Now I’m backtracking somewhat. Almost.
I blow hot and cold on streaming services.
Hot: I love them. In particular, Spotify (Premium — not sure how one can not use this with the poorly targeted adverts for Justin Bieber et al.) is personally indispensable for a variety of reasons. One of which is the inevitable ‘oh! what does that sound like?’ I do that a lot and I think many people do (accepting that just as many also use it simply for background noise — like radio).
I don’t use it for pure ‘discovery’ though and I doubt many do — I’m not driven to ‘check out’ similar artist recommendations ever really, mostly because whatever algorithm is being used to channel these to me is decidedly broken. It does not follow that because I like The Clash and Wire, I’m demographically likely to enjoy 2012 Swedish Death Metal. And yet that’s the sort of thing I get if I let it. This part of the mechanism remains as broken as the iTunes Genius. Listening to Little Willie John doesn’t mean that I should be forced to endure, god help — anyone help — a ‘radio’ station filled with Reo Speedwagon, Dire Straits and Boston. I was.
I mentally assumed it was white noise coming through the wall from the Singaporean students next door (spend time in a CD store in Singapore — they love this shite). Then I realised it was me. The Spotify public logging remains OFF. To live that down — how?
The apps to aid discovery are mostly useless. Pitchfork? I don’t get most American bands. Never have. There — of course — are American bands I’ve lived and died for at times, but more or less the American bands I like are ones most middle Americans either don’t understand or have simply never heard of. Ask Bubba what his favourite Tom Verlaine (or even Ramones) album is and the returned stare will be naked.
And Americans don’t get electronica (the current rave-tasm explosion is really stadium hold yer lighters in a brand new lyrca top replacing the black Metallica T‑shirt — the nation was a decade late on punk too so let’s not give them too much credit here) at least not outside the niches that produced it and had to sell it in non-US markets to get any traction.
Mainstream American hip-hop crept over the finish line alternatively marked sell-by date and/or innovative some time in the late 1990s. I like the new Nas record as a record but it’s like getting worked up over the new Bill Haley album in the midst of the Diamond Dogs era. I listened to it twice. Streaming does that.
Cold: which is why I don’t love streaming services. It’s a bigger part of why I hate the democracy of the internet some days. I miss Berry Gordy, or Ahmet Ertegun, or Chris Blackwell telling me that Bob Marley or Ray Charles or Smokey Robinson is shit hot and making me love it. I don’t always want to ‘discover’. Dictate to me. Not big companies, but seat of pants taste fascists who say: listen to Grace Jones, I discovered her and she’s fucking amazing. She was.
I need a killer visionary or two to look up to. Not a ‘discovery’ machine.
A few days back we were told that of the 650,000 Apps on Apple’s vaguely Stalinist strip mall they call the App Store, 400,000 are never downloaded. Not just not downloaded very often, but never — zero — downloaded. I’d like to see the figures telling us how many more have only been downloaded 10 or less times. I’m willing to bet that 400,000 figure would be well over 500,000. Effectively if you are not part of, or anointed by, the combine that now controls the interweb, and by Apple who control the whole placement thing, you are utterly fucked.
Which of course is the problem with the stumbling Universal takeover of EMI — if it happens it kills everyone else aside from Sony and arguably Warners (although their time would inevitably be numbered too under the new regime, no matter how many billion oligarch bucks they have behind them). Matter of time = Warners are rooted too.
But I digress.
The bigger problem is that we also no longer have the time to live with records to learn to love them as we did. I listen to music every day, I listen to music all day, at home, on the move — it’s absolutely ubiquitous in my world.
And yet for all that the amount of new music I’m able to absorb is shrinking, most because I’m given so much. Streaming services, where I can pick and choose from millions of tracks (although Spotify remains shitty in non-mainstream older indie, R&B and electronica depth) means that I can get access to — and listen to — a vast amount of music. Once or maybe twice.
Fancy the Neil Young Archive set? I did but balked at the silly cost. I’ve listened to it now and it’s cool. Really, really cool. I may never listen to it again. But it’s cool.
Today I’ve had a dozen albums, a few mixtapes, a batch of new artists and a video or ten suggested to me, just by friends. On Facebook, there are a squillion more. On Spotify, I’ve got playlists queued and classic albums lined up. I have, back in the real world, a bunch of loved albums I want to revisit desperately and on top of that, I have a non-trainspottery life which includes my wife, hanging with friends, a couple of exhibitions, cleaning the house and a walk in the park to fit in.
Really it’s fucking insane.
Much of the time I’ll hear a song and think ‘like’. I mark it down as a tune I rate, to potentially love, and never listen to it again. I have a hard drive full of this stuff. I find songs on my iTunes and they’re unplayed. What’s this, thinks I. Checking, I remember being sent it, or finding it, and thinking: damn! The reason it’s marked as unplayed is that I loved it for 2/3 of a play then moved on to the next ‘damn!’ song, never, ever to return.
This, of course, is not a new Spotify or streaming thing — it’s an internet thing and it happened when Napster said ‘here you go: enjoy the whole audio world’. We did. And now that the record companies are catching up with that ridiculous addiction to overkill, Spotify multiples it. No longer do I need to hunt the torrents, to search Mediafire or whatever to find that obscure Arthur Alexander album. Hopefully, it’s there — legally.
As long as I know about it.
Sadly that’s where the increasingly powerful gatekeepers throttle it. There’s no democracy to discover music. There is democracy to create now, anyone can do it with accessible technology, but there it stops. Instead, we have a situation, which is being tightened annually and is about to be horrifically escalated with the impending arrival of mega-Universal, who will absolutely dominate every conceivable delivery mechanism with any penetration thus ensuring that you only hear Universal and Sony releases, or ones that they have a pecuniary interest in — publishing included.
Right now, nothing appears on your iTunes front page unless it’s placed there by the 3 1/2 big content owners.
So conundrum: I either trust the corporate gatekeepers, in which case I have to accept that I’m offered almost nothing more than the carefully controlled Top Twenty racks at Best Buy or HMV 0r their digital equivalent. I’m to remain a robot buying exactly what I’m told to buy and when.
Or I delve into the swamp and accept that I’m to be overwhelmed by a vast deluge of music and — as above — we no longer have the time to live with records to learn to love them. So I don’t, I simply move on to the next recommended track or album.
Which perhaps goes part of the way towards explaining this:
In the two decades since Nielsen Soundscan started to keep track of U.S. album sales in 1991, the company has seen the industry fold in half, digital sales catch up to physical, and vinyl mount a resurgence. But until last week, they’d never seen old records outsell new ones.
I can’t work it out.