Shopping 19 September 2015

Music is worthless.

Not that music has no value - artistic, emotional or other axes of measurement - but in our era of Spotify and YouTube, music is so ubiquitously and freely available that it has no monetary value. So Steve Albini says in a music conference talk from last year, and also Simon of The Indelicates, in a very interesting blog post.

Simon Indelicate argues that the commodity we pay a premium for is scarcity. In the past, he says, record companies artificially controlled the availability of music (in the sense of how many bands they would distribute), and charged accordingly. He's very articulate about the injustices and iniquities of the old business model that put so much money in the pockets of self-appointed gatekeepers - those old enemies of good music and creativity, the record companies. He thinks the internet has freed music makers to reach their audiences without having to get "approval".

I can see what he's getting at, but I think he's missing a point. So we've got much more music available now that record companies aren't "getting in the way". But you know what is scarce? My time. You know what is worth paying for? A filter. Maybe it's not "fair" that record companies decided who got to record and release their music, but I would argue that the best record companies removed the dross so I didn't have to listen to it. The music press (more unwanted taste dictators) served a similar purpose, but now it's in its death throes (The Word is long gone and the NME could well be on its last legs - being free, as David Hepworth says, is a bad sign) no-one's doing that job for me.

So what other approaches are there? If the internet is causing the problem, then the modern day solution is also the internet. I could find out what do my friends listen to on Spotify, or via Facebook. thisismyjam.com was a really cool take on the idea of crowd-sourcing music curation, although sadly it's now retired and archived itself. Various music services will attempt to recommend music to you based on your listening history, although I've always found them a bit hit and miss.

Although ... if it's going to be hit and miss, why not just make it completely random? Artificially reduce our field of choice and adopt an arbitrary selection policy. For example: two shops in Soho on a Saturday afternoon in September; two middle-aged music obsessives select twenty-six albums, one for each letter, based on nothing other than whim: an amusing band name, an arresting cover.

Yes, yes. This is the latest annual(ish) pilgrimage to the secondhand music emporia of Soho. Although the plural is only barely justified: there are two shops left on Berwick Street, and of those, Sister Ray has moved and reduced; Restless Records was already small. Still, a trip worth it for the obvious and welcome benefits of getting out of the house and having a good old chinwag over a few choice pints. And the fleeting chance that maybe, just maybe, we'll find ourselves blown away by something we never would have heard otherwise.

I got the letters N to Z and chose (mostly) based on no prior knowledge whatsoever. Here's what I bought, along with my initial impressions based solely on the names, cover art and my finely honed prejudices.

A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night by Harry Nilsson (1973)
Other than knowing that Nilsson was a good singer, I knew nothing about this album. It seemed as good a place to start as any.
Owl John by Owl John (2014)
"The new album from the voice of Frightened Rabbit", it says on the front, accompanied by a picture of a hipster. No, me neither. I presume it is some sort of Americana.
Cautionary Tales For The Brave (EP) by Pure Reason Revolution (2005)
Not sure what to make of this, but the title sounds a bit prog-rock.
Greatest Hits by Queensr├┐che (2000)
I assume some sort of German hard rock or metal, like Scorpions or Michael Schenker?
Getting Through by The Riptide Movement (2013)
The cover is fairly minimal, so little to go on. Probably nice enough indie/alternative.
Soul:Fi by Space Invadas (2010)
Teeth-grindingly unnecessary punctuation and spelling means this is almost certainly bad hip hop or whatever they call it these days.
Made Up Mind by Tedeschi Trucks Band (2013)
I already know that Derek Trucks is a superb slide guitarist, but not sure what to expect from his (and his wife's) band.
Ultravox! by Ultravox! (1977)
Before Ultravox were Ultravox, they were Ultravox! and John Foxx is known for being a little eccentric. 
Becoming A Jackal by Villagers (2010)
More indie. Or is it alt.country? Hard to tell.
The Original Rumble by Link Wray ()
Legendary guitarist famous for one song basically. I fully expect to find a) many copies of said hit, and b) rubbish alternative tracks.
Testament by The Wake (2000)
Nope. I'm getting nothing. It's a "best of" so presumably they've been around a while?
Angel Guts: Red Classroom by Xiu Xiu (2014)
Very little to go on with the cover, two vaguely sword shapes, crossed. Rap maybe?
Colossal Youth by Young Marble Giants (1980)
Young Marble Giants were cult back in the early 80s and so their album is ripe for rediscovery by hipsters, I would have said. The card on the shelf in Sister Ray said something about "lost classic" which, of course, means nothing.
Versions by Zola Jesus (2013)
Something a bit like Lorde or similar?

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