The sounds of the library: music without modems

We're all streamers and online dabblers now, aren't we? Listing to overrated Beyoncé on Spotify, checking out some (equally overrated) Kate Bush on YouTube.

Hmm, bit tired of those, click across to Bandcamp or Soundcloud or and give those a go. Nah. Boring. Try another link. Click. Enter. Return. Close that page, try this one. Ahh, the joys of digital ... it's never-bloody-ending. Truly, deliciously, inexhaustible. Have you ever tried one of those big YouTube playlists? They go on for EVER.

OK, let's ... take a moment. I've got nothing against all this. I gather some people are sniffy about the extreme randomisation of music consumption enabled (encouraged?) by the internet, but I'm perfectly happy with it. Chance connections, accidental musical discoveries through mis-typed searches - they're all part of the fun. Seemingly endless music only a quick search away - bring it on. But at the same time I think there's a place for something clunky, limited, and altogether more unfashionably solid. I’m talking about ... well, I’m talking about CDs borrowed from the local library. Yep - remember those. Libraries! So that's what this blog is about: how I got back into borrowing music from my local library.

Back in the day (let's call it the pre-YouTube era), I was quite the library user. In what would have been about 1984 it seemed mildly amazing to me, a bookish, music-orientated 20-year-old, that I could actually walk out of my local library with several newish LPs under my arm. Books and records all in the same building! For free. Or at least, with the records, for a smallish charge.

Anyway, from those goth (and other post-punk-type) records I began to borrow in those days, through the Texas prison song collections (and masses of other things) I got out on cassette a few years later, I developed a life-long habit of augmenting my music listening with regular doses of stuff off the library shelves. For years and years. Different cities, different libraries. Until, one fateful day some time in 2010, I stopped. No more loans. No more cracked-jewel-case-with-ripped-inlay-card-"one-disc-missing" CDs for me. I'd hung up my library card for good.

Wanna know why? Of course you do! Well, banally enough I got all upset about an overdue items fine of about £15. A blatant injustice! Or so I thought at the time. And so Hackney Central Library lost one of its most loyal CD borrowers for good. Serve 'em right ... except of course I was probably wrong all along (maybe I had forgotten to bring that stack of CDs back for about six weeks).

Anyway, to bring this fascinating reminiscence to an end: I got back on board with the library only recently. The "historic" £15 fine (still there on the system!) was paid off and I was back among the greasy CD shelves, rifling through the reggae, browsing the "Experimental". These days most of the CDs are even free to loan. C'mon - that's surely good!

My point here (if I even have one) is that the local library as a comparatively large music resource is surely completely under-appreciated in the Zuckerberg/Pichai/Wojcicki-dominated age. Digital capitalism's ad revenue juggernaut versus the pathetic, terminally unfashionable wobbly-bike-riding library habitué. Jeez! Why even compare the two? Yet the half-dozen CDs I'm currently borrowing every three weeks from my local authority-funded library are providing a quite substantial extra source of music. It's my own musical torrent. Ethiopian stuff, Nigerian music, some pre-unification East German underground music. These particular recordings are possibly already available somewhere online and they're possibly free of charge as well, but quite possibly not, and anyway I've now got my hands on them and am playing them on my hi-fi at home, so that's ... good enough.

A mean mistreater of on-loan items

The moral of this story isn't that tiresome new-old idea about how solid, tangible artefacts like vinyl are "more satisfying" than downloads. I don't think they are. It’s the much more mundane - but not often-mentioned - fact that public libraries are er, quite big and therefore tend to have a lot of stock. Which means a lot of music to go through ...

In other words, a well-stocked library is truly a thing of beauty. And that goes double for a well-stocked music library.

I only got back into the library-haunting habit because I was at a loose end one hot afternoon last autumn and dropped into my local one for something to do. For about six years I'd foolishly thought I could fill the library music gap with downloads from the weird and wonderful world of the internet. How wrong I was. But now I've mended my ways. I've had my ticket stamped and I've currently got no overdue items. I'm back in the fold. See you in three weeks ...


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