I wrote this as the sleeve notes to a compilation I made for an old uni friend this afternoon, and thought I'd share it. Nothing new, but it was good to get it off my chest and I feel invigorated for doing so :-)
"Having known each other for the best part of the decade, you’ll no doubt have been familiar with my initial reluctance to embrace the digital era when it came to music. This was not only because I did not have a computer capable of exploiting it or because the platforms such as Napster were threatening the future of music as we understood it (although both were true). It has taken me a while to fully understand it, but I was trying to protect the experience of listening to an album as people have always done, and how I believe they should continue to do. In a roundabout kind of way, that philosophy will explain my current nostalgia for the past decade and this, my first foray into the world of sleeve notes to accompany my compilations.
Way back in the day, or 2000 as it was otherwise known, the album was still the primary medium by which an artist would release music, and that fact was highlighted quite early on by the release of Kid A by Radiohead, which the industry raved about as being ‘a complete album’, devoid of obvious (or released) singles and with promotional videos dedicated to the album. The focus of the body of work was on the whole experience, from the outstanding artwork to the running order of songs that, reportedly, nearly broke the band up. It was designed to be experienced from start to finish, in its entirety, without distraction.
In my opinion, that represented the high-water mark for the album as it has always been experienced. The advent of MP3s has resulted in the re-emergence of the single, with the music buying public increasingly downloading rather than going to a record shop, and opting to pick-and-choose individual tracks rather than experiencing the whole album (there are figures to back this up, but I’m buggered if I know where I read it). In short, as a record buying community, our attention spans are getting shorter and we are not allowing ourselves to be immersed in music as much as we did at the start of the decade. That is the first downside to the uprising of digital music.
The second, which is directly linked to the first, is the sheer volume of music out there now. In an age where a band can produce a record with a home computer and couple of microphones, advocates say that the popular music landscape has been ‘democratized’, finally wrestling power and influence back from the elite snobbery of the journalists. The unfortunate by-product of this has been that people have become impatient and are less willing to sit through an album four or five times before it clicks with them; if it does not engage within the first 30 seconds of the first track, move onto the next until you find something that works. Slow-burners are dying.
Finally, the absence of a physical product in the downloading age has resulted in the experience of owning an album being diluted. Historically, the album artwork was to many as important as the music itself in that they complimented each other. Holding the physical product, reading the sleeve notes, dedications, accreditation and lyrics all adding to the understanding of the record as a body of work, and the artwork would help to evoke the emotions and ideas that the musician was communicating. This is no longer the case.
So, to the reason for this diatribe; I have decided that it is no longer acceptable for me to make compilation CDs without putting in a reasonable amount of effort. I recently digitised my entire music collection as a result of being unable to move all the CDs to London with me. This was a leap that would have been a lot more painful had I not been downloading albums for the last three years, but it was no less sad. I recently realised that some of my favourite albums of recent times exist in my collection only in digital format. I have never seen the artwork for some of the albums in this compilation, and that makes me quite upset but as a mass-consumer of music with little free space, I fear I do not have many other options.
Nonetheless, I should practice what I preach, and so I have decided to accompany my usual meticulous and obsessive levels of effort in deciding a track listing for a compilation with sleeve notes and a cover of equal fervour. This commitment might be overestimating the importance of my own opinions and tastes, and it will likely be futile as I rarely make compilation CDs anymore. But regardless, I will try to make a CD I make as wonderful as it can be for the recipient, starting with this one."