Wednesday, 2 September 2009

SPOTLIGHTING SPOTIFY, OR ‘OUR ONLINE PLAYER COULD BE YOUR LIFE’

The first of a two-part series in which an old man discovers new media and a lucid frenzy ensues. (Disclaimer: The Spotify player is currently only available in Western Europe. But I expect that it will expand, that similar products arise elsewhere or possibly even both at once.)



Back somewhere in the mists of time, so long ago that Doctor Who was still on the telly, I borrowed the NME Book of Rock from my school library. Lacking access even to something so simple as a photocopier, I’d diligently copy any interesting-sounding entries out on my Mum’s manual typewriter. I had that red folder full of badly typewritten sheets for years afterwards, as precious a document as any pirate’s treasure map. I knew it would take me years of solid and valiant effort, but eventually I would track down each band it referred to...

...which is pretty much the way it turned out. Over fifteen years might have gone by between my hearing of Pere Ubu and my actually hearing anything by them. Music was like that, you see, or at least the real and vital music. While the radio played the same ‘top’ forty tracks on rotation, real music was something arcane and transgressive and inherently underground - something to devote yourself to. (This was a particular feature of music, a fact most borne out by adult fears. To their minds, comics merely encouraged illiteracy. Music led to delinquency.)

These days a mate e-mails me about seeing a band, and ten seconds later I’m checking them out on Spotify. Being somewhat technologically backward, I missed out on a lot of the intervening steps, so maybe that only seems particularly weird to me. But maybe that’s precisely why you need me to tell you just how weird all that is.

That is, if I can tune out of Spotify long enough to type it up, for of late my music system has been taking a rare rest. But it’s not just that I’ve turned to listen to more music on Spotify, since Spotify’s been around I’ve been listening to more music. In fact I’ve been plugged into it’s player like something out of Videodrome. Truly it is almost an embarrassment of riches. If it hasn’t got all of everything, it’s got pretty much a taster of everything. Yes, Pere Ubu are on there. As are Nurse With Wound, Agitation Free or Jackie O Motherfucker. Brother, it ain’t just Coldplay!

Sometimes I’ve tried my damnedest to out-obscure it, only for it to come up with not only the desired result but suggestions for still-more obscure acts to hear out. I even finally heard the Minutemen, whose classic ‘History Lesson Part Two’ inspired this piece’s header. What’s more, they’re committed enough to keep adding acts. The Mekons drew a blank when I first searched for them, now they’re up and running.

It would be like smacking a gift horse in the mouth to criticise it for its few lapses and limitations. Copyright compliant as they are, there’s pretty much nothing they can do about stuff of disputed ownership. (Will I ever hear Captain Beefheart’s Lick My Decals Off Baby without paying absurd ‘rarity’ prices I can’t afford?) My inner nerd recoils when albums are dated wrongly or bands with similar names get confused, presumably because those functions are automated. (The writeup on Camera Obscura starts “not to be confused with the Scottish twee pop outfit with the same name”, when in fact that Scottish twee poppers are the only outfit featured. Ah well, some of us quite liked them!)

It might be more on the money to criticise Spotify from the opposite angle, as too much of a good thing. In an earlier entry, I half-seriously argued for the rationing of art. Spotify, meanwhile, is more like one of those magic dishes in folk-tales which refills as soon as you’ve eaten from it. Even when I really get into a track, I still don’t listen to it as much as when I’ve invested in the CD. (While I never listened to the CD as much as I did the LP back in my youth, when I knew by rote each precious note.) And there are inherent distractions involved in music-by-computer. Even if you can focus your mind enough not to think “I’ll just check my e-mail or tomorrow’s weather” it’s an extra effort not to think “would Wikipedia have an entry for this band?” or similar.

But I also found I got better. With no Ministry of Rationing around any more, I learnt to ration myself. At first I was like those scenes of Homer Simpson snacking, reaching out with more hands than I had ears, unable to listen to any one track all the way through... oh look, they’ve got this... ooh, and that too... let’s just check to see if there’s also... Once I finally had it in my head that they had it all and that they didn’t shut at 5pm like a shop, I finally managed to take my time.

Certainly, it’s one more nail in the identity politics of music I was describing earlier. But that old music wasn’t willfully obscure, for the most part they tried to distribute it as well as they could. They weren’t making treasure chests to be buried, but music to be heard. Even if you know not everybody’s going to get what you’re doing, the easiest way to get it to those who will is to make it available to everyone.

Besides which, knowing you’re never going to hear it all is a salutary life lesson. It may even mark the distinction between my obsessive compulsiveness and fully fledged Aspergers. I’d already learnt that my red folder didn’t contain the complete canon as I’d once innocently assumed, that tracking down the good music is like pinning down a hydra. The more of it you get to, the more you become aware of that’s still out there. And isn’t that a good feeling? Like any artform, most music is made by grunts devoid of imagination and devoted to greenbacks. But there’s a whole host of people out there who don’t think that way...

But the question I’m really interested in is whether Spotify will change the way we listen to music. (Rather than just the place I plug my headphones into.) I’ve found I use it as either a personal radio station and a jukebox. When I’m working, I can just ask it to cycle through the entire catalogue of an artist (or even label) where even the longest CD required changing. At the same time I’m normally working at my computer, so should I choose I can change the channel without even getting up. When I stop working, I can cruse it’s byways for the stuff my ears have previously missed out on. In short, I have all but abandoned my music system for a hybrid of things – but none of those things is another music system.

The key to the whole thing for me is the playlists. Now in one sense, playlists are just the modern equivalent of mixtapes. And the old way of making mixtapes now seems to be so laborious as to be hilarious; trying to time tracklengths on your watch then inevitably getting the sums wrong and having the tape conk out twenty seconds before your grand finale; deciding to reverse the order of tracks two and three then realising that meant the tedious business of going through the whole process again from the beginning. Moreover, every copy you made took quality down a generation and surrendered more territory to the ever-encroaching menace of tape hiss, a perpetual nemesis whose entropic force could at best be held off. For me it was like writing letters with a quill pen and tying them to the leg of a passing pigeon, then a mate tapping you on the shoulder to tell you everyone else is using e-mail.

But that’s the very point – playlists are now so easy to assemble that they cannot help but rise to dominance. I’ve found a strange reversal of function come upon me when aboard Spotify, in which I hunt out tracks which might conceivably work on my latest playlist. Albums are no longer inviolate, their borders became porous. Those more modern than me probably already own i-Pods or shopped from download sites which have served to cut into their integrity (and quite possibly gone on to do some of that ‘texting’ on the subject). Perhaps it even started with CD players and their ‘random’ button which blew apart sequencing.

Of course some might see a Darwinian effect here, allowing the weaker tracks to be weeded out now they can no longer herd in with the stronger. All artists have to do is to provide filler-free releases, and listeners will have no need to slice and dice their output. And it’s true, when CDs ran longer than LPs there was a corresponding increase in filler which could now be cut down.

But I’d suggest we’re also losing something. Ironically there’s a parallel loss of power. I suspect a large part of the appeal of playlists lies in being enabled to create something yourself, you are not merely passively consuming. (This may be why the ads always feel more insidious during playlists, they’re intruding into something of yours.) With the mixtape everything was editable. You could cut from one song to another, or edit in snippets from the radio, a DVD or even your mates talking. While playlists erode the boundaries of the album, the track has simultaneously become irreducible. You can’t do anything even as simple as cut out that intro you don’t like. With playlists you are never creating a collage, but merely ordering menu items.

But there’s a greater loss. I can remember people celebrating the i-Pod’s ‘shuffle’ feature as a liberation, and my pointing out that it was only comparatively recently when (most evidently through Sergeant Pepper) the album-as-entity was presented as an advance. Before that, albums were merely handy carrier-bags for bunches of songs. (Even the early Beatles albums were ruthlessly reordered when released in America.)

Think of the subtle but decisive distinction between album and playlist. There are lots of similarities, after all. With both you sequence the songs in an aesthetically pleasing way. You might choose to save your best number for last. You may even give the assortment some vague sort of theme, maybe ‘music-hall-like’ or ‘northern’. (Certainly the Beatles did little more than that for Pepper.) But each song’s a part of a mindset, created by a set group of people within a set time. Consequently, each song becomes like a facet of some overall object, bigger than the sum of those parts but only visible through them. The term ‘concept album’ now has lots of negative associations, of interminable rock operas about stoned pixies. But in a sense any half-decent album is a concept album, virtually by definition.

Any fool knows the final track on Pepper, ‘A Day in the Life’, to also be it’s finest. But listening to the rest of the album first (even the filler tracks) sets it in a context which enriches it. Otherwise it’s like skipping to the final movement of a symphony. Appreciating an artist involves trusting them, giving up time to them, even taking a little bit of rough with the smooth. It approximates aspects of a personal relationship, over and above a service encounter. Spotify hands us the tools not to surrender to that trust, to break down the walls of the album unit and plunder from what’s inside. But like anything broken it’ll be harder to put back together.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s still a couple of old Robert Wyatt albums I haven’t heard. If there’s anything particularly good I might use it for that playlist I’m working on...

Fellow West Europeans can download the Spotify player from here, all for free. Everyone else... we are laughing at you.

2 comments:

  1. A few years ago I wrote about how I was happy that I learned to love music before there was the internet. Here's one of my reasons:

    "And while Napster or iTunes can get you (almost) any song you want, including a lot you'll never heard on the radio, I think that's too easy. You don't get the tedious disappointment when a song you thought was played on the radio 60 times a day doesn't show up when you have your finger hovering over the "record button (and the opportunity this gives you to think about the song and how much you do really like it, it's the best song ever), or the agonizing moment when you hear that click that means the cassette ends before the song does, or the relentless DJ chatter messing up the beginning or end of your song. But the struggle is important! Struggle builds perseverance, and perseverance bulids character."

    I have and like Spotify (though I have no interest in making playlists; something about me is old-fashioned enough to prefer listening to albums or at least a single artist at a time) but I am still grateful I learned to appreciate music before it got here.

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  2. Thanks for the comments, Holly.

    Perhaps one of the reasons I do like Spotify is that I straddle the gap between it all being far too hard and far too easy. I can even remember trying to record tracks from my portable radio by holding the mike of my hand-held tape recorder up to it. This would inevitably be the moment my Dad barged into my room to ask me something, so I mostly just got tapes of my Dad shouting at me. When it got to recording things ‘internally’ on a hi-fi system, I thought that was pretty science fictional.

    There are certainly things about the “me want now” culture I recoil against, even if I don’t exactly want to return to post-war austerity either. But I was really wondering whether on-line players will change the way we listen to music, rather than how much we might value it. Maybe it won't for you, if you don't use playlists.

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