The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Black Sky Thinking

Stockpiled Sounds & The Consumption Of Music In Covid-19 Isolation
Noel Gardner , March 31st, 2020 08:49

With many stuck at home in Covid-19 lockdown, Noel Gardner reflects on the ethics of our music consumption habits - even now, are you really going to listen to all that vinyl?

As the old saying goes, my desires… are unconventional. Specifically, I've long dreamed of a scenario which involves some sort of ailment confining me to the house for a lengthy period, without impacting my quality of life in any serious way. This time would be spent in the company of the large reserves of creative media which I either (a) already own, and wilfully neglect, or (b) have been meaning to 'get into' for anywhere between weeks and decades.

And suddenly, it appears that this sick fantasy (as it were) is coming true. Not for all of us, of course – big hand for the essential workers, whose essential work includes underlining just how bullshit most other people's bullshit jobs are – but a lot of us. Moreover, governmentally enforced self-isolation is not everyone's idea of a frivolous situation, although you wouldn't know it to read most entertainment journalism in recent days, where it's primarily been framed as an opportunity to bingewatch TV box sets, catch up on critically fêted podcasts and livestream Chris Martin acoustic gigs. Which is, in fairness, an understandable response, or at least a relatable one. As much as there's a school of thought that swathes of the British population hanker after the rigour of a world war (people from other countries can sub in their own jingoistic twerps' versions), I daresay these people are dwarfed in number by those who just want to wallow, perhaps perpetually, in peaceful inertia.

How fortunate, then, that most relevant technological steps in the last decade have been primed to grant that wish. Focusing mainly on music here, because it's the artform into which I've chosen to sink most of my time and money, the ethics of streaming have leaned increasingly, and apparently unstoppably, in favour of the consumer's convenience and budget. Literally millions of releases, unfathomable caverns of recorded sound, accessible within seconds of a whim striking oneself! And, in return, paycheques of equally literal pennies for those sounds' creators, who of course can simply rejig their business model and make their income from touring. Oh wait.

All of which both complements and undermines the hoarders among us: people who buy (or illegally download – some people just have to own those low-bitrate MP3s) more music than they can ever hope to listen to properly. As with the book collectors' equivalent, bibliomania, it's the sort of habit that can amount to anything from a whimsical indulgence to a ruinous clinical obsession. At the very least, the music hoarder is probably snookering themselves while doing the artist a disservice into the bargain; making the acquaintance of wonderful art before proceeding to just kind of… ignore it. This is how the writer of this piece has operated for a long time, certainly since people generously started to send him free releases and then ask what he thought of them, and it chews him up inside.

The Quietus' John Doran has previously written, with crystal logic, about why the listener's fear of missing out is self-defeating: “There are only a certain amount of records I will ever be able to listen to, so I operate strictly on a one in one out basis.” Suspect he'll appreciate, though, that the gap between accepting the rationality of this and putting it into action can amount to a chasm. It may indeed be the case that viewing a global pandemic as an opportunity to declutter one's listening pile is indicative of bad priorities in one's life, although I have seen people inviting us to consider these sorts of things 'coping mechanisms', so that's okay.

If nothing else, it feels vital to accept that there is no objectively correct way to consume music. People who laser-focus their tastes on a single genre, or even a single band, are myopic oddballs; people who cast their listening net as wide as possible, skimming what critical consensus deems the best few releases from a thousand different stylistic pockets, are shallow dilettantes. Most people fall somewhere between those two extremes, but never correctly so. Second-hand records give nothing back to the artists (and, to further acknowledge this peculiar moment, are incubators of strangers' germs); reissues are frequently expensive and pointless. Physical media is environmentally indefensible; streaming is, by some estimates, even worse, and counter to the notion that a release's visual aesthetic is of any significance. So it goes.

There is, I appreciate, a danger that this line of thinking can be deployed as a way of shirking any personal responsibility about how you interact with the music you love. Rather, in the same way that “no ethical consumption under capitalism!” is unlikely to win over a bouncer ejecting you for doing drugs in the toilet, now seems as good a time as any to ponder harsh realities on this particular topic. Predicting exactly how bad the forthcoming global recession will be is likely beyond Earth's most brilliant economic minds, let alone some halfwit who struggles with online banking writing for a music website, but it feels distinctly plausible that matters of consumer choice we take for granted will become niche or extinct.

Independent record shops, already subject to a punishing trading environment, are now staring down the barrel of months without footfall: like innumerable other British businesses, if the period of mandated hibernation doesn't get them, the coming dearth of disposable income may well. A recent, frequent complaint by smaller record labels about vinyl pressing plants – that an order can now take months, due to the majors block-booking production of unnecessary Record Store Day flotsam – might be superseded by there being no such services for anyone.

Reliance on crowdfunding, already an imperfect – often useful, sometimes even touching – response to a wretched system, has rocketed up during the second half of March, thus moving closer to being entirely normalised. The Quietus boosted Bandcamp's gesture of waiving its regular cut of artists' payments for 24 hours, which had enough uptake to repeatedly crash the platform's website during that period (that's, er, good. I think), but even though millions of dollars were raised, it's hard to imagine that amounting to much more than a sticking plaster for the coming axe wound.

In that respect, this is a microcosm of how the coronavirus crisis has seen people make haste to mobilise and offer mutual aid at a local/community level, performing functions that a better and more just society – perhaps one whose press and broadcast media didn't punch leftwards at every opportunity – would surely have provisions for. The actions are laudable in themselves, but often end up portrayed in a way that bypasses the rightful anger as to how we got here. To that end, may your coming weeks or months of social distancing be in a physical sense only; if you're compelled to build an igloo from your listening pile, temper your retreat from life by allowing yourself never to forget the cruel ineptitude of this government.