions between tracks were smooth and held meaning for me, whether it was an association between the artists, an atmosphere that songs shared, or a juxtaposition that appealed to my sense of humour. I must have spent hours making those lovely little gifts, finishing them carefully with a neatly written tracklist, a sleeve made from weekend colour supplements, and a title like Treadmill Escapees, or The Strange Flower That Grows In The Corner Of The Garden.

I realised the other day how much things have changed when I agreed to burn a CD of Animal Collective tracks for my friend Mark. For a start, burning a CD just doesn't have the same handmade feel as a cassette. And most importantly of all, once I had selected the tracks I wanted to include, I could juggle the order of the tracklist with a click of a mouse. Convenient, yes, but there's no craft to it anymore. By the time I had put together the compilation I was so disgruntled I didn't have the heart to listen back to my 'creation' to see if it cohered.

Similarly, when I came to sorting through my music collection - now filling several boxes, jewel cases cracked and slip cases dog-eared - I didn't have any great sense of warmth and care towards it that I once had. Over the past few weeks I have cut my CD collection by two-thirds, selling off the surplus and putting many albums onto my iMac to burn as MP3s.

And then it dawned on me: it's the advent of this new technology that has dampened the fervour of the music collector. As I sold my cherished CDs at a car boot sale, mostly to blokes who would sell them on eBay for a modest profit, I realised that it's too darned easy to get hold of music, and hence the value of each album and each song is diminished.

Don't get me wrong - I think it's great that you can research a particular artist on the internet, and listen to a few MP3s to decide if you like their music. But rather than go out and buy the album, gaze longingly at the artwork, read the liner notes, slip the silver disc into the tray, lie back and press play, we sit in front of a screen, move music around like data and download precious songs as 'files' and 'waves'.

All this takes me back to a conversation I had with another friend - Owain - who sung the praises of MP3s, smugly telling me how many thousands of songs he had on his computer, all free and ready to play at the click of a mouse. But who honestly wants to sit and listen to music in front of a computer? At the time I argued fervently against all this, desperately hanging on to my music-collector's routine of waiting for a release date, popping to the local record store, buying the album with rabid expectation, and then listening to it at home, lying back on my bed and staring at the ceiling, letting the music wash over me.

Who on earth has time to listen to all this music anyway? I'm hoping that with my whittled-down collection, a stack of MP3s that I know I like and a pair of ears that won't just listen to something because it's free, I can continue to fuel my passion for something that goes far beyond money, technology, and ownership.

Copyright © 2004 Tim Clarke e-mail address

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