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Single and Loving It

By ; February 19, 2010 at 12:49 AM 

Unlike my fellow writer Brent Koepp, I never really saw the CD burner as the reason behind the decline of the music industry. Sure I have memories of albums burned for me sitting in my mind. In fact I recall my brother giving me a copy of Gorrilaz’ self-titled debut album for Christmas. He had a friend who was able to find the album on the Internet and burn it to a disc for me. But the value of the album as whole, with its artwork and in a jewel CD case, was never lost. My brother was kind enough to find the artwork for both the front and back of the album and print them off and slide them in. Sure, it wasn’t the real thing (and “Clint Eastwood” unfortunately skipped), but he made a great effort in trying to make it more than just another disc to get lost in a pile of CDs.

And that materialist thinking rubbed off on me. I recall a year or so later burning a friend Franz Ferdinand’s first album. But because I didn’t want it to be the just a disc in a sleeve, I once again found the artwork, printed it off and put it in a jewel case. My friend thus could slide it in between her other CDs and have it visible instead of finding scratched at the bottom of a rucksack months after getting all the listens she wanted out of it. Even now if I make a mix CD for someone, I’ll go all the way – creating zany artwork, an obscenely long title for the compilation and even decorating the CD itself. I still value the material side of music and I try to rub it off on others. I want them to engage with the music not just by listening, but by holding and looking (smelling too I suppose if that’s your thing).

I won’t pretend to know the cause or causes of the demise of the music industry in the past decade. I could argue for any choice really because everything is to blame in some way and Brent made a fine case for the CD burner being a primary cause. Instead, let me recount to you how I saw the decline over the years.

It began in 2001 when I took my first trip into town to HMV to buy the “Clint Eastwood” single. I fell for the song, and even though my brothers mocked me for it, I didn’t care. I was unabashed in my likeness for it, drawn in by the repetitive beat and monotonous chorus. Skip forward three years and you’re at my next memory of the next single I went to buy (there may well have been others between these but I can’t vividly recall them). This memory is more clear to me. It was “The Love Of Richard Nixon” by Manic Street Preachers. The Christmas month was fast approaching and there was a festive mood in the air. Deals were thrown in your face when you entered HMV but I wandered past them, taking the elevator downstairs to where they kept the singles. I was young and feared wandering to places I didn’t know. All I knew was that I wanted to buy the single. Nothing else.

There were hundreds of CDs. Hundreds of singles. And there was vinyl too, but I wasn’t aware of what that was at this point. The choice was so great it took time to actually find the artists you wanted through the alphabetized system. I came across three CD versions of the single, all of which had a band member sporting a prosthetic Nixon mask. I was confused. I didn’t know there were multiple versions. “Is one an album?” “Does one of them not have the song I want on it?” “Should I buy all three? I can get them all for £5.” If it was my current self looking to buy them, I would have gone for all three, but I settled on just one, leaving the store like I’d missed something. What was all this? I just wanted to buy a song and I’m given a confusing choice.

As the months went on I caught on to what this was all about. Enhanced CD singles, b-sides and all formats for £3/£5 deals. Going to buy a single wasn’t a simple act anymore. Instead it was an exciting prospect, wondering what form the song I liked would take. I feverishly scuttled down to HMV during my free classes during high school.

As time goes by I get sucked into the world of singles, watching the NME chart show in hope of coming across something mindblowing and then having a material representation of my love for the song. I became attached to bands and made huge efforts to buy everything they released, in every format. The first of these bands was Kaiser Chiefs. Their childish enthusiasm was addictive to me (and still is – they are a pleasingly consistent and enjoyable band) and it was with them I found myself knowing every single before I had bought the album. I’d play the singles over and over and eventually know the b-sides as well at the leading track. “Modern Way” was the first vinyl I ever bought and I didn’t even know how to play it or what to play it on or anything. I just had to have it, to complete the collection.

This surge in single materialism coincided with my first year at university. I had a whole afternoon free on Mondays and would use this time to ritualistically go to HMV, Virgin and my local record store, Avalanche, every week to look through the latest singles. As time went by my classes changed and I no longer had the Monday afternoon free, but I still found time to take a trip to these shops when I could, and every week if possible.

But the trip to HMV and Virgin, which were the furthest away, became pointless as months progressed. A whole floor dedicated to singles and vinyl was whittled down over time. First to half the floor. Then to one full aisle. Then to two modules, small enough to flick through in a matter of minutes to realise there’s nothing at all exciting and new since your last visit. Now I admittedly very seldom buy singles because there’s nowhere for them in the shops and thus nowhere to buy them directly from. The market has seemingly completely vanished. If I wanted a single on CD, I might get lucky if it’s put on the tiny display at the back of the shop in HMV.

I’m not saying the market for singles has gone. The radio still lives (albeit not as significant as it once was) and thus the catchy song still has a market. But if someone hears this song and likes it and wants to buy it there and then, they’ll head over to itunes and download it with a few clicks. The material market still lives, but the single aspect of it has died it seems. The last time I saw a single was the Joe McElderry one at Christmas, which I obviously had no interest in whatsoever.

And this decline is surprisingly depressing to look back over. I really do miss the days when I could get excited about singles and going to buy a new 7” record for the weird b-side. Now the focus is seemingly left on the album, which isn’t necessarily bad. It allows all the songs to be taken in proper context. But you’ll still have people who fish out the song they heard on an advert or at work that day. And this is the hurting factor to me. These are people who love the Now compilations because they are an accumulation of a new kind of one-hit wonders. They might be bands they know already but they are just concerned about that one song they released. When a band released a single, they’d make new contexts for it by giving it its own artwork or throwing in some new songs – making mini-albums, if you will.

But this world is pretty much gone now and I’d be (pleasantly) surprised if it ever got some sort of revival like the vinyl market has had. I fear that the society where a catchy hook or an overbearing and sickeningly hollow sentiment is prevalent will take over. And as a consequence the album format will die completely. It’s a sad prediction that I can only hope is overly presumptuous and false. But at least if I am right I’ll be inclined to go out and buy a whole lot more as I’ll want something to remember the decade by.

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