Monday, December 15, 2008

Trust Me, This is not a Year In Review

This is the first year, ever since I started faithfully following music when I was a little kid, that I didn't buy anything new.

A predictable trend developed over the last few years, as my rate of spending sharply decreased (initially due to a fairly precipitous slide in disposable income) and the availability of free music (via filesharing) sharply increased. But still, there's a world of difference between a trend and hitting the absolute bottom.

Maybe I didn't make myself perfectly clear -- this year, I bought LITERALLY ZERO music released in 2008.

This is nothing to be proud of -- I'm not bragging, just simply stating a fact. But how could this happen? It was a confluence of factors, to be sure: increased apathy for modern chart pop, no trips to a Toronto/Berlin/NYC -type music hub where I would be bound to stock up on music over the course of some inspired shopping sprees, quality mp3 blogs posting excellent music, slsk, and not having cable (and access to music video channels) for half of the year.

But my music spending habits couldn't be healthier. I buy plenty of CDs, just not the ones released in 2008. My bookshelves are stocked with incoming jewel cases and I'm running out of room for the books. This trend is in itself nothing new for me. The most recent year in which I bought mostly new or recent releases by contemporary artists or labels was probably 2002. By some point in 2004, I was not only buying mostly "older" CDs and records, but was putting a majority of my shopping energies toward browsing through older music, to the detriment of keeping up with the new releases hitting the shops. Splitting time between New and Old isn't a zero-sum process, but there definitely is an inverse relationship at play, particularly when it comes to purchases.

Now, flipping through the bargain bins is more or less all I do. This might be considered a more noble habit if I lived in San Francisco or Berlin, but rest assured that I do have a fair number of options -- more than I expected when I moved. Relocating to a real city does wonders for enabling these types of shopping habits. So it means that I'm well settled into my new role as a musical archeologist. I trawl around cities and dig up hidden gems at undervalued prices. It's more than just a labour of love, it's a honed skill that requires a combination of patience and being able to draw on years of experience to recognize and remember stuff that most people have long since forgotten or stopped caring about (perhaps with good reason). I've spent half a lifetime learning this trade, picking up the experience necessary for sifting through thousands of uninteresting rocks in order to find two or three that are of value. I have regular locations where I conduct my "digs". I display my wares in my home, my precious talismans brought back from the field, where I can excitedly tell people things like "here's that legendary Rockets Red Glare album, and it has to be at least ... 2500 years old!"

I have the impression that critical consensus is at an all-time low, and it's not something specific to this year's crop of new releases. Critics are more geographically separated and are exposed to a greater volume of music than ever before. Years of discourse is archived (blogs, old reviews, discussion boards) and easily accessible. There has been an explosion of such internet content over the past five or six years, and perhaps we've reached the tipping point where associations with archived criticism are retained more strongly than those that are forged with newer criticism. Maybe the signal to noise ratio for quality criticism has become too low, ergo less meaningful interaction, ergo less consensus, or maybe we're all just bored of each other for different reasons. Of course a reduction of consensus simply means there are fewer "must have" new albums to galvanize people, and while the overall demand for hearing music isn't reduced, that demand becomes spread into thinner and more distinct strands. Curiosities get stirred up, people are more inclined to revisit the seemingly infinite wealth of older music (and to reflect on it with the perspective of x # of years of easily accessible criticism) instead of the more limited supply of music that's been produced this year.

For writing, I have to admit that this year was a bit of a disaster. There have been some long stretches during which I can't seem to write anything I deem interesting or usable, punctuated by spurts where I actually managed to get something done. I am sitting on a disappointing amount of unfinished writing, stuff that was started and then left behind either because I lost the will to complete it, or, increasingly often, spent so much time tweaking it that was never satisfied with it and couldn't find it in me to converge toward a finished product. I hope that some of this unfinished writing can see the light of day in 2009. These frustrating bouts of over-editing and perfectionism have been plaguing all of my writing (also in my actual work) since 2005 or so, and I think I know the reason but am not sure how best to handle it. One solution might be to get back to writing shorter, spur-of-the-moment pieces, as opposed to longer pieces where one feels more of a need to make a "statement".

The holiday listmaking season is upon, and of course I'm all over that like a moth to a flame. The top tens are nearly ready. Please wait.

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