Does your local public library have a music section? Not just music-related books and magazines, but a section where you can borrow CDs and perhaps also DVDs.
There are two large public multimedia libraries (in French, ‘médiathéques’) near Château French Letter and both have extensive music sections, or ‘discothèques’. Yes, ‘discothèques’. (The French term for a disco is ‘une boîte de nuit’, which literally means ‘a night box’. Sweat box, more like it.) We do the rounds of our libraries every Saturday morning. (They also have lots of novels in English.)
Both libraries are quite quick in stocking the latest releases, so it’s an essential source of new music. Within a week or two of their release, we were able to take out this year’s albums by Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes, dEUS, Hercules & Love Affair, Portishead, Foals, Tindersticks, She & Him and any other worthwhile record of 2008. (It helps that alternative music is a minority sport in France; no one else seems to have borrowed them before us.) We also discovered obscure classics from ye olden days (Young Marble Giants) and overlooked gems from more recently (Nicole Atkins).
As well as saving money on new music, our libraries allow us to experiment, risk-free. In this way we’ve tasted other genres, chipped away at our monolithic ignorance of jazz, classical and world music. So now we’ve discovered Rachid Taha, Ornette Coleman, Tom Zé, Amadou and Mariam – and made a start on the works of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. It’s been a wonderful education.
(On which point: at school shouldn’t we listen to classic music they way we read classic literature? Imagine the morning of the Leaving Cert exam: “Yeats and Mozart both came up last year, so this year it’s definitely Austin Clarke and Jelly Roll Morton!” And then the post-mortem afterwards: “Thomas Kinsella and Fela Kuti!?!? Sure we never did THEM!”)
It’s interesting to see the differences in stock between the two libraries. The music desk at the older establishment is staffed by hard rock fans, and that library always seems to be buying reissues by ‘70s leather-rockers like Scorpions. The other, newer place has indie-kid employees and has more indie-kid new releases, apparently inspired by the pages of French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles. Although a librarian friend of ours insists that stock is bought by administrators and not influenced by staff, we suspect otherwise.
Another curiosity of French music libraries (and record stores): French-language music is shelved separately as ‘chanson française’, a rather loose concept that covers traditional balladry, MOR and anything considered mainstream. French-language pop like Yelle or Housse De Racket goes in here too, but rock en français (like Dionysos or the dreaded Noir Désir) is filed under international rock. Music by Air is filed as international rock/pop, while the album they made for Charlotte Gainsbourg is considered chanson française even though it’s in English. But then, your local HMV (or whoever)lumps all non-English music in as ‘world music’.
We’ve mentioned before the large market here for music aimed at small children: bouncy pop performed by cartoon characters. So the libraries have sizeable sections of these works: one of our local libraries has more children’s records than it has metal, electronica and country combined.
Given that we pay more tax in France, and spend it more wisely, it’s slightly unfair to compare France with Ireland in this regard. But just for comparison’s sake:
From our last days in Dublin, four years ago, we remember that the ILAC Centre library had a music section. Is it still there? If so, hopefully it’s been spruced up and restocked. Back in the day, it was fairly run down. Inlay cards were tattered, faded or simply photocopies, and cases were cracked or broken. There was hardly any rock or pop – certainly no recent releases. Most of the best jazz albums, including the entire stock of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, were missing, probably stashed in some Dublin bedsit and never to return. That said, there was still enough on the shelves to make the ILAC music library interesting.
For reasons that would surely bore you, the CLUAS Foreign Correspondent (Paris) turned up in Portlaoise public library two years ago. We saw that they had a fair-sized music section. Having looked them up on the web at random, we see that the local libraries in Tralee, Ennis, Cavan and Athlone don’t have one but Ballina, Wexford and Carlow do.
Here’s an experiment: go to your local library and, if it has a music section, see if they have these five records: (1) ‘Unknown Pleasures’ by Joy Division (2) ‘Birth of The Cool’ by Miles Davis (3) Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’, played by Glenn Gould (4) 'Around The World In A Day' by Prince (5) ‘Egypt’ by Youssou N’Dour. Five points for each album-plus-artist you find, for a maximum score of 25. Three points if you can only find another album by the same artist, or if the Bach is performed by someone else. Two points for a compilation or soundtrack featuring any excerpt from these five albums. One point for a compilation/soundtrack with any track by these artists.
From an album and artist we’d never have heard of but for the wonderful French public library system, here’s New Jersey singer-songer Nicole Atkins and the video for ‘The Way It Is’, from her fantastic 2007 album ‘Neptune City’. Not to build it up too much or anything, but that chorus is something else: