Environmental sound and urban space: the BE OPEN sound portal

As part of my research on the relations between sound and space, over the last year I’ve experienced several works of environmental sound art and design – site-specific installations, performances, audio walks and so on. Many of them have been in cities, raising questions about how sound functions in urban spaces.

One example that sparked off some thinking was the BE OPEN sound portal, mentioned in one of my previous posts. I thought I’d air some more of my thoughts about it here.

Black secret technology

The BE OPEN Sound Portal was a black monolithic circular structure, containing a state-of-the-art, full frequency, nine-channel surround sound system, with space for around 20-30 people to gather inside. BE OPEN is a philanthropic foundation describing itself as a ‘creative think tank’, and run by a super-rich Russian businesswoman called Elena Baturina. The portal was designed by multinational engineering firm Arup, and originally installed in Trafalgar Square in 2012 with a programme of works by sound artists and musicians such as Squarepusher and Jana Winderen.

The portal was later relocated for a stint outside the Chelsea College of Art and Design in 2013, where it was used for sonic experiments by artists and students. Some of these students invited me to the opening night of their work, so I went along. The world of billionaire foreign patrons and global engineering corporations is unfamiliar territory for most environmental sound artists; no one quite seemed to know what to make of the whole thing.

Outside the BE OPEN Sound Portal
Outside the BE OPEN Sound Portal

Prestige public art

Arriving at the grand entrance of the Chelsea college, we were signed in and ushered through to a luxuriously wood paneled, plush carpeted room, to be plied with free wine and dainty, lengthily-titled canapés. In some cases it took longer for the impeccably-dressed waiting staff to tell us the names of these little morsels than it did to eat them. “Excuse me sir, would you like a feta and black olive tapenade crostini with caramelised onion and green pea veloute?” “Ooh, thanks!” CHOMP. Gone.

The college website boasts that it is “one of London’s most prestigious art and design institutions”, and the event had that kind of vibe – aspirational, over-excited, lots of rubber-necking, climaxing in a brazenly congratulatory speech by a Russian man from BE OPEN. All of this fuss made it pretty clear that the Sound Portal was what Hall and Robertson (2001) describe as a prestige public art project, dressed to impress. This was art being used to make an urban space and an educational institution seem more cool, hip and exciting.

Eventually, half cut on free booze, we wandered outside and into the installation.

Inside the Sound Portal: Angus Carlyle and sound art students
Inside the Sound Portal: Angus Carlyle and sound art students

Excluding noise – and bringing it back in again

Jet black on the outside, pure white on the inside, the portal’s aesthetics were reportedly inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. A literal science-fiction, the portal shut out the exterior sounds of urban space, such as traffic noise, with acoustic baffles. This was a purified listening space, a highly controllable audio-bubble allowing artists to manipulate the sonic space at will.

Environmental sound artists, however, tend to have a different approach to acoustic designers: less interested in eliminating noise and more concerned with understanding sound in context. For example, one of the installed works, Strata, by Mark Peter Wright, Sophie Mallett, Yiorgis Sakellariou and Brigitte Hart, used field recordings of London to bring the sonic detritus of the city, excluded by the portal’s design, back into earshot.

One memorable element was a recording of the raucous hawking calls of cockney traders at a flower market. In the portal, these sounds seemed tongue-in-cheek, gently poking fun at its purist design. Highlighting the contrast between lively, bawdy, working class London and the elite, rarefied space of the Chelsea College, Strata traced a line from the accumulated wealth of a Russian billionaire (global markets) to the everyday trading tactics of a flower seller (local markets). The portal felt like a massive audio toy – technically impressive, over-the-top, even ridiculous, but fun to play with and to listen in.

In this case, environmental audio performed what Rendell (2006) terms critical spatial practice. The portal’s design was an abstract space conceived by acoustic engineers, purged of noise, attempting to offer full control over all sonic variables. But in the hands of sound artists, other practices came into play, reworking the space, playing with it, mucking it up. This kind of art takes the multi-layered, chaotic, vibrantly messy quality of urban space as its starting point, and adds to it, intensifies it, amplifies it. And artists were not only beings messing things up here. Chancing to look upwards, I saw that the pristine sheen of the portal had been spoiled by bird shit spattered onto the skylight. This, in the end, is what urban space is like – rough, uncontrollable, dirty, noisy, showing little respect for the intentions of designers and artists.

Not quite so prestige...bird turds on the Sound Portal's roof
Not quite so prestige…bird turds on the Sound Portal’s roof

Pulling space apart

Another work, Sounding the Portal, by Tansy Spinks, Emanuele Cendron and Sunil Chandy, unleashed an unholy chorus of groaning, creaking and screeching. These sounds were made by variably tensioned steel cables (a nod towards Arup’s methods of bridge construction), stretched across the interior of the portal and activated by bowing. The performance was recorded and then played back insitu, the portal resonating with the sound of its own playing.

Where Strata brought the outside inside, Sounding the Portal folded the inside back on itself, creating a sense of the space being pulled apart. Squealing and squeaking, the composition had a raw, hand-made quality that rubbed against the sleek interior, noisily evoking material fabric in a space whose materials were black-boxed and whited-out, hidden by smooth architecture and acoustic transparency. The portal began to feel flimsy. I imagined its fabric being torn open, starting to auto-destruct, collapsing in on itself.

Tansy later told me that her original intention was to stretch the cables over the top of the whole structure, but this plan was ditched as the portal turned out to be less solid than it looked. It might have begun to collapse for real, and the artists were told in no uncertain terms that this was not an option. Tansy also wanted to perform the piece live, but this too was ruled out for bureaucratic reasons.

Such compromises attest to the limits of art’s abilities to contest and rework urban space, and the conflicts that can arise between art and design. Strata inserted its critique into the operation of the portal, playing with its surround sound system, but Tansy’s initial ideas were clearly too oppositional. Confronted by the portal’s institutional framework, she had to negotiate a more compliant solution.

The research reported on here was generously funded by an AHRC fellowship.

Some thoughts about listening

As part of my AHRC fellowship about audio methods and sonic environments, I’ve been thinking a lot about listening. Angus Carlyle and Cathy lane from CRiSAP have an edited book on the topic about to come out soon, ‘On Listening’, to which I’ve contributed a chapter, so I thought I’d set out a few ideas here.

Listening as practice

The more I work on environmental sound art, the more I’m convinced that it work best as a combination of both representation (an echo of another space and time, a there-and-then) and elements of performance, of practice (something happening in the present, here-and-now). Both are important. Thinking about the performative and practice aspects, listening is fundamental. It’s the most basic practice in sound art, the activity from which work begins and with which it ends. Here’s sound artist Mark Peter Wright sharing his thoughts on the matter:

I think Mark’s right: listening takes us away from a purist, ‘sound-as-sound’ approach; listening is a multisensory, multidimensional form of attentive experience, a messy mingling of self and world. The common social-scientific, political and mass media definitions of listening are unhelpful here. Social scientists in particular have cloth ears when it comes to sound. They make much of the importance of listening to the ‘voices’ of people, but in practice they’re mainly interested in the communication of meaning, a fixation with writable words, a “linguistic imperialism that subordinates the sonic to semiotic registers” (Goodman, 2009: 82). Musical notions of listening at least acknowledge aurality, but still tend to privilege the expressive communication of human emotions. Sound art can open up a much more expansive sense of listening.

Listening as affective

In his writing on film sound, Michel Chion suggests a three-way typology: causal listening, in which the listener strives to determine the source of a sound; semantic listening, which involves interpreting meaning, as in listening to spoken language; and reduced listening, a term borrowed from musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer, in which attention is focussed on the aesthetic qualities of sound (timbre, texture, pitch, rhythm, etc.) without reference to source, context or meaning. But this is too limited as a schema for understanding environmental sound art, which gives rise to other kinds of listening as well. How about, for example:

  • Embodied listening, that part of listening in which sounds are felt not only in the ears and head but throughout the whole body as physical vibration. Geographer Michelle Duffy has been developing this idea through what she calls a visceral conception of listening.
  • Affective listening, those elements of embodied listening that give rise to palpable affects. If brought into conscious awareness, these affects will likely be understood afterwards as emotions. Steve Goodman writes about how certain extremely low or high frequency sounds, at high amplitudes, can generate a sense of dread, fear or anxiety. Other recent work on this theme includes Anja Kanngieser’s paper about the affective geographies of voices, and Paul Simpson’s paper developing a postphenomenological account of listening, drawing on Jean-Luc Nancy. All of this is quite different to the more anthropocentric understanding of emotional listening common in music, where emotions are understood as something communicated by the performer to the audience.
  • Associative listening, in which sounds evoke imaginative associations, the listener drifting into something more akin to Proustian reverie than a search for distinct causes or meanings.
Listening in Waverley
A listening walk in Edinburgh, led by Jonathan Prior, stopping to take in the cavernous reverberations of Waverley Station.

Listening as power

I would question the assumption, common amongst sound artists, acoustic ecologists, musicians etc., that listening is always a ‘good thing’, that more of it will make the world a ‘better place’. Listening is involved in many techniques of power, if power is understood in Foucaultian terms as simply actions that affect other actions, operating at an everyday, micro-scale (see my papers here and here). Foucault’s analysis is that power is not necessarily bad; rather it is ambivalent, a productive force full of possibilities, but also dangerous, open to abuse.

Foucault emphasised the power of sight, the ‘gaze’ and technologies of “permanent visibility” (1977: 201), but many techniques of power centre on aurality. Think of listening in processes of self-creation, as in counselling and therapy; territorial sound-making, from animal distress and warning cries to geopolitical broadcasts to sound system culture; scientific forms of listening, from stethoscopes to hospital alarms to ultrasound imaging (Tom Rice has a new book all about this); listening as part of surveillance and controlling people’s behaviour in institutions such as schools; the increasingly common addition of audio recording to CCTV technologies; the automated voice announcements of modern transport, machines incessantly telling us what to do; all the tantalising and tedious forms of capitalist sound production in marketing and advertising; the use of forensic audio in crime detection; and exercises of outright control and domination through listening, such as in espionage and military situations. That’s quite a list.

Towards collective listening

So I think it makes sense to ask the question, of any instance of listening: what work is this listening doing? What are its effects? Sometimes the listening situations offered by sound art just reproduce the tired docility of the concert hall or fine art gallery: a passive audience, listening obediently to a revered artist. At the other end of the spectrum, home listening and headphones, while affording the comforts of privacy, can feel overly individualising, especially with internet audio. I find sitting at a computer checking out recordings on SoundCloud quite isolating after a while.

The kinds of listening I’ve been more enthused by lately have been set up to have more collective, participatory effects. There’s nothing particularly new about such approaches, and they are incredibly simple to set up. For example, Jonathan Prior recently led a listening walk around Edinburgh, taking a group of 12 people around the city centre through various sonic environments. At the end we all chatted about our responses, and all kinds of ideas and experiences came out. The walk properly reconfigured my sense of the city.

And as mentioned in my previous post, I’ve really enjoyed taking up James Wyness’s idea of the ‘soond gaitherin’ or, since I sound fake-ass trying to do a Scottish accent, the sound gathering: an informal situation where you book a room, set up a playback system with some half-decent speakers, and invite people to come along to play field recordings they’ve made, or just to listen, and have a chat about them. I find I listen more openly in a group setting, and as long as you can steer clear of it turning into a ‘guess the sound’ pub quiz round, the range of responses can be fascinating and thought provoking.

Actually giving people a chance to listen together, then to discuss and make sense of what they’ve heard: a simple, almost traditional idea, with none of the wow factor of the latest new music genre or technological invention, and yet with a quietly radical potential to reconfigure the audience/artist relationship.

Work in progress: researching audio methods

Last year I was awarded an early career research fellowship entitled “Researching sonic environments: exploring audio methodologies” by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). This is taking place during 2013. I’ve been spending time with sound artists and researchers who work with environmental sound, observing what they do and thinking about its effects and functions. This all builds on a paper about using phonographic methods for geographical research that I recently published with fellow sonic geographer Jonathan Prior.


The fieldwork has taken place in the UK, Brussels, Berlin and Athens, and has included doing listening walks and audio walks, attending site-specific performances, installations and an environmental sound festival, making field recordings and videos, working with audio maps, trying out different mic set ups, running environmental sound workshops, interviewing people about their work etc etc.


Akio Suzuki's oto-date listening walk, with Aki Onda, Tuned City, Brussels, 2013
Akio Suzuki’s oto-date listening walk, with Aki Onda, Tuned City, Brussels, 2013

So what have I actually found out? Well, loads obviously, but one of the main themes emerging is…

Decontextualising and recontextualising: making works that involve more than just sound

Field recording, the core method of environmental sound art, decontextualises sound, lifting it out of place and sending it into wider circulation: “as a listener, I hear just as much displacement as placement, just as much placelessness as place, for the extraction of sound from its environment partially wields its power by being boundless, uprooted and distinct.” (LaBelle, 2006: 211) But playback recontextualises sounds, re-placing them, and the nature of that process is crucial to how field recordings function.

To put it another way, it’s easy enough to make field recordings, but what then? Where are they going to be played back, who (if anyone) will be listening, and what kind of effects do we want the playback situation to create? This is largely a question of geography, about the kinds of social and physical spaces in which environmental audio works are presented.

If we pursue sound as sound-in-itself, to the exclusion of other aspects of life, ultimately this takes us towards an acousmatic approach which “strips sound of any visual referent, linguistic description, or direct narrative, relying instead on the qualities of sound itself, its manipulation and construction.” (LeBelle, 2006: 209). But however much context is removed – even if the audience is blindfold, a method favoured by sound artist Francisco Lopez – there is always a (multi-sensory) recontextualisation on playback. Life always involves more than just sound.

Audience with blindfolds at a Francisco Lopez concert. Image from www.bienaldegranada.com
Audience with blindfolds at a Francisco Lopez performance. Image from www.bienaldegranada.com

The recontextualisation involved in the acousmatic contemplation of pure sound is sometimes quite rarefied, arguably even bourgeois and culturally elitist: abstract electroacoustic works presented in multi-channel concerts, fine art settings such as white cube galleries, perhaps a CD or digital download for attentive home listening. This assimilation of environmental sound into the traditions of western music and fine art is likely to reinforce the conventions of those traditions, such as the idea that music is created by an individual artistic genius for the gratification of a passive audience. It’s also likely to make environmental sound inaccessible to people who don’t have the cultural capital to ‘fit in’ with those traditions.

This will tend to create a closed loop – people interested in aestheticised sound, making aestheticised sound for (mostly) other people interested in aestheticised sound. There’s nothing wrong with that as such, but its function is quite limited, providing a specific kind of stimulation for a particular minority interest group. That critique could of course be applied to this website, since realistically most readers will be those who already have some sort of interest in sound. That’s fine by me – creative and academic communities need their own spaces for discussion and exchange just like any other group – but they also need to engage with people outside those communities as well, especially when their work concerns something as radically decentred, expansive, collective and participatory as the wide world of environmental sound in which we all live.

I’m convinced that working with environmental sound has a more lively, infectious potential to enrich everyday life and ‘ordinary’ people’s (i.e. not just sound artists’ and musicians’) relationships to places and environments. That enrichment may often be quite modest and subtle, but environmental sound is pervasive, an ever-present unconscious background (Cox, 2009), so even small changes could be significant.

To get some of that potential to flow, my research suggests that environmental audio needs to be recontextualised in ways that make it more meaningful for more people – i.e. more relevant, more inviting, more connected to people’s everyday concerns, routines and spaces. Based on what I’ve observed, there are lots of ways that this can be done. I’m tempted to suggest that the more of them can be thrown into the mix, the better. For example:

  • Using sound to investigate issues that are not just about sound, but tap into a wider interest. That might be something universal like food and clothing (e.g. Felicity Ford’s work with wool), or a more specific topic such as hospitals (e.g. John Wynne’s Transplant project), international air travel (Cox and Carlyle’s Air Pressure), or even something as prosaic as hand dryers in public toilets, which soundscape composer John Drever has been researching:

Alternatively, one can work with audio in places where there are specific local issues of concern to people who live nearby, as in my work at Kilmahew and St. Peter’s Seminary, and Peter Cusack’s recent input into urban planning in Berlin:

  • Using a mix of media, adding spoken commentary, text, still images, video or dance alongside environmental audio to thicken up the experience, activate a mix of senses, furnish contextual details, tell stories.
  • Presenting environmental audio in public spaces through installations, audio walks and performances. There are many things to consider here, but maybe the most important is how people are already using particular public spaces, and how to work with that. For example Noel Lobley, who works on the Pitt Rivers Reel to Real project has been taking ethnomusicology recordings out of the archive and into the communities in which they were recorded. In one case this involved hiring a donkey cart, loading it with a sound system and riding through South African townships playing Xhosa music.
  • Bringing people together for sociable gatherings, collective listening and convivial discussion around environmental audio. Fundamental to field recording, acoustic ecology and soundscapes is the idea that we are always in the midst of a vast, uncontrollable world of sound, immersed amongst many different sounding bodies. The seclusion of galleries, concert spaces and individual home listening to websites or CDs seems at odds with that. Here’s James Wyness explaining his idea for ‘soond gaitherins’:

  • Mixing different ways of working with and thinking about sound. Carsten Stabenow told me that one of the most important aspects of the Tuned City festival he runs is how it mixes people from different backgrounds – sound artists, scientists, cultural theorists, architects etc. This involves inviting people with different perspectives on sound onto relatively neutral ground, and allowing them to hang out, eat, drink, walk and talk together:

  • Subverting playback spaces. If environmental audio work is being presented in traditional gallery or concert situations, this can be done in ways that playfully critique or subvert their restrictive spatial and social conventions. Jonathan Prior has created an alternative audio walk for the Scottish National Gallery that cheekily détournes its exhibits. For example, visitors are instructed to stop before an oil painting depicting the crucifixion of Christ, and hear snippets of an interview with celebrity magician David Blaine talking about one of his painful endurance stunts. I witnessed another example in a soundscape work, ‘Strata’, by Mark Peter Wright, Sophie Mallett, Yiorgis Sakellariou and Brigitte Hart from the London College of Communication. The piece was made for the BE OPEN ‘sound portal’, an unreconstructedly modernist surround sound playback environment created by engineers working for Arup, temporarily located in a public space in London, and deliberately designed to shut out the sounds of the city outside. The following clip starts with one of the field recordings used – the lively calls of a hawker at a London flower market, recorded by Sophie Mallett – followed by Sophie explaining how they used this to bring the messy sounds of London back into the purified space of the sound portal.

The interior of the BE OPEN sound portal. Photo by Bonnie Alter
The interior of the BE OPEN sound portal. Photo by Bonnie Alter.

There’ll be more updates here as the research progresses. Thanks to everyone who has participated in the research so far. And thanks especially to the AHRC for funding the fellowship. It’s proving to be an invaluable opportunity to deepen my thinking and practice in environmental audio, and has also helped me to build working relationships and friendships with others in this field.

Digital surveillance and digital memory

Over the last week or so, the mainstream media here in the UK have been filled with shock-horror stories about communications surveillance by western intelligence agencies. I’m a bit baffled by all the fuss to be honest. Monitoring, storing and sharing information are intrinsic to the very nature of digital communication, so it’s no surprise to find governments tapping into that for their own ends. What else did we expect?

They key thing is memory. Computers are often characterized as calculating machines, but to hold the results of those calculations computers need memory. And as the capacity of computers to calculate has increased in power and shrunk in size and cost, so has their capacity to remember. Media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst argues that digital technologies are characterized by processes of micro-memory. Even when humans experience computers as working in real time, in fact packets of data are being rapidly sent in and out of little chunks of memory with names like ‘buffers’ and ‘caches’. Across a longer time frame, digital devices store data in ROM chips, flash memory, hard drives and so on. Digital technologies are therefore intrinsically archival. Their basic architecture involves the capacity to hold onto information.

Diagram of a video decoder, used for the playback of MPEG-2 videos. Note the many blocks of memory involved.
Diagram of a video decoder, used for the playback of MPEG-2 videos. Note the many blocks of memory involved.

If digital machines are constantly remembering, and we use them for communication, then it is inevitable that what we communicate is going to be remembered – whether for a few milliseconds, a few hours, for 30 days (as with GCHQ) or much longer. Since digital communication requires the networking of machines, the possibilities for circulating this stored data are endless, both legal and illegal, from routine monitoring and data harvesting to snooping, hacking and data theft.

Digital memory is nothing new. The Prophet VS from 1986 had 96 waveforms stored in its ROM, and space to store a further 32 user edited waveforms.
Digital memory is nothing new. This Prophet VS synthesizer from 1986 has the capacity to store 32 user-edited waveforms. The key differences between this and modern devices are that (a) waveform data aren’t personal and (b) the machine’s networking abilities are very limited (it uses MIDI sample dumps, which are pretty clunky).

Just think of all the personal data passing through phone companies, internet service providers, online shops, online banks. Now think of all the people along the way who could access it, whether legally or otherwise – call centre workers, IT technicians, communications engineers, account managers. It’s inconceivable that such complex pipelines, carrying such massive flows, would not be leaky. In the case of companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, their very business models depend on harvesting and selling on data from customers to advertisers. When you use Google’s search engine, they are gathering data from you just as much as you are from them. Intelligence services holding emails for 30 days is just the tip of the iceberg.

Through this little socket go all my phone calls, emails, Tweets, web pages, web searches...
Through this little socket go all my phone calls, emails, tweets, blog posts, web pages, web searches…

Of course there are all sorts of measures that can be used to restrict this information storage and circulation. GCHQ seem to be placing a lot of faith in laws and their employees’ obedience to them, claiming that they never actually access any of the stored data without a warrant. (This raises all sorts of questions: do they really think their employees always comply with this? If it is machines that have snooped on you, not humans, has your privacy been invaded or not? And if the machines are part of the organization, doesn’t the information stored within them count as knowledge within the organization?) As well as data protection laws, there are also restrictive technological systems such as secure servers, encryption systems, firewalls and so on. But all such protective measures involve choking the processes of remembering and exchange that are the life blood of digital communication. The failure of such measures, either occasionally or routinely, therefore seems inevitable.

So I’m skeptical about the value of building stronger regulatory systems to maintain privacy in digital communications. The capacity to siphon off and hold onto information is so intrinsic to digital technologies that looking to regulation seems almost like a denial of how these systems operate. Given the vastness and complexity of the infrastructures involved, effective regulation would probably involve swathes of new law, policing, enforcement, new technologies, heavy-handed discipline, and surveillance of the surveyors – which surely just returns us to the original problem.

This isn’t to say that regulation and restriction can’t be useful in many situations. The firewall in my home router is staying turned on. But we’re likely to be disappointed if we place all of our faith in restrictive, technocratic laws and systems to protect our privacy. Instead, I suggest we need to accept that information storage and exchange are intrinsic to digital communication technologies, and act accordingly.

Diagram of a circuit-level firewall. A useful tool, but we can't trust such devices to protect our privacy. Copyright Cisco Systems Inc.
Diagram of a circuit-level firewall. A useful tool, but we can’t trust such devices to protect our privacy. Image Copyright Cisco Systems Inc.

The example of peer-to-peer file sharing of music offers a useful point of comparison. It’s a case in which there has been an enormous amount of digital data shared without permission, and a lot of consternation about the illegality and possible negative effects of that sharing. So it has some similarities with the current debate about surveillance. Record companies and some recording artists have made a big fuss about file sharing, wringing their hands, arguing for more enforcement of copyright laws and the shutting down of web services, trying to implement copy protection systems and so on, but people continue to share music illegally on a massive scale. Restrictive policing has had some success, with networks such as Napster being sued and forced to close, internet service providers sending out warning letters and limiting bandwidth for ‘persistent offenders’, and the prosecution of small numbers of individuals. But these efforts amount to damage limitation, and are hardly inspiring. Is this the kind of thing we want more of? Meanwhile, musicians are beginning to accept the reality of file sharing – whether they like it or not – and find new ways to make a living that depend less on the sale of recordings.

Similarly, whether we like it or not, I think we need to accept that, with networked digital communication technology, monitoring and sharing of personal data is an ever-present possibility. We can’t enjoy easy access to the internet without allowing the internet access to us. In most cases, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will give a toss about the banal stuff we chuck through these channels on a daily basis, so most of it will probably disappear without trace. But we might do well to maintain an awareness that interception is probably quite easy for anyone who is sufficiently motivated – whether a government agency, a global corporation or an individual, whether acting inside or outside the law. And the chances are we would never know it had happened.

don't share it-1

If we really want to keep information out of these networks, it’s simple enough to do: we just need to make sure we don’t include it in any form of electronic communication. Don’t tweet it, don’t email it, don’t put it on Facebook (even with their privacy settings enabled) and don’t talk about it on the phone. Maybe coping with the reality of digital communication will involve dividing our information roughly into two categories. On the one hand, we’ll have information that we are willing to allow (albeit grudgingly) into the digital domain to be copied, stored, sold, exchanged, scooped or snooped; stuff that might be personal, but ultimately isn’t all that sensitive or critical. On the other hand, we’ll have information that we absolutely do want kept private, which we will learn to keep out of the digital domain entirely. Perhaps in years to come, older forms of communication such as letters and face-to-face conversations will be re-valued for the degree of privacy they afford, a bit like the way that the ritual of playing vinyl records has become more precious in a world full of MP3s.


There’s been lots of commentary recently following the news that UK music retail chain HMV has gone into administration – something that seems to have been on the cards for a long time now. Whether some of its stores can continue remains to be seen, but it seems likely that at least some will close.


Like many music fans and musicians, I have an enduring affection for physical media, particularly vinyl and tape. But I’m a bit more ambivalent when it comes to record shops. Their use of audio technologies sometimes bothers me: bombarding me with music I don’t like, whilst giving me no easy way of auditioning music I might like to buy.

Opinions expressed about HMV have been mixed: flashes of nostalgia, hand-wringing about high streets, along with a healthy dose of derision. Singer Emeli Sande admitted to still buying CDs there, which seemed to confirm my stereotype of the chain as a place for bland mainstream pop and not much else. Some have suggested that HMV’s troubles are due not just to the decline of physical sales, but the fact that it has become a really poor record shop. As Michael Hann put it:

HMV’s problem wasn’t just that it was expensive, compared with the online retailers. It was that, by and large, it had become an awful shopping experience. Where once it was a byword for music shopping, it became – from this music buyer’s perspective – a place of last resort…a shop that had been neglecting music for years, turning to games and DVDs and electronic hardware, compacting its music catalogue into an ever smaller space.


Another Guardian writer was even more blunt:

Why should we feel nostalgic about the demise of an excrescence of capitalism? What are we going to feel nostalgic about next? Cholera?


There’s also an interesting New Statesman article which argues that Amazon is out-competing HMV on physical sales not just because of its lower overheads, but owing to its massive use of loss leaders. Amazon’s strategy is to sacrifice profits in favour of continually expanding its market share, something which HMV can’t possibly compete with. This is something that I think deserves our attention and action. The merits of HMV aside, Amazon’s strategy appears to be to drive all its competitors out of business. Amazon may offer a convenient way to buy stuff, but by participating in that we are actively helping to create a world in which there are more jobs stuffing envelopes in warehouses, and fewer jobs in shops interacting with people. I don’t want to romanticise working in a shop, but its got to be better than working in one of Amazon’s Orwellianly titled ‘Fulfilment Centres’ – there are a few pretty grim first hand accounts here.

Anyway, back to HMV…reading the various reports, I realised that, whilst I’ve bought DVDs there, like many people I hadn’t bought any music in HMV for years, maybe even decades. So, switching into empirical mode, I took a trip to the Edinburgh Princes Street branch to pay my last respects and check the state of the place out. My research questions: is HMV really as bad as has been suggested? What is the shop like to be in, and how does it sound? And could I find any music that I wanted to buy? Here’s a bit of soundscape recording and a short field report:

The ‘25% off’ sale is the only sign of troubled times. The staff are smiling and everything seems to be business as usual. Bypassing the special offer DVDs, I work towards the CD racks, and soon find myself in front of the S-T section. A woman clutching a Simple Minds album is leafing through Rod Stewart, and seems to be grooving very slightly to the piped instore music, some extremely generic rock/pop. She looks to be in her 60s, wearing a sturdy red rambler’s waterproof, with thick glasses hung about her neck on one of those little cords. I look at the CDs: Take That. Tiesto. This is exactly what I had expected – the sort of place where my mum might shop for music. Moving further in, however, the dance section seems to be quite well stocked. Minimal techno is one of the few music styles I know a bit about, and they have some recent releases in there, albums by Monolake, Rob Hood and Andy Stott. The prices, however, are on the expensive side, hovering around the £15 mark. The shop also has a vinyl section, but the stock is low, the prices are high (£28 in one case) and I don’t recognise most of the artists.

Shuffling through to the rock and indie section, there are a few more surprises, not least the presence of all three albums by 1990s shoegazers Slowdive, a band that split many years ago and who, by my reckoning, lie some distance from the current pop mainstream. Speaking of which, the instore music is starting to grate heavily by now. It sounds like some sort of commercialised, festival-pleasing, 8th generation dilution of grunge, dull major label pap. Of course it’s not really that bad, but it’s not what I want to listen to, and as with most piped music, the lack of control is what makes it so unpleasant. In the end I grab an old Happy Mondays CD in the sale for the bargain price of £4.50 (note to self: so I’m not just stuck in the past, but a cheapskate stuck in the past), and head to the checkouts to make a swift exit.

I didn’t find HMV to be a terribly bad record shop, but it didn’t leave me wanting to go back any time soon. So what – in the days of MP3s and illegal downloads – would make for a really good record shop? Take Glasgow’s Rubadub, one of my favourites. I think the key elements there are friendly, welcoming and enthusiastic staff who know their stock, and plenty of decks to check out possible purchases. However, like HMV they have been reducing their record racks and shifting to selling audio hardware in recent years. Maybe now that people won’t pay for music any more, their spare cash is being spent on headphones and MIDI controllers.

A social space: the Rubadub store, Glasgow

I think the very best record shops also serve a social function, acting as key sites in forging music subcultures. Berlin’s Hard Wax, for example, has been instrumental in the development of European techno. It was set up by and has employed many key players in the scene (Basic Channel, DJ Pete, T++, Shed, Dettmann, etc.), and as well as selling records it acts as a distributor for local producers (as does Rubadub), and is linked to a specialist mastering studio, D&M. Reading interviews with the musicians involved, there is a strong sense of Hard Wax as a social space, bringing together like-minded people. If HMV ever performed that function, it definitely doesn’t any more. It’s essentially a supermarket.

It will be interesting to see if any social function develops around online music retailers. Boomkat, for example, offers a quality of service that rivals the best record stores, with informative reviews and sample audio clips for every release. It’s a beautifully designed virtual space, and fun to browse in. But, unlike a traditional record shop, it’s not really somewhere that you can meet people.

Boomkat – beautiful, but not very sociable

If HMV does go to the wall, there are two things that I’ll miss about it. One is the staff. They always seems to be friendly and helpful, which is pretty amazing given their likely pay and conditions. A mate of mine once worked in the Princes Street store, and going by his accounts it was definitely a low pay, low status, unrewarding job.

Second, and more strongly, I’ll miss the size and scale of their shops. I’m not talking about the poky little branches stuffed into shopping centres, but the big flagship stores, with multiple levels and racks stretching into the distance. There’s a forever-teenage part of me that still finds something exciting about a space so big and grand dedicated to recorded music. Of course, HMV hasn’t really been dedicated to music for years now, but the size of their stores is a reminder of times when records, tapes and CDs were more viable, valuable and valued. The small but significant thrill of descending an escalator into a vast expanse of music is one that no independent record shop I know of can offer.


Thanks to Neil Simpson for passing on the New Statesman article.