Tag: music

Listening to music in three parts

Part 1 Listening to digital music

I have this theory. In fact I have lots of theories. But for the rest of this paragraph I will restrain myself to blessing you with just one. My theory is that we are all moving to digital music before we are ready for it.

I mean listening to it on an iphone/ipad thing, sure fine. We’re all doing that ok. But in the house? or in the car? How do you listen to it there?

I quite often hear people talk about how they put their CDs in the loft, or never buy real CDs anymore. Yeah, why bother with that crazy shit?! And the news which reminded me of this today was that Amazon will allow you to download (and keep in the Cloud) any physical album you buy.

Now, when I do buy music (which is less now, as the rules of being a grown state you buy less music), when I do buy music, I do still tend to buy a CD. Even though the first thing I will do is rip it.

Why? Because, for some odd, unexplainable, stupid, economic-defying reason it is still cheaper, to pay for something to be designed, made, put together, boxed up, shipped to a warehouse, stored, picked from the warehouse, shipped to a Store, unboxed and put on a shelf, have people decide on how it will look in that store, and have people on hand to offer advice, someone to take payment, pay expensive rent on said store, and factor in shrinkage, THAN PUTTING A BLOODY 5MB FILE ONLINE TO DOWNLOAD.

This is crazy.

I said CDs are often cheaper than MP3s, as a quick test by looking on Amazon for Madonna (YOU SEE I AM DOWN WITH THE KIDS). Of the nine albums shown: five are cheaper on CD, three are only available on CD and one, just ONE, is cheaper by downloading MP3s. iTunes seems little better.

Screen Shot 2013 01 14 at 21 38 06

My buying process goes something like this: like a song on Spotify. Decide to buy it (especially as I don’t subscribe and can often only listen 5 times). Decide that I like more than 4 or so songs from the album, at which point, at 99p per song it is only a little more to buy the whole album. Check the album on Amazon both to download and buy, often the physical album is cheaper and that’s what I’ll buy.

I will then have it on my computer and iPhone (at a bit rate of my choosing – I am a geek) plus have a backup physical copy – which comes in a nice presentation box with photos – that I can also use in the Hi-Fi, lend to a friend and play in a car. Those extras there are pretty handy, and worth getting the CD even if it is a little more than the download only version. Plus, PLUS they can’t do a Amazon-Kindle-look-at-us-while-we-delete-an-ebook-from-your-kindle-which-you-previously-purchased. Not with my physical copy they can’t.

But, even with these physical things sitting very very close to my as I type this, I still play mostly via my laptop. The thing is, they do skip, and worse, I have to stand up and walk a whole meter and find a cd, and put it in the player, and then after a while it will get to the song I don’t care for much and have to get up again and press skip. I know! And then 15 mins into the album my attention span will be all used up and I’ll want to instantly change to a completely different song which probably isn’t on any CD I own, let alone the one I’m playing. Is there no end to the grind?

That’s not to say CDs don’t have advantages. For one they are better quality (no compression, dedicated hardware) when they are not skipping, and also they continue to play even when my laptop does the pretty rainbow circle for a mouse pointer. Which happens every two minutes and lasts 110 seconds each time for me. Sometimes I avoid switching windows or opening a new tab because I like the song I’m listening to and don’t want it to cut out.

But let us get back to the question, if you, the general public  (yes, that was quite patronising) are abandoning the CD for digital music, then what are you doing.

There seem to be three options: use earphones, use a cable into your existing Hi-Fi, use a Hifi or specialist device with an iPhone dock.

Now, if you fancy ‘pumping some tunes’ (once again I demonstrate just how with it I am) in to your living room then headphones are no good. But do we really all rely on little cables connecting our laptop headphone socket with our HiFi external input socket? Or has everyone dumped their HiFi and just use their iPhone (and, yes for you in the corner, also Android devices, bless)  in some specialist dock? (the latter of course will give much better quality, a digital signal basically going to the Hifi’s DAC – digital analog converter darling – and then on to the Hifi’s amp)

Or do we all now party in our living rooms by the sound of an internal laptop speaker? Good news for the neighbors. Less so for crazy parties.

My point, which so far I have failed to make in any articulate way, is that we all seem to be running around going ‘remember those CDs? how quaint! we’re all digital now, yeah, we’ve given all our CDs to Oxfam, yar, darling pass the hummus’, at the same time, we’re not really ready to do so. Cars either just have a CD player, or need to come with a 5 year old child attached to them to explain how you transfer your music from your ‘digital cloud’ on to a stick your car can play. And even if you can do that with your computer, how do you do it with your iPad where files are so twentieth century, god who needs them any more, and who wants a nasty looking USB port to ruin the smooth lines that Steve himself created? How do you get files from a device with no files and no USB port to your car?

And Spotify, how can it take over / destroy / save the music industry if there’s no easy way to get the music to sound ok. I’ve often amazed when people say they just use Spotify now. How do you play it? Oh we just play it out of the laptop speakers. Really? Is this progress? It feels like the McDonalds of progress, instant choice but not a great step for quality.

Me? My HiFi is on the other side of the room to my laptop and I use Apple’s Airport to stream music wirelessly. It’s not an ideal solution, expensive to buy an airport express just for this, requires a special third-party app to stream Spotify and anything else other than iTunes, but does work.

The whole point of laptops is that they are portable, so I’m surprised there aren’t more common technologies to cheaply take the sound your laptop is making and streaming it with no wires to your HiFi. I would have thought that would be a common requirement and yet it seems to be only me looking for it.

Part 2 Why isn’t the music industry doing better with Spotify

We’re told on a regular basis that the music industry is doomed. Mainly due to evil pirates. And the Internet. And Spotify.

We’re also told that Spotify gives the artist a very poor deal, and a number of charts have done the rounds online over the years comparing the money an artist will typically receive from CDs, online, singles, radio play and Spotify, with the sat being a tiny fraction of the rest.

Finally, we know that Spotify itself isn’t rolling in huge profits.

Something seems to be wrong. Because to me, it seems like people are spending money like they never used to, meanwhile, costs are being cut out. With more money in the industry, and fewer people wanting a cut, this should mean good times. So why doesn’t it?

First my logic. I don’t have any numbers. But my instinct is that most people (MOST) don’t buy a new CD each month. What would be the average for an adult, a couple of year? We’ll make it 4 to be generous. Let’s say £10 a CD, that’s £40 per adult a year.

Now it so happens that a Spotify Premium account a month costs about the same as a CD, £10. So for a year that’s £120. So for a typical person, with a Spotify account, they’ve gone from putting £40 a year in to the music industry right up to £120 a year, triple what they used to pay.

Now of course, many people with a Spotify account will be music lovers who, pre-spotify, would buy more CDs than my plucked out the air 4, but I know many people with Spotify Premium who I wouldn’t put in to that grouping.

And higher up in this ramblings I pointed out just how many extra costs the traditional CD has compared with a digital download. That £40 included a cut for the security guard in HMV, and the person who does the Health and Safety training for stores in the south west. And don’t forget the guys in the warehouse, or the one who sources the packaging, or the girl who designed the art layout inside the sleeve.

But that £120? Well yes Spotify get a cut, but the rest goes to the record label itself (i.e. the music industry), and hopefully, a portion of that will go on to the actual artist. So more money is coming in, and more of it is going to the core of the industry.

There are partial answers, but they don’t explain it all. The music industry complains because that’s what it always does (and I get a feeling that they still live in an excess of a previous era).

Spotify is playing a long-term game, expanding both the number of countries and users, and will hopefully become sustainable. And the numbers we have for artists are patchy and mostly from those who have shared (confidential) numbers, and mostly indie outfits. Of course the truth is it is a long tail. And indies are the tail. Lady Gaga is probably played more than all of them put together and can also negotiate a higher play fee, combined probably means she does quite well out of it. The humble CD did equalise things a little: the price of a CD album did not differ too much between major acts and indie bands, so if you bought lady gaga and an indie band you would probably pay roughly the same amount. I’ve also a hunch that Gaga fans will probably play the same song many times, whereas someone who prefers small indie bands is more likely to have a wider range of acts they listen to, which with Spotify’s pay for plays means that they have a small audience listening to their music, plus that audience will listen to it less per person.

And of course the Spotify model is more long-term for the artist as well. With CDs you get a surge in spending, as people buy the CD, they then may listen to it for decades but you earn nothing more directly from this. However with Spotify they could go on earning for years, without doing any extra work. So while it may look to like CDs, downloads, etc are better earners, we will have to see how they compare over a longer time period.

As an aside what I don’t get however is why the adverts on Spotify often seem quite poor, as if they struggle to sell the advert slots. To me this is advertising gold, audio adverts are harder to ignore than magazine, online or even tv ads. Spotify users are likely to be young, tech savvy, probably not too badly off (they have broadband and a computer) and these sound like the sort of things which advertisers like. What’s more adverts can be tailored based on listening tastes. They should be able to target much more accurately than for TV or radio, and hitting the right audience is always the key thing.

Get back to the point and wrap up this bit Chris. So my point is, Spotify, based on my non-fact-based guesswork, looks like it is getting people to spend more money on music than they would previously while reducing the number of people who need a cut of that money. So why is the music industry in ruins, Spotify in loss, and artists complaining of a poor deal.

Part 3 Bloody Hell HMV

A couple of hours ago it was announced that HMV, the last major Music retailer in the UK, is going into Administration. This was shocking in that it was and wasn’t shocking.

It wasn’t shocking because anyone who reads the news will have read a slow drip feed of bad news for HMV, and this Christmas didn’t bring good results.

But it was shocking because it was both the last major music chain (they also did films and games but I wasn’t really interested in those) and the one I’ve visited most in my life. It was also the one I visited when growing up.

Someone tweeted earlier that they’re glad HMV sold Waterstones (the UK last major national bookstore) so not to bring them down with it. I don’t feel the same. I wish I did. I wish I could say I was the bookish type, always lost in a book when growing up, always reading new things. The truth is I didn’t read much, and I don’t know. And the only bookshop I remember in Northampton, where I grew up, was WH Smiths (later on Waterstones, and The Works, did open up a store, and in those days WH Smiths wasn’t too bad, and not the mess of a store it is today). So, I feel bad – and somehow a lesser person – for saying it, but if it was Waterstones announcing closure today I wouldn’t feel the same sense of nostalgia and sentimentality as I do today. I imagine for many towns it will be a choice between WH Smith and the supermarkets which is depressing.

Luckily I have quite a few music shops near me, most sell CDs I’ve never heard of, and nearly all only exist for a few years before they close and new stores open up to replace them. Resident music makes an exception by both being open 8 years (aka ‘forever’ in terms of Brighton’s shops) and even sells some music I have heard of.

Finally, I never quite understand why companies go into Administration in this way. When times are getting tough, why not sell those stores that generate the biggest loses, make the whole company smaller and then focus on rebuilding a much smaller company. It seems to me that Comet, Jessops and HMV all kept nearly all their stores open right up to Administration, and in HMV’s case, they often had large stores, right in the busiest (aka most expensive) part of the shopping centre. Why not move to smaller sized units, and, while not moving to the edge of town, look into units which were a little less ‘premium’.

I’ve been surprised by a number of the recent closures. Comet may not have been great, but it’s where you often went for a fridge or electrical good. And while people may be splashing out less at the moment, white goods are not something that has really taken off in terms of online shopping. And Habitat, a store that overpriced everything and yet always seemed busy. I always thought overpriced+busy=win. But clearly not.

And HMV, yes it had a LOT of competition from Amazon and the supermarkets, but it was the last high street music seller of note, especially with Virgin Megastores gone, if you wanted a CD, or film while in town that is where you went, so I find it surprising they couldn’t find a way to make that work, even if it meant reducing the stores.

The three parts of this are all about how we listen to music, or how we are buying it, which are both connected. We are listening to it online, even if I suspect we are not doing it correctly (according to me, who obviously makes the calls on these judgements), we are subscribing and streaming not download or buying, which to me should bring in more money to the industry, and mean it goes to those we actually play, and it looks like we are losing the last real way to buy a physical album on the high street.

The weird thing about technology progress is that no one plans it through, or has any control of the direction. Each little development and change leads to a knock on effect to our lifestyles and way of living, sometimes we know this will have bad knock on effects but there is little we can do. For roughly the last hundred years (maybe a little less) we purchased music from a store, on a circle shaped thing (mostly), and certainly for the last few decades the most popular concept was the ‘album’ of 10 or so songs released together, with a name and some artwork. Like most publishing industries, we are clinging on to as much of this infrastructure even though the online environment makes it pointless, but for how much longer?


I’ve got the other place (here or here) for random ill-thought musings. But today I decided to put one here. Hi-Fi

< vaguely interesting background story with slight element of personal touch>

I left University in 1999. Having been in full time work before I had even finished my last term, and living in cheap shared accommodation, I could splash out. But being somewhat conservative (small ‘c’, you see that? SMALL ‘C’. I mean ‘c’. Just want us to be clear on this ok) I waited a year, before buying the hi-fi I had seen and desperatly wanted for a massive £280.

Now, should you have been looking at purchasing a stereo/hi-fi (what do we call them nowadays?) around this time, which I was, clearly, then you will be aware at just how vile they all were. Bulging like their biceps were about to explode (pendants will argue about their lack of biceps). The one pictured below is quite a modest example, laziness stopped my from finding a more accurate example.

The issue was not was not that these existed, I can understand there is a market for them, just like there is one for JD Sport. But that they dominated the market so. Walk in to a Comet or Currys and aisle after aisle was full of them. If they had 30 models on display then only one would be purchasable by sane persons.

[an aside: it looks like with the demise of (a) vinyl (b) tapes (c) club culture that design has moved on and most hifi’s on sale today have completely different dimensions. A good example is this from Onkyo, which is excellent and recommended]

But I had found one that was above all this, minimalistic in design, always good in my book, and stunning on the glass and wood stand it was displayed on where I first saw it (which was Dixons, yes I know). It was the Pioneer NS-9.

It consisted of one small unit, which was basically the hifi, a separate display, two small speakers and a woofer. It looked and sounded great. The front of the display – with all the buttons – could actually come off and act as a remote but this was more or less unworkable. The UI was awful, trying to set sleep mode or retune a preset radio setting still requires the manual.

The two small speakers and a bass combination was unusual and worked well. My flat mates and near neighbours through the years will attest to the kick arse bass it produced (literally as I type this, Open Up from Leftfield is playing).

It was the first, and still inexcusably very rare, system with FM/RDS I saw that showed not just radio station name but extended information, such as a the show, DJ, and maybe even the song that was playing, depending what the station sent out. This was way before DAB radio, and at the time at most you would normally see was the station name. I must have been one of the few reading the text that was being transmitted. I remember the Radio 1 Top 40 would show the song name and artist (and position in the chart)  which sometimes was displayed before the song was announced on air. It was if I was tapping in to some secret message no one else had access to.

Anyway, apart from the woofer, separate display and extra programme information, it was just a hifi, I still can’t quite believe I’m writing a post about it.

<finally getting around to the point of the post>

But I’m not writing about it.

For years I’ve been glancing an eye at a Hi-Fi separates system. Now isn’t the time for me to be buying one having just bought a property, but I’ve been keeping a look out for something that can replace my stereo. The CD player isn’t what it once was, and a few other niggles remain.

It started when I was a kid. I had a Matsui (Dixon’s home brand, made in Wales I think, but with a reassuring foreign name) cheap hifi. Why would anyone pay anymore than this? I can turn it up and the treble sounds high and the bass is low. It all sounds clear. What more could you want? One day, on a “I need to get out the house on a Saturday but I don’t know what to do so I’ll go to HMV and look at all the albums I could buy, again” I was in, well, HMV and Blue Monday came on. This was a time when HMV was a music shop that sold a few movies in the corner. Their sound system was amazing. I didn’t know what they all did but the black boxes when from floor to ceiling.

The song blew me away. Consumed me. Took me over. And I had it at home! I walked back to my parents house and put it straight on. It didn’t give me the same feeling. That was when I realised what a good sound system could do. And though the sound my system made sounded ‘ok’ it just didn’t have that magic. It sounded flat.

But how often do I use the CD player now? Not enough. Spotify more than anything dominates now. This isn’t always healthy. I can never settle on just playing an album, and spend forever playing favourite tracks. Anything that doesn’t grab my attention is skipped. And I know this is bad.

With audiophiles preaching about the importance of cable, good source, good amp, etc, this all goes to pot when your source is a live streaming free Spotify (subscribers get higher bit rate) going through your Macbook Pro headphone socket. So here’s the question. In this age of Spotify and similar, is the hi-fi stack still valid? I use my Hi-fi more for radio then I do CDs, yet the radio turner is often seen as an afterthought. And what about all in one compact systems, from good names such as Onyko, Cambridge Audio, Denon, Marantz, are separates really that much better than these?

One issue was the tuner, CD players and Amps start at around £100 (though it’s made clear these are bottom of the range). The cheapest tuner is £150, and that has bad reviews, and can’t do DAB+ (DAB+ is a major improvement over DAB, not man realise that the iplayer has a higher quality stream than DAB, with the possible exception of Radio 3). This is an odd situation. You can buy a decent all-in-one unit for say £200, yet a semi-decent turner separate costs about the same, but with probably less features. With the tuner on top of the CD and Amp you’re look at £350 for the most basic of basic systems, extra for the speakers. Is it worth it? How much of that expense goes on the physically boxes and extra overheads of a separates system? The reviews all make somewhat patronising comments ‘excellent sound – for a all-in-one system’, ‘good if you need a basic set in another room’ etc. But how much is snobbishness and how much is fact. Is it worth it?

So I can’t afford a new system. And not even sure I need one based on most of my listening is of Spotify, iplayer and radio 4. But I can’t decide that if I were buying a new system, which I’m not, whether I would buy an all-in-one system (such as this or this) or separates.

I’ll continue to debate what I wont be buying, but might buy if I could afford it, and update you if need be. But I still am not sure such things are needed especially as we move towards the internet/computer being the key source of music, and the main output of which is currently a crappy tiny headphone socket. If we want to hear good quality music via our computer a different route my need to be developed.