Embracing the digital revolution
A long time ago I did a stint of work in an Exeter high street bookshop. One day, a customer approached the till and asked me about a book he was looking for and where he might find it. I said that if it was in stock it would be in the fiction department, which started over there and went alphabetically to the back of the shop. ďOh,Ē he said ďalphabetically by first name or surname?Ē

Ever since then Iíve wanted to run a bookshop where Charles Dickens is filed under C, Ted Hughes under T and so on. I think customers ≠ once they got used to the idea ≠ would find it a refreshing idea. Books would find new neighbours on the shelves, and browsing would once again become interesting and full of surprises.

Why do I mention that? Well, Iíve been uploading music to an ipod and realised that it files music alphabetically by first name. Itís intelligent enough to miss out Ďtheí in a bandís name, but thatís about all. So David Bowie turns up under D, Bob Dylan under B [thankfully Yes stay in Y]. Itís all very confusing, as indeed is the whole idea of possessing music without any contextualisation. Suddenly there is no lyric sheet, no cover image, nor indeed any information about who is playing what. The music gets to sit on its own, is all there is.

And of course, much of it becomes divorced from its album context. A lot of the CDs Iím selling are ones I realised Iíve only kept for one or two songs. Iíve never been a compilation man, indeed in the main I dislike them immensely, but now I find myself with best-of best-ofs ≠ 4 or 5 tracks from a 13 track best of CD; or one or two classic songs that were the reason I originally bought the CD; a digital jukebox plugged into the stereo.

I find it strange that we live in a period of time where it is easier than ever to make CDs and package them in interesting ways, without the pressure of selling millions of copies, yet we are also possibly seeing the end of music as packaged product in the way weíre used to. Two recent CDs have been brilliantly presented: Main Exosphereís Mort Aux Vaches comes with the CD paper-fastenered into a sleeve made from scrap manufacturing card with silkscreened tracklist details on; Rob Mazurekís Sweet and Vicious Like Frankenstein [a superb laptop album since you asked] comes in a cardboard mini-folder which opens like a book, the CD tucked inside. I have no idea how many copies of each were made, but theyíre obviously short-run and hand-assembled.

The same thing has happened in publishing. Itís cheaper than ever to print well-designed paperback books, but small publishers havenít the clout to buy into the major bookshops. Did you know you have to pay for window displays? Or to be in any of those Ďour favourite booksí brochures? Do you know the hussle involved to get a newspaper to review a small press book? Yet this, too, goes hand in hand with the whole culture of the web, where every Tom, Dick and Harriet runs a zine, keeps a blog, or at the least posts their adolescent poetry and photobooth snapshots.

But then weíve had the death of painting, of rock, of books, of fiction, of vinyl, cassette and now CD. All are in many ways alive and well, especially where it matters, which is away from the mainstream. People who have realised the freedom we now have to produce short runs of music and books, are busy doing just that; its only the majors who are getting het up about downloadable music. Elsewhere, bands sell their CDs to their fans, painters design their own websites and sell direct, and away from commerce there are more readers than ever for poetry and short stories. Itís only where major commerce and creativity mix that problems seem to arise.

Iím hoping that David Toopís new book, Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory, which just arrived from Serpentís Tail for review, will touch upon these changes and perhaps have something important to say. Itís an unsettling time to be alive, to be a consumer, to be around the arts; a time of change and transience, flux and imbalance. And itís ironic that a book dealing with the distribution, digitalisation and use of music, comes in traditional paperback format. But then how many people do you know whoíve ever bought a downloadable e-book, or can read for any length of time on screen?

So how am I dealing with reorganising my CD collection in the light of all this [not to mention a lack of shelf space, which is really what brought my clear-out about]? Well, there are favourites Iíve grown up with and will always love, and just as I still have a lot of vinyl from the 70s, Iím keeping these CDs. [Although Iím wondering about uploading them anyway, and perhaps keeping the CDs somewhere for back-up...] There are CDs that stand as art objects, which are too interesting as packages, and then there are those CDs I wonder about never seeing again if I let them go ≠ I mean these things are rare! And there are those I feel I ought to keep, the CDs that ought to be part of any music library [though of course, perhaps these are the ones that should be uploaded first, as theyíre common currency and easy to get hold of should ≠ heaven forbid! ≠ the computer system crash]. And, and, and.... choices, choices, choices; decisions, decisions, decisions. Or, as Sue says, I could get a life, and clear some space around the stereo and in my study.

One of the people who I sent my CD sales list to, sent me an email saying how sad it was when people sold their music. Heís right. One of my Ďthree wishesí should a good fairy ever appear, would be to get to see and reconsider keeping all the records, tapes and CDs Iíve ever turned out or sold. But itís not going to happen, so in the meantime Iím trying to be ruthless, although itís more like clinging on to some things, letting others go, and generally bumbling about, trying to embrace the digital revolution, much against my better instincts.

© 2004 Rupert Loydell

Anyone interested in seeing whatís for sale in the CD culling, can email me for a sales list. rupert@tangents.co.uk