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MATERIAL ENGAGEMENTS/ 2009

This short text and instruction set was given as part of Material Engagements: Practising Research at the British Library Sound Archive, organised by Roehampton University and The British Library.

SOME THOUGHTS ON RECORD SHOPS

Access to recorded sound in the form of music is becoming dematerialised. The recent closure of Reckless Records on Berwick Street is just the latest lamentable example of how access to downloaded material and rock bottom prices in non-specialised chain stores such as Tesco’s has made the pleasures of flicking through dusty crates of vinyl a thing of the past. As an ardent record collector, I have a certain ambivalence about this. My relatively late acquisition of an MP3 player has profoundly altered the way I listen to music. For the first time in years, I felt genuine wonder at a technology that would allow me to access 3000 songs from my collection at any given point in time. Only two years ago, I was using a portable CD player – one album of music at any given point in time, with care having to be taken not to walk too fast in case the anti-jog facility couldn’t keep up. So, I’m not being a Luddite about this, as the advantages of listening to music in the digital context are clear. And as the attached cartoon demonstrates, the impulse to collect for its own sake has its downsides. Hours of absent minded searching through endless copies of Paul Young and INXS albums in the hope of finding that rarity you’ve been trying to track down for years could rightly be seen as wasted time. But I do miss that inability to find something immediately – the feeling that when you finally happen upon that one thing you’ve been looking for, you’ve somehow earned it. Then there was the risk element – buying something for no other reason than you liked the cover art, or the name of the band – my discovery of the Butthole Surfers is a good case in point. The try before you buy system at Virgin Megastores has removed the fun of the random purchase, the serendipitous discovery. Now you can scan any CD barcode, and listen to small sections of pretty much anything in the store – however, I am frequently stumbling across things that haven’t been added to their listening database. Usually the more esoteric stuff, I’ve a feeling that this is an indication of where priorities lie in terms of unit shifting. The reference library based archive only allows you to experience the sound and not the object (the disc, the cover). My interest has always been in the material object, the vessel that carries the sound, sometimes more than the sound itself. The record shops in which I have spent so many hours are gradually disappearing, so I felt the following may be an interesting process in gathering aural nuggets from another kind of archive.

My suggestion is to ask participants to consider experiencing the form of searching I have outlined above – a searching sometimes defined, sometimes arbitrary. Although these suggestions are in the context of visiting second hand record shops, some of these ways of approaching the listening experience could be still applied in the context of the British Library archive:

Putting together a collection:

  • Buy/listen to a recording you haven’t listened to since you were a child or a teenager.
  • Buy/listen to a recording you just like the cover of.
  • Buy/listen to the recording with a title you like the sound of.
  • Buy/listen to a recording that you think would look good placed next to another one in your collection.
  • Buy/listen to a recording that you wish you had written and recorded yourself.
  • Buy as many records as you can for £3.

Just to reiterate, buying is not essential – just the activity of listening could generate other material:

  • Listen to a recording and subsequently record a cover version of your own (you could use a voice recorder or mobile phone for this).
  • Listen to recordings and carefully describe/annotate everything about them such as voices, sounds and instrumentation.
  • Make ambient recordings of sounds/noises in record shops (you could use a voice recorder or mobile phone for this).
  • Take covert photographic images of album covers – the more obscure the better (bargain bins are often good for this).

These are just a few suggestions based around the idea of record shop browsing. A conclusion to this process could be a compilation CD of these random finds. A compilation of music given from one person to another is usually presented as an expression of taste – this process could subvert this approach by presenting a series of recordings discovered by chance. If you have audio software on your laptop, perhaps you could take the recording you have found/made and manipulate it in any way you see fit. Also, think about what could be done with the actual materials - the card of the sleeve, the vinyl itself. Could this be made into something else? Although I am understand the mystique surrounding vinyl manifestations of recordings, the much maligned compact disc is also in some respects a dying object. If you are willing to buy something, CD’s maybe easier for subsequent compiling of the music/sounds. Considering cassettes to, if you can find them. Think broadly about the categories, and if you are a record shopper, look in sections you usually avoid or ignore – spoken word, comedy, country and western.