Joe Sparrow : Embrace nostalgia carefully to build the community you love (and thought you’d lost)

If the past is a foreign country, as L. P. Hartley said, then the nitty-gritty of what happened – the conversations, the opinions, the mindless trivia – live in a dusty cabinet in the furthest corner of a foreign museum. This is the stuff that’s ignored, lost and forgotten by most, but the devoted will work their way down the corridors to peer through the glass just one more time. 

This is nostalgia.

Nostalgia is revitalising. Or nostalgia is dangerous. Nostalgia is like drinking: a little at the right time can lift the spirits and reconnect your ego with your values, your past joys and triumphs. Too much, too often, is deadly to your vitality, muffling your connection with now, and stifling happiness. That is also nostalgia.

When we look backwards, it’s only natural that we see the landmark events, and skip from one to another to design the simplest story which lets us understand how things happened back then. Life’s too big to stop and sift through all the ins and outs of every conversation that happened.

Or is it? 

To extend the tortured museum metaphor, we’re all highly-knowledgable expert curators of a very, very specific niche in the Museum of Everything. Your niche can be whatever you like: the various haircuts sported by J-Hope from BTS,  the Automeris subfamily of moths, late Victorian-era Canadian Anglican bishops, the early records by Swedish recording artist Robyn, whatever. 

In these areas, we find the chit-chat, the debate, the details, the minutiae, innately fascinating. This is also nostalgia.

True nostalgia is a prism to view a very personal past that reveals the path to our very personal future.

Revelling in the minutiae of your niche, done right, is the good kind of nostalgia. And reader, I indulged. 

Feeling slowed down to a crawl by the lumbering weight of an extended period of hard work, I self-prescribed a strategic slice of nostalgia, and bought, for €2.90, the July 1st, 1995 issue of Melody Maker, the deceased UK music weekly newspaper. It came in the post, two days later, in a plastic wrapper. It had never been read. It still smelled, faintly, of new ink.

A reminder: good nostalgia is *niche*. I don’t need to justify this purchase. 

The Melody Maker doesn’t mean much to most people any more. A weekly music newspaper that always lingered in the shadow of its more famous rival the NME, the Melody Maker’s wiki page is now a whistle-stop summation of a 75-year publication. 

But, every Thursday between the years of about 1995 and 1999, I would walk to school or college a slightly different route, in order to pass a particular newsagent who received their delivery of ‘Makers in the morning, and I’d lift an inky copy off the pile, plop 75p down on the counter, and head to school, reading the first few pages on the way.

(See – that’s a nostalgic passage right there. No mention of the rain that accompanied the walk, no mention of the dreaded rugby game that awaited on Thursday mornings, no teenage angst, nothing. Nostalgia is an escape drug, remember.)

A quick eulogy follows for the Melody Maker.

I guess I chose to read the Melody Maker partly because it wasn’t the NME, and partly because it was a grab-bag of contradictions. It openly criticised the bands that I loved (the scathing review of Oasis’s “What’s The Story…,” ended with the words, “they sound knackered,” and I went out and bought it anyway), yet it still had all the interviews and photos of these same bands that I hankered after, because the paper knew which side their bread was buttered. 

Writers like Simon Price, Neil Kulkarni, Everett True et al were outspoken, and disagreed with each other in amusingly colourful language. The articles took every opportunity to divert me from the drudge of the new Meanswe@r single to the visceral thrills of then-emerging music like jungle, “speed garage” and US hip-hop. (The best-reviewed album on 1st July 1995 was Mobb Deep’s brilliant “The Infamous”, an LP that had, until yesterday, escaped my ears for 23 years.)

In short, Melody Maker immediately shaped my teenage years, how I viewed the thing I loved most – music – and, because of that, the rest of my life. 

Now, in an age when I receive music news and reviews from a million different drab sources, weekly music newspapers are an antiquity. In 1995, it was one of a small handful of sources for music news: two weekly newspapers, a few monthly mags, and a scattering of trusted radio shows.

Re-reading Melody Maker now reveals the pros and cons of this one-stop shop. 

On one hand, everything is in one place, curated by thoughtful experts with strong opinions, and with a remit to keep exploring for me, the reader. It’s funny, informed, and feels true.

On the other hand, where are the unfiltered voices that we now hear loudest of all via social media – those of of the artists and the listeners? Where is the unfettered opportunity for each and every DIY artist to promote themselves on an equal footing without becoming part of the machine? 

You can choose which of the above is the “pro” and which is the “con”.

The other thing I learnt by re-reading MM through adult eyes is that it was written with the various communities it served in mind. 

It was written not to merely scratch the itch of the new, but to nurture the lives of groups of people, to stretch them, to change them – because that’s how communities work. They revel in a central passion, and mutate and grow. The MM made readers part of one or more of the gangs represented in its pages.

Today, extreme capitalism has won: we’re all atomised from each other, and everything we say or do is expected to be as a lone individual. Caveat Emptor. Doing things for a community – any community – is not de rigeuer. Communities are about togetherness – and fear is more easily monetisable. Social media influencers shilling slim-tummy teas and appetite-suppressant lollipops are not about togetherness.

Yet nostalgia is, above all, a warm feeling of connection to a clique of people who think and feel like us, and allow us to rail against the normies with our mutual fascination of something that’s ours. Nostalgia allows this: it’s safe, it’s already happened, the contemporary details can be parsed and defined. In the right doses, it’s guaranteed pleasure.

And this is where the details become important. My Melody Maker contained gossip, photos, chatter, bickering and tiny nuggets of period info that you can’t find anywhere else. Their importance felt vital on July 1st 1995, but not in the fullness of time: they have been rightly edited from the bigger story of the period. 

Except… that they were all utterly fascinating to me when reading them today, and would be to anyone else who’d feel the thrill of discovering the first printed mention of a “new song” by Pulp called “Sorted For E’s And Whizz”, complete with mis-heard lyrics, buried in a brief review of Pulp’s now-famed 1995 Glastonbury set.

Nostalgia is a drug. We shouldn’t have too much. But also: everything in moderation, including moderation. Nostalgia is re-living the excitement of when passions were new. And the excitement felt around new passions is the feeling of nostalgia years before it becomes so.

You’re building your future nostalgia right now without realising which parts you’ll be nostalgic for. In that way, nostalgia is happened today, while you’re *holistically living in the moment*, not just when you’re looking back.

And the excitement of nostalgia really does require people to be excited with, however loosely, however remotely. So where do we go to be nostalgic with our gang today? Social media allows us to shout into the wind in the hope that we’ll connect with people like us, but does it really work?

Social media also shoots new looks, ideas, and bandwagons instantly to every place on earth, and it enforces a worldwide smoothing of cultural foibles. It’s hard to imagine a niche music/social scene like – god help us – Grebo happening now, because it’s easier to define yourself by pushing against a small-town local scene than against the global MOR-cabal. 

Social media weaponises nostalgia – but this is not good nostalgia, because good nostalgia is defined by the community that loves Niche Thing X. Nostalgia defined by the gang becomes about an investment of time and money as a consequence. If commerce uses nostalgia as a sales tool, the tail is wagging the dog.

We can reclaim nostalgia for us. But it requires the communities to scrape everything into a pile. Music nostalgia, for instance, is scattered wide across the internet and beyond: tit-bits buried in obscure fan forums; borderline-conspiracy-theory deep-dives shoved into fan-sites that haven’t been updated since 2006; illegal scans of out-of-print books and magazines tweeted and forgotten about; sub-pub-quiz-trivia permanently and uselessly etched in people’s brains.

Everything is out there: the scattered gang members, the desire for a pleasurable wallow, the snippets and tit-bits and chatter, the excitement about springing from our established passions to similar-but-different new ones. 

Bringing it together requires treating music and books and movies differently: each item a narrowband channel that encourages wider exploration. The details of the past can be brought around the object – all the trivia described above could be pinned to the song itself; a totem pole of context, of excitement, of nostalgia. 

Then the community can rally around the thing they love – and jump into the future, together, confident and fulfilled.

Joe Sparrow : Blackstar, Big Exit

I can’t remember the last time I truly dug into an album — straining to understand each word, trying to unlock each decision and quantify every sound — as I have with David Bowie’s Blackstar.

It feels horribly glib to say that death was a marketing masterstroke by Bowie; and yet the album is so carefully constructed to frame the end he knew was coming, that it’s probably not as gauche as it might sound.

After overcoming the shock of his death, any prior analysis of Blackstar immediately evaporated. And then, any shock – from the realisation that the true context had been hidden in plain sight all along – was tempered by a feeling of jarring clarity. The control and gracefulness of the LP, and how it addresses death, was obvious.

Compare Bowie’s end with that of another rock star, Lemmy: both were loved and praised since their death, but only one reached the end still innovating, reaching, gambling. Only one entirely controlled the dialogue around his exit.

Most artists’ later output is unremarkable. Instead, Bowie gilded his reputation by producing an album which dallies with invention in a manner unlike any of his work since the late 70s.

And then there’s the lingering feeling that Blackstar — the album, the media and the message around it — is like a puzzle box: something important sits at its heart. But what is it?

There is a lot in Blackstar that knowingly harks back to 1977’s Low. For me, these echoes of Low make Blackstar’s finality even more beautiful and difficult. Low was the first Bowie LP that I really loved, and it’s still my favourite. On Low, a combination of bizarro pop and startling innovation negate the honky-tonk theatricality that dulled my connection to some of his work.

Aside from sharing an overtly experimental approach, Blackstar’s open connection to Low is intriguing. Warszawa’s synth sounds prop up the woozy Lazarus; an immediately recognisable harmonica hook from Low spikes the gut-wrenching final track I Can’t Give Everything Away.

The harmonica hook is taken from the song which marks the point where Low enters a wholly unexpected state. It initiates the transition from art-pop album to otherworldly soundscape. The song is called A New Career In A New Town. 

My neck hairs prickled when the penny finally dropped: Bowie was not simply using his glorious past to frame his present art as on his previous album, he was leveraging meaning from his whole career to frame his future. A new career in a new town.

Whatever lies beyond the end — an afterlife, utter nothingness, anything in between — Bowie is exiting with the nod and a wink of a man comfortable with himself and intrigued by what lies ahead.

As far as a final message goes, Blackstar is almost unbearably beautiful; as a piece of pop music addressing death, it’s an unparalleled statement; as a brazen appraisal of his whole career, it’s breathtaking. His parting gift is a powerful fillip for us all: be fearless, be true to yourself, step into the unknown. I can’t imagine how my approach to life will ever be quite the same now.

I always wanted to meet David Bowie. And in a weird way, after diving into Blackstar, I feel like I have.

Joe Sparrow : Gifting Music

One of the wonderful things about my life over the last few years is the number of fascinating people I’ve been lucky enough to count as new friends. Among them are Taylor, Kaitlyn and Michelle, three genuinely wonderful people who I kind of view as one three-pronged, fun-fuelled entity, as I only ever meet them in person all at once.

Being thrusting young futuristas, we keep in touch via social media, mainly.

This morning I replied to one of Taylor’s tweets while I was brushing my teeth*, pressed play on my iPod, and jumped into the shower. The song playing was Don’t Fight It, Feel It.

Primal Scream’s Screamadelica is one of the half-dozen albums I’d sling in the life-raft if I was to be stranded on a desert island. It is perfect in a thousand ways, of which follow just three: the wild variety of the songs on the album is awe-inspiring, the euphoria contained within them makes my skin prickle, and the simultaneous timeless/time-capsule nature of it is almost unique.

It’s an album that I always push on other people: try it, you’ll love it, you won’t guess what will happen next, but you’ll love what does. It’s perfect for both late nights and early mornings, for fuelling the rush before you go out and to nurture the comedown when you get back home afterwards.

Covered in suds, and with skin prickling, I decided, in a fit of uncharacteristic generosity, that I’d gift the LP to Taylor, Kaitlyn and Michelle. They’d love everything about it. Even better, they may never have heard it, and what a wonderful thing it would be to hear it for the first time.

But, wait: how do I give someone an album now? A really wonderful one? This is something I hadn’t really thought about before. Giving is a beautiful thing — so how does this work with music today?

The quandary:

  • I can’t send them CDs — I may as well send an eight-track tape and a spidery, paranoid note written in green biro;
  • A 12” record is no good either — I don’t think any of them have a record player (and don’t be fooled: most people don’t), and anyway, I’m not buying into the suspiciously publicised (and priced) fetishism of vinyl;
  • The idea of sending a download code is gross, and offers as much appeal as receiving a birthday voucher for a clothes store you hate: it’ll do the job, but making use of it will be a wholly joyless experience;
  • You can’t gift a Spotify stream.
  • An email containing a link to a torrent stream may as well sign off “with love and odour from my parent’s basement.” 
  • A Dropbox link to the files feels clinical, cold, industry.

The transference of music from the physical to the ephemeral is absolutely fine by me: the awful cabal of the record industry has withered, and music will never again be tied down to a silly disc. Hooray, etc.

But tactile interactions count for something, and while for most of the time I am totally happy with music’s physicality extending no further than sound-waves themselves, occasionally, well… there’s an un-human gap in functionality.

I recently visited a clothes shop that I love, and bought a new coat and shirt. I was really pleased. At the till, I remembered a good friend in the USA who likes the clothing label too, so I bought him a smart enamel badge, slipped it in an envelope, and posted it to him.

It made him happy, it made me happy, and an object had moved between us.

As for Taylor, Kaitlyn and Michelle? Well, they will need to go without. I ended up stuck and frustrated. Life’s infuriating truism is that so much good stuff is accompanied by a negative — the slice of chocolate cake that goes straight to your hips or the beautiful person with nothing interesting to say.

Maybe this universal dichotomy accounts for music’s ephemerality. Maybe we don’t get to enjoy gifting it, because this thing — so wonderful you want to own it and control it — cannot be owned or controlled.

That might be ultimately disappointing – but still makes more sense than paying £23 for a heavyweight gatefold vinyl pressing.


*It later transpired that I am still unable to determine nuance in 140 characters and got the wrong end of the stick, completely missing a joke, and so my replies became a death spiral of minor online humiliation. As always, a reminder from our social gods: Never Tweet.

Joe Sparrow : How NYPD Blue is the Instagram of cop shows

I recently bought two fat NYPD Blue boxsets for £5 from a second-hand store. I remembered the show from late-night Channel 4 in the 90s, a time when late-night Channel 4 was the place good imported TV shows went to die.

By any reasonable measure, NYPD Blue is now an anachronism.

Unlike the malleable story arcs of True Detective, thick with translucent plotlessness*, NYPD Blue’s storylines are almost comically direct, zipping at a dizzy lick from well-flagged plot point to well-flagged plot point.

The stories aren’t just spelt out in advance; they’re taken for granted. We’re all in on the scam, and we hop on NYPD Blue for the ride as you would a rollercoaster. The viewer scopes out the ups and downs in advance and then rides it on rails. And the fun is more real because of it.

David Simon, creator of the best TV show ever, The Wire, describes how he intentionally made the Wire’s storylines complex, long and foggy to separate the show from ‘unrealistic’ cop shows like — huh — NYPD Blue.

NYPD Blue isn’t The Wire. In fact, it’s replete with the kind of faults that would sink most shows.

The tonal qualities of the acting in NYPD Blue can sometimes be measured in inch-thick slices of ham, and the characters shuttle back and forth between cop cliches: seedy bars, choppy relationships, overtime forms, crappy coffee, powdered donuts and personal tragedy: tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. The stories are unadulterated slash ’n’ weep pulp fiction, gleefully veering into absurdity at every opportunity.

But here’s what that simple framework brings: space. Acres of grubby, smoggy, glorious space. 

Characters are given time to breathe and grow, despite the breakneck pace of the fast-talking-scamster bullshit storylines that surround it. The characters don’t grow much, but that’s not the point: they’re alive. It’s this focus on seemingly two-dimensional characters that make the show remarkable.

Essentially, NYPD Blue’s brilliance is in the rigidity of the show’s structure. Instead of trying to make ten different things fairly well, the focus is on portraying one thing brilliantly: the interaction between the humanity of the characters and the noise of the city.

Nuance of plot is secondary to finding out what happens when you draw characters with crayon and stick with them through thick and thin in a mad city.

NYPD Blue is addictive for the same reason that Instagram is so addictive. It seems stupid when you think about it: we are all carrying insanely advanced cameras in our pockets, and we take most pleasure from them when we shove shitty filters over them. It turns out that by picking from a simple set of options and washing out colours, scrubbing away detail and replacing complexity for noise, we create something more real, or at least more enjoyable.

Life is complex, but it doesn’t all need to be. Order out of chaos; and chaos out of familiarity. NYPD Blue does what it needs to truly be alive, and nothing more — and that’s more than most of us will ever do.

*Note: that meant to read “plotlines” but was autocorrected twice in a row. I assume that the mellifluous plotting of the show is crossing over to my own reality.

Joe Sparrow : Simon Cowell, political agitator

I truly don’t want to add too much to the unwanted post-election opinion-chunder, so here’s some bullet points on why, in the next five years, Simon Cowell may turn out be the true political revolutionary of our time:

  • The shows Simon Cowell makes are most childrens’ first introduction to mass polling. Voting for your favourite act on X Factor et al to appears to be an example of proportional representation. Whether voting by SMS or making opinions heard via Twitter, a tweet/SMS appears to have the same weight as another.
  • We now routinely base decisions on the number of Likes, RTs and views: they are an indicator of quality and popularity. These are simple decisions, made via complex interpretation: yes, Zayn Malik got 100,000 RTs — but who are those 100,000 people and what does it mean?
  • So what do the UK public, attuned to quick analysis of figures, feel when they look at the numbers after the election? Just over a third voted Tory, but they got a majority government with 331 seats. UKIP polled 13% of the vote and were given one seat; which is 55 seats less than the SNP, who polled half as many votes. It is clearly unfair. Do they feel cheated?
  • Meanwhile, we still vote like we always have: walk to a polling station, and someone crosses your name off a paper list before handing you a voting slip. All you need to do is tell them your name and address — no ID needed!
  • Voting by app would be, relatively speaking, cheap to initiate, simple to manage and less likely to be defrauded. Compare the complexity and inherent risk in a banking app, or the micro-transaction system in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.
  • The 18-24 year old electorate, raised in a world of apps and instant voting (and I think it’s OK to regard hitting “Retweet” as a tiny socio-political endorsement) are effectively being held at arm’s length by the government. But for how long?
  • While the figure of nearly 60% of 18-24 year olds voting is decent enough, how will these social media natives feel when they compare the impact of their vote with the world they are used to?
  • Our political system no longer merely seems like a systematic quirk — it just feels wrong.

Joe Sparrow : I thought I got a tiny glimpse into what being a woman in the music industry is like, but of course I never will

Not long ago, the brilliant, award-winning singer-songwriter Beth Orton mentored a group of 14 emerging musicians, singers, songwriters, and performers.

The week of learning and songwriting culminated in a one-off collaborative gig at Band On The Wall in Manchester. Beth was inspirational, the participants were bold. It was great.

The pride at making the project happen successfully was palpable at the end-of-week show. Happiness radiated from the stage, and was reflected back at them. Praise rippled through the crowd; press coverage was deservedly wide and glowing.

One of the key elements that immediately hooked me in was its unique specification: all participants were to be exclusively female.

I worked on the PR side of the project, and on the very first day, I made sure I found an excuse so that I had a semi-plausible reason to visit. I slipped into a few of Band On The Wall’s rooms. Tentative rehearsals had begun, and I lingered a little longer than I usually would.

The songs and sounds were already eye-openingly lovely, after only a few hours of the project beginning. The atmosphere was happy, productive, open and enlightened.

Everyone was working in supportive harmony. It was so different to so many events in the music biz, which can sometimes be fraught, or the people stand-offish, or both. I stepped into the lift, effusing about how great the whole thing was, and then a thought stopped me mid-sentence.

It was this: apart from me, one member of staff and my colleague Liam, everyone in the building was a woman.

The staff, the organisers, the in-house PR people, the interns, the head of event organiser Brighter Sound, the participants, the sound and tech people, Beth Orton: all women, all busy milling round, working hard, learning and laughing.

I’ve spent a few years both working in and hanging around the edges of the music industry. When you go to where music is happening, women are always the minority.

Something was fundamentally different here.

It felt different, it looked different and it sounded different. Warmer. Experimental. More kind. Less bull-headed. I wandered around, a minority for once, and a couple of things struck me.

Firstly: this feeling of being a minority might be a tiny — minuscule — taste of how it feels to be a women in the music biz. Except without any of the hassle, the testosterone, the aggro, the misogyny and the judgment.

(So, of course, my experience wasn’t anything like it at all.)

And secondly, a reminder of how easy men have it: not only in the music business, but in life.

In the midst of a euphoric after-show party, I spoke to one of the artists who took part, and she told me that what she had found most liberating about the all-woman environment was not the fact that it was “giving women a chance” — a slightly patronising idea, in truth — but that the whole project had been so intensely, overwhelmingly supportive.

“There was no competitiveness,” she said, “we just worked all day to help each other achieve things that we didn’t know we were able to do.”

She then told me something that made me sad, and then told me something else that made me sadder. She said that if men had been able to take part in the mentoring week, she probably wouldn’t have applied, because of the unspoken pressure women feel in a room of men.

I paused.

Then she told me that she’d already identified a vulnerable younger artist she wanted to help and protect from men in the music business, “because, well, you know what those men are like.”

I do know what those men are like.

I wondered if I’d done enough over the years to provide a supportive environment for women, and had to admit that I hadn’t. Not many of us had.

Joe Sparrow : Gray’s Papaya

Gray’s Papaya, on the corner of 6th Ave and 8th Street in New York City, closed about a year ago today.

When I heard, I let out the kind of deep sigh that only accompanies really disappointing news.

Why did the closure hurt so much? 

I only lived in NYC for a while. They were exhilarating, gawp-inducing, breathless months best illustrated by conjuring up a mental image of Wile E. Coyote putting his fingers into a plug socket.

Two days after I arrived, it was my birthday. The Hype Machine was throwing a huge party in the basement of the W Hotel on Union Square.

The party wasn’t specifically for me, but it might as well have been designed with me in mind: the music was great, the booze was endless and free, the barmaids had (maybe contractually obligated) breasts of comical heft on show, and — shit — I was in NYC.

At that point, everything that I knew about NYC was — honestly — just what I’d gleaned from 1970s movies, 1980s cop shows, and 1990s hip-hop LPs.

At the party, I slurred at my good friend Dev: “I’m in New York! I’m going to be living out my Beastie Boys fantasy!” before tottering out into the dark, stepping onto the wrong Subway train and emerging at 2am from a stairwell into some remote nook of Queens.

I couldn’t have even pointed to Queens on a map at this point, and I suddenly felt very British and exposed. That element of my NYC dream was coming alive after all.

The best thing for me about NYC was not the bullshit Chelsea glamour, or the commodified cool of Williamsburg, or the Top Of The Rock™ bucket-list nonsense, but the visceral sensation of living in a city where crazy money and blue-collar life rubbed shoulders in a frenzy.

Gem and I sought out places where this happened with gusto, firm believers in sampling new locales through food and drink.

So we got stuck in: to Three Decker’s hot breakfasts and warm welcomes; to Harlem’s chatty booze-slushie joints; to the Patriot Bar, where construction workers and city fellas drank two-dollar PBRs; to Spanish Harlem’s lipid-laden chuchifritos; to any by-the-slice pizza joint, anywhere in the damn city.

And Gray’s Papaya.

Gray’s Papaya — a chain of cheerful, primary-coloured places where hotdogs and weird “fruit drinks” are served by surly men in front of endless, context-free sloganeering posters — seemed so quintessentially New York City that when I tip-toed in and slipped out with a solitary hotdog, I wolfed it down, turned around and went back in for another.

And a Papaya drink this time, just in case.

The food was cheap, and tasted cheap in the best possible way. It was — ouch, forgive me — real.

Gray’s Papaya wasn’t for show. In daylight, it might have been co-opted by tourists like me, but when darkness came, it was for drunks looking for a booze-sponge, hungry teenagers who ought to be home, night-shifters heading to work, and stoners.

Anyone who despises prissiness, artifice and faux-grandeur: your people are to be found in Gray’s, and go quickly, because there’s only one left now, on Broadway and 72nd.

The other Gray’s were swept away by the remorseless blunt plough that is money, and the smooth-edged, one-size-fits-none gentrification that accompanies it.

I wonder which tourist will fall giddily in love with a city when they find it full of the same shiny shop-fronts they’ve just flew 3,000 miles from?

Learning about Gray’s closure hit me surprisingly hard: what could possibly be gained by shuttering a place as truly unique and alive as Gray’s Papaya?

Well, the boring/depressing answer is, “a boutique juice bar,” (LOL, what else?) — but the real answer is, “nothing whatsoever.”

The real question is: what do the people busily raking up the cultural landmarks of  working people think is going to happen when they finally shoo the non-wealthy out of the city?

Who’s going to commute into Manhattan to do all the stuff the money-men won’t when there’s nowhere to go for lunch?

Joe Sparrow : Surf’s Up; or Surf’s Everywhere, all the time

I often think about how we consume stuff in an era where everything is available all of the time.

(I’ll save the “in my day” stories about straining to deduce a new LP’s contents from the sleeve art on the bus home for another tedious post.)

But the idea that we’re all increasingly skimming the surface of lots of media/art/thoughts is quite widely accepted now, and I’ve written about Breadth Vs Depth before.

Maybe what bugs me about accessing everything, always is that it’s clearly what we instinctively want — a little sample of everything in preference to deep knowledge of a little.

It’s mirrored elsewhere in non-tech, non-#disrupted places: in Chinese All-U-Can-Eat buffets, where the temptation of a two course meal is outweighed by a taste of everything; or in The Week, a magazine compiling newspaper snippets — a kind of low-pass news filter which is kinda-useful but also removes extremes, readability and personality.

And just because, as animals, we’re drawn towards more, and more frequently, it doesn’t mean it’s the better life experience.

At the end of the summer, I found myself sitting on a beach in Portugal with my good friend Alex, who — along with another friend Sab — forms the brilliant Portuguese band Youthless.

(Alex is also known as Tiappa, depending on how you are related to him. This is also another story for another time.)

Anyway: Alex/Tiappa loves surfing, and the beach was in Ericiera, one of Europe’s surf capitals.

In the still-hot September sun, and as Gem slept pointedly in between us, we chatted about life, philosophy, and the various merits of the amazing local prego no pao sandwiches, all interspersed with the kind of childish penis jokes you only risk in the company of trusted friends.

As we talked, Alex gazed at the sea, watching a couple of surfers trying to ride a lacklustre wave. He couldn’t fully pull his attention away: the lure of the sea is bone-deep* and he’s a happy addict.

Over a couple of hours, one surfer rode a difficult, lazy wave only a few times, and Alex critiqued him with a mixture of appreciation, jealousy, and what I guess is the universal surfer reflexive of: “I could do that a bit better.”

Later, we sat in a surfer joint, and the TV behind a kitsch wave-shaped bar showed an endless highlight reel of surfers catching giant waves; hardy souls bulletting down sheer walls of unimaginable heft, and eventually wiping out in a mess of boiling white foam.

We all stared, hooked. Surfer after surfer, wave after wave. Each clip was a few seconds long. Just the exciting bit, money shot after money shot: surf-whoosh-splash.

Alex watched both intently. One was long and intermittently-rewarding**. The other was all-killer-no-filler, and offered rigidly repeated hits.

Which one offered the better life experience, in the long-term?

Which one made him long harder*** for the sea?



*yes, this is the calibre of penis joke we were making

**this too


Joe Sparrow : Everything, everything

My friend Neil is listening to to every single mp3 he possesses, in artist alphabetical order, and then tweeting about it.

Neil has a lot of mp3s: he started months ago, and he’s only just reached the Manic Street Preachers. He’s got a long way until he reaches that Zwan LP he now regrets downloading.

Significant obstacles have arisen en route: he’s a Eurovision fan and owns an mp3 of every single Eurovision song entry ever, which made for a harrowing couple of weeks spent listening to borderline insane Greek disco songs from 1974 et al.

From the outside, reading his tweets, a number of concepts have been brought viscerally to life. Mainly that methodically working through a vast list of songs, many of which the listener feels utterly ambivalent about, is an almost diabolical exercise in self-abuse.

But it also made me think a lot about ownership, especially of music. (By “ownership”, I don’t mean music that has been purchased, just music you can reach out and hold – whether CD, vinyl or on a hard drive.)

It strikes me that the mere act of selecting to keep music “offline” is slightly defiant act today. It’s almost comical that clarifying the “offline” part is needed here, such is the ubiquity of streaming music now.

Forgotify was set up because someone discovered that over four million of the songs on Spotify had never, ever been played – and in a fit of sympathy, they built a website that ensures you are the first person ever to stream one of those songs.

Forgotify has been around for months now. There are still over four million unplayed songs on Spotify. That’s how much music there is on Spotify.

What does “owning” the music even mean now? You don’t need to, unless you’re enormously paranoid about the possibility of your favourite Shampoo LPs being deleted from the internet. (Neil owns all the Shampoo LPs, by the way, but not because of paranoia.)

I guess, as Neil is finding out – and revealing via Twitter – that the simple act of owning things that matter to you scratches some deep itch.

And, as Neil is also discovering, ownership is a reminder of past decisions made: downloading the entire Bowie back catalogue sounds like a great plan until you reach Tin Machine.

But mainly, it is a reminder of the value of a finite collection over infinite possibilities.

You could feasibly save tens of metres of shelf space, and giga/terabytes of disk space if you converted the songs you love into a simple playlist to be streamed.

But where is the fun in that? And would you really add Boom Bang-a-Bang to it?

Joe Sparrow : The Kids are all right

Idly spooling through products on Amazon, trying to find something cheap to make my order up to £10 and thus claim free delivery, I felt a weird flashback.

“Ten years ago,” it occurred to me, “I would choose a bunch of CDs online, click ‘order’, and wait four days for them to arrive.”

“How gauche,” I thought.

What was most odd about this recollection was that I didn’t even consider the ten years or so before that, when the act of finding and purchasing music meant that I – a wan teenage schoolboy – would walk to Mike Lloyd’s record shop after school, and physically flick-flack through CDs.

I could afford about one a month. CDs were about 15 quid.

Thus I only very occasionally gambled on an album because of the cover, or an odd band name; on the whole, I went by the reviews in the Melody Maker.

Looking back, I can see that a lot of the emotion I have amassed for LPs released around that time was invested in the subsequent walk-up to the counter.

I’m about to spend all this money on this CD I haven’t heard: what if it’s only a 6/10?

Those days are so far gone, I don’t even reminisce about them any more.

This is what progress really feels like, fifteen years on: nothing at all.

Last year, for a day a week, I taught a hundred-odd 18-year old students on a Music Business course.

The lessons were a two-way street: I revealed how much money they will realistically make in comparison to their feverish rock star/yacht-moored-in-Ibiza dreams, and they opened my eyes to how kids their age regard music.

It was great fun, and extremely bracing work; although sometimes I wondered if we were a mutual focus group established to cause each other occasional twinges of disappointment.

So how do #teens find music now – and what do they use to listen to it?

Well, the latter question was easy: they use Youtube and Spotify, and that’s it.

None – literally none – choose to listen to music radio even once a week, although some admitted that they tell people that they do.

None pay for Spotify. Some pay for bonus editions of LPs they‎ already like.

And how do they find the music in the first place, in an era of ubiquitous, instant album reviews that cost nothing to read and are written for nothing?

Generally, they all mumbled a bit about “Facebook” and “recommendations from friends” but none had a really firm, tried-and-true method.

Some thought they might have used Spotify playlists now and then, but on the whole all of them voiced what felt like a collective shrug – as if even they didn’t know how they discovered music.

Is it possible to enter a post-music-discovery age? Will careful pondering and considered exploration go out with a whimper?

Or are they being induced to listen to new music in a brand new way, so subliminal, so sneaky, so in tune with now that they – and the rest of us – haven’t even noticed what it is yet?

Is this what progress feels like whilst it’s happening: nothing at all?

all posts

11The Target Shoots Next
10The Target Shoots First
23Some things I have written for Music Ally
22MONTAG: an infinite magazine

6Embrace nostalgia carefully to build the community you love (and thought you’d lost)
23Selected posts from MONTAG Issue 1

15Spot the gif-ference*

9Oasis’s “lost” third album: Forever… And A Day
28Oasis minus the fun
24Blackstar, Big Exit

25The Sandinista! Problem
28Gifting Music
6How NYPD Blue is the Instagram of cop shows
24Against The Grain: Grand Royal Magazine
9Simon Cowell, political agitator
11I thought I got a tiny glimpse into what being a woman in the music industry is like, but of course I never will
29Gray’s Papaya
5Surf’s Up; or Surf’s Everywhere, all the time

22Everything, everything
8The Kids are all right
19Why I (almost) killed A New Band A Day
4I just figured out why I love pop music…
29Music streaming, scarcity and breadth vs. depth
26Scale x Time: How Spotify Works Right Now [Part 1]
18Are Sleaford Mods the best band in the UK? (Yes.)
7Bearable wearables
4Narrow and deep: the undead album, and seeing work in context
16Super-local socialism and disappearing Diners: New York City’s cowardly rush for gentrification
15A couple of paragraphs from an email I wrote to a friend about Tommy Ramone’s death, and rock fetishism