Do you remember the first time?

Simon Price does. It was Cardiff, 1973, and it was Gary Glitter. But don't let that put you off. Here, the IoS rock critic charts his life-long love affair with pop (and how he discovered The Darkness - no, really) to introduce this special edition of LifeEtc celebrating all things bright and musical

I'll never forget my first time. I lost my virginity to Gary Glitter. I was only five years old. One Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1973, my father, to appease my boredom during one of his epic grazing sessions in a dark, dusty Cardiff record shop, told me I could have one single. I'm not going to claim any great originality or prescience here. It wasn't an obscure cult classic, or influential underground trailblazer. I chose "I'm The Leader Of The Gang (I Am)" - because I'd seen it on Top Of The Pops two days earlier, and because it was Number One in the charts at the time. I walked away beaming, clutching the silver Bell label to my chest, feeling that I'd grown up, graduated, joined the gang.

I played that record to death on an inherited Alba stereo. I marvelled at the chest-beating "come on come on!" refrain, the slow-down and the speed-up at the end, and wondered what the hell Mr Glitter meant when he said "I'm the man who put the bang in gang".

And I still own it. And it still plays, just about (vinyl was tougher in those days), every crackle a souvenir of my everlasting love of pop. Now, it is surrounded by a seven-inch single collection which can be counted not in the hundreds, but the thousands.

Each one of them I "discovered" somehow, but by a wide variety of means, usually more sophisticated and circuitous than the way I came to own that first Glitter hit. And that's the reason I'm introducing this piece on the future of music by getting dewy-eyed over a now-disgraced glam-rocker and his still-brilliant records. The processes of discovery - and the methods via which we encounter music - have changed dramatically since my childhood, and will continue to change (and, I fear, "dwindle") in the years to come.

I always had the unfair advantage of an intensive education. My father was (and is) a music freak, every wall of the house insulated 12 inches deep with LPs. I would idly flick through them, arbitrarily deciding that The Doors were "my favourite group" and that Dusty Springfield was "my favourite singer" (one out of two ain't bad). But among these household names were less familiar ones. Radio Birdman. Wild Man Fischer. The Flamin' Groovies.

"How did you hear about these records, if they're not in the charts?" I asked him. Momentarily, he looked thrown. He'd never really thought about it. "I suppose I read about them in magazines, or hear them on a radio show, or get told about them by friends, and buy them on the off-chance that I'll like them ..."

The idea that there was a world of music beyond Top Of The Pops and Radio 1's Top 40 rundown blew my mind. When you're a child, it's beautifully simple. You tend to like what's popular, with no regard to its cultural origins. My first few albums were Grease, Saturday Night Fever, Abba Greatest Hits Vol 2, a Fat Elvis collection and a K-Tel various artists compilation called Midnight Hustle. My first few singles included Blondie, Boney M, Abba, Boomtown Rats and Gary Numan: cheesy pop and new wave side by side.

Then Youth Culture strikes. In my case, it happened when I was 12 years old, crammed with my dad, step-mum and two step-brothers into a parked Fiat at Barry Island, eating chips and listening to the Top 40. The shrill screech of "Gangsters" by The Special AKA came over the speakers, and in that instant my life was altered.

Suddenly, you don't just buy records because you like them. You buy them because they "mean" something, because they belong to a continuum, to a specific cultural narrative. For me, several years of obsession with the Two Tone label began. And from that, I explored vintage ska and reggae. In a similar manner, my love of soul revivalists such as Dexys and The Style Council led me to discover old Motown, and Northern Soul - records that were not only non-hits in the UK, but which were never even released.

Older Brother Syndrome is another important factor. As a first child, this didn't apply to me, but I had a friend whose punk sister owned records by The Damned, Stiff Little Fingers and PiL, which we would borrow while she was away, and another who would come into class and say, "Have you heard of Iggy Pop? The MC5? My brother's into them."

My growing musical awareness and my pop literacy enhanced by (the then excellent) Smash Hits magazine meant that, when I bought breakthrough hits by Soft Cell, Adam And The Ants or The Human League, I was aware that these records came from somewhere else - and not only in the geographical sense. The music press, in its 1970s/1980s heyday, was a major force in turning people on to underground music. I graduated from Smash Hits to Melody Maker and NME, and read about bands whose music I could only imagine. To actually hear it, I had to stay up late and tune into John Peel. I will never forget lying in bed in the dark, hearing the feedback cacophony of "Never Understand" by The Jesus And Mary Chain, and believing that Satan was coming out of my hi-fi.

John Peel introduced me to the likes of The Fall, Half Man Half Biscuit, The Loft, The Flowerpot Men (all of which I acquired by traipsing into Cardiff to Spillers, the world's oldest record store), and above all The Smiths, who I saw live on my 17th birthday, another life-changing experience. Again, I felt part of a gang.

At the same time, I rebelled against indie snobbery, resenting the (deliberate?) unavailability of the records. If these bands were worth hearing, I reasoned, then they should at least make the effort to get their music into Woolworths.

When I escaped Wales and came to London, Youth Culture struck again, this time in the form of goth. About which, the less said the better, although I did find myself buying records which seemed to exist only within this shady nightclub underworld: another vital way of encountering music.

Meanwhile, my connection to the music press grew umbilically close. I became a writer. Having penned my own column, Simon Says (not my choice) for The Barry And District News aged 16, I progressed via London Student to the world of the proper inkies and a nine-year stretch at Melody Maker.

At which point, my everyman narrative breaks down, because ever since, my means of access to new music have been inevitably and necessarily privileged ones. But I've never been the talent scout type of music journalist. I'm very much a critic: sitting in wait, looking at what pop culture throws up, then dissecting it. On rare occasions, however, I've been at the right place at the right time. Two and a half years ago, I happened to catch The Darkness playing a small north London pub, and proclaimed their genius. As I write this, they are arguably the biggest rock band in Britain.

The Darkness, though, are an anomaly: a genuine People's Choice whose popularity has grown from the ground up, despite - not because of - the industry's approval. In this day and age, this sort of thing is rare. Almost impossible, in fact.

A quarter of a century ago, before my musical awakening, punk stormed the Bastille and chaos reigned. Punk's DIY ethos had far-reaching consequences, and avenues of infinite possibilities opened up. Infinite possibility, however, is not what the record industry likes to hear. It has always preferred a safe bet, and in times of dwindling sales, more so than ever.

It took 25 years for the corporations to fully regain control, but they have now taken an iron grip. Ironically, by selling punk back to us, in a bastardised, MTV2/Kerrang!-friendly form. Rather than fighting the underground, the mainstream has very cleverly and effectively co-opted it, nicking its iconography and imagery, the gruesome end result of which is Good Charlotte, Evanescence and Avril Lavigne.

The twin trends of the past decade - seemingly divergent, but actually part of the same process - have been fragmentation and homogenisation. By dividing popular music into a handful of easily-identified genres - punk, metal, rap, R&B, pop - the record companies, in collusion with the cable channels and the radio stations, have created a spoon-fed generation split into tidy niche markets.

A band called A Perfect Circle played Wembley Arena last week. No, me neither. And it's my job to know these things. (In case you're wondering, it turns out they're a spin-off of the industrial rock act Tool.) The biggest band in the world right now are Linkin Park, and they have achieved it without ever uniting music fans in any kind of consensus. Could you sing one of their songs? But they've been ruthlessly sold to a particular demographic, and they've saturated that market (who will invariably be clad in off-the-peg "punk" clothing bought from Hot Topic, the alternative Wal-Mart).

Commercial sponsorship has its claws everywhere. It's more important to get your music on the new Grand Theft Auto soundtrack or Vans ad than it is to go on tour. And if you do tour, it will probably be sponsored by the people who make GTA, or the people who make Vans.

In the States, the main force behind these trends is the media giant Clear Channel, owned by L Lowry Mays, a friend of George Bush. Since radio deregulation in 1996 - rubber-stamped by Clinton but pushed through by a Republican-dominated Congress - Clear Channel has increased its portfolio from 36 radio stations to a staggering 1,225 across 50 states. It controls more than half of popular music radio in general, and 60 per cent of rock radio, enforcing centrally programmed playlists, with regional news and weather digitally dropped in to give the illusion of localness.

There is no political will to halt Clear Channel's march towards monopoly: the regulatory body, the FCC, is headed by Michael Powell, son of Colin. Clear Channel, you see, is not politically neutral. Earlier this year it organised pro-war demonstrations, and its programming mixes music with right-wing commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Dr Laura Schlessinger. Clear has been accused of bullying tactics, strong-arming or blacklisting artists who don't play the game with Clear Channel Entertainment, its concert promotion wing (formerly SFX), which is now the biggest in the US. As a result, even anti-establishment figures such as Marilyn Manson play CC's Download festival. In his defence, there is almost no choice.

Could it happen here? Britain does not have its equivalent of Clear Channel, yet. But we're heading that way. For all the positive work they do, conglomerates such as the Mean Fiddler group, the ascendant Carling (which owns three major venues in London, as well as one each in Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester), and on a smaller scale Barfly, are part of a drift away from independent music venues. With a handful of live agencies, they create a situation where the same centrally vetted, approved bands play every support bill and every festival tent.

In radio, at least, Britain is still slightly more wary of monopolies than the US. However, practices such as computerised playlisting have been the norm for almost two decades. Pirates - so influential in the 1960s - enjoyed a late resurgence in the late-1980s as a catalyst behind rave culture, and are still a force in what we might broadly call urban - or, to be less squeamish about it, black - music. In the rock and pop world, though, the landscape is barren. And ripe for a takeover. Clear Channel already has a foothold in this country, with 23 live venues. Only flimsy legislation stands in its way.

The situation on television is even worse. In theory, the proliferation of music channels should be a good thing. The existence of retro stations such as VH-1 means that nothing is lost for ever (even if what we are allowed to see is limited). But skipping between the dozen music channels on my Telewest Supreme Package, it's incredible how often you see the same videos - Justin, Christina, Nelly - over and over again.

On terrestrial TV, the rise of the Pop Idol/Fame Academy shows, and their conveyor belt of instant starlets, give the illusion of democracy: "this is what we want". Wrong! It's what the peasants who watch prime-time want. And it's the death of the charts (at one point last year, 80 per cent of the Top 40 had some connection to these shows). The chances of stumbling across a latter-day Special AKA on TOTP are as minuscule as Girls Aloud's skirts.

I recently received a single by the winner of American Idol, Kelly Clarkson, with a press release telling me that "her voice has been compared to Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston". My heart sank. That - and young men whose voices have "been compared to Marti Pellow" - are all that these shows will ever give us.

There are, happily, some signs that people are getting tired of this stuff. And of course, great original, eccentric, exciting music continues to be made, even if Clear Channel and their minions don't want you to hear it. The Best Friend/Older Brother syndrome has gone global with the rise of the internet. The technicalities of filesharing are complicated and important. But what concerns me are the implications. By sharing music via Napster (RIP), Soulseek and Kazaa, people all over the world can expose themselves to music they would never otherwise hear - and that can only be a good thing. The multinationals may whinge about lost profits, but there is a simple answer. If record companies brought down the high prices they charge for CDs - and released music people actually want to hear - maybe people wouldn't be so reluctant to fork out.

But no. They like it this way. Nothing is left to chance. Mistakes are never made. It's all sewn up.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine Avril Lavigne's trainer stamping on a human face for ever. A Vans trainer. As she swigs a Vanilla Coke, and Clear Channel cameramen beam the whole thing into your children's bedrooms via broadband. Old seven-inch singles, such as the one I bought when I was five, will take on the symbolic value of the glass paperweight in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, poignant relics of a more spontaneous, less stage-managed time. But it's up to all of us to resist homogenisation. Some avenues of discovery may have closed, some are still there, and others are opening. Don't let them win.

Raid your dad's collection ... or your daughter's. Allow your brother to brainwash you a little. Read fanzines and unofficial websites. Start your own bands and clubs (the stranger the better). Spread the word virally. Download difficult-to-find tracks from others, and upload your own rarities. Look through second-hand shops and car boot sales. Buy records on a whim, because they have a weird title or an intriguing sleeve. And if you happen to see "I'm The Leader Of The Gang" for 50p, pick it up - it's bloody great.

Come on. Come on. Come on.

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