Why I Don’t Want Free Records

A while ago on an ILM thread I talked about there being two kinds of writing about music. The first is basically consumer-guide writing. You write a review of a record, grade it if you have to, and try to make the writing clear and useful for an interested consumer. Most music writing – certainly most paid-for music writing – is like this.

The second doesn’t have as easy a definition but it does have an analogue. The travel sections of bookshops stock two kinds of books – Lonely Planet style visitors’ guides, and ‘travel writing’ – books by people like Bill Bryson, or Bruce Chatwin, personalised records of experiences. You read those books to find out about a place, not in order to plan a trip or find out where to go but to get an idea of what going there is actually like. Of course that means the books are as much about the author as about the places the author visits – there’s no way of separating the experience of travel from the personality of the traveller, though the best writers use that personality to touch something in their readers too.

The other type of music writing is like that. Music is what you travel around, and you make notes on the journey. Some people who read it might be inspired to follow in your ‘footsteps’, but that’s not the point of the writing exactly. I’m not saying that this kind of music is better – it’s probably less useful and it’s generally low-audience – it’s just the type I prefer reading and writing. I do think, though, that the web, with its straight-to-publication possibilities and lack of profit-pressure, is a great place for this writing to thrive.

Which doesn’t explain why I’m not leaping at the chance to get music for free – especially since I’m big on file-sharing. To stretch the analogy a bit, though, getting free CDs from the record companies seems to be a bit like arriving in an Eastern Bloc country in the 80s and being given the official Ministry of Tourism tour. Or – a less loaded metaphor – it’s like a package holiday. So much of listening to music involves the acts of discovery, the chance encounters, the wounded feelings of the outraged consumer, the impatient wait for a long-anticipated release date. Replacing those feelings for an envelope of CDs on the doormat, for pay or otherwise, is putting too much distance between my listening and my life.

(An old piece of mine might be relevant here.)