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Miscellaneous - June 2009

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 22 / 5 / 2009

Miscellaneous - June 2009


In the latest in his 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' series, Ben Howarth looks at Spotify, a new downloading site from which albums can be downloaded for free and it has been claimed that it will make CDs redundant, and asks if the phenomenon lives up to the hype

Downloading music from the internet: Now, that’s a subject sure to set the heart a flutter. Is there anyone left who hasn’t tried it ? Is there anyone at all who actually enjoys it ? First you realise you don’t have the correct software, so you download that, which takes long enough. Then you download the songs, which takes even longer. Then you realise you need something decent to play them on, which takes longer still. Eventually, you can play a few songs through your tinny laptop speakers or even transfer them to your mobile phone (which, naturally, also takes ages – and even longer still if the wire connecting your phone to your computer falls out half way through, which it definitely will). Even if you make it this far without smashing your laptop or your phone or your head against your laptop or your phone, there is still another hurdle to climb. A quick glance at your bill will quickly reveal that all this downloading leaves your monthly download limit looking as imaginary as the IMF’s former prediction that the world economy would continue to grow for the rest of the decade. The whole magical concept of ‘free music’, like the magical concept of 120 per cent mortgages, quickly shatters. You may not be paying EMI for the new Lily Allen album, but you are definitely paying BT. Speaking recently in his capacity as a member of the House of Lords, Andrew Lloyd Webber bemoaned the apparent loss to the music industry of £1.2bn caused by illegal downloads. This figure implies that had people not stolen £1.2bn worth of music on line they would have spent £1.2bn on iTunes. Don’t make me laugh, Andrew. Yet, it is probably right that work is afoot to address this balance, but it seems that the only solution the very handsomely rewarded record company execs have ever found to free illegal music downloads is free legal music downloads. This is less like patching a wound than it is like seeing a bleeding wound and taking a carving knife to it so as to get the rest of the blood out as quickly as possible. Apparently, the latest deal is Spotify. Basically, we’re dealing with iTunes without the downloading – whole albums are stored on line to listen to without charge and, somehow, lawyers haven’t yet needed to get involved. The snag, they accept, is that you have to listen to occasional adverts. The other snag, they don’t accept but it is clearly so, is that the songs cut out mid-way whilst your internet connection catches up. Technical glitches aside, the argument is that this sampling service will actually generate more sales, which I can believe. But, in an article I noticed in 'Q' magazine earlier this year, John Harris says that Spotify will make CDs entirely redundant. We’ll all listen to albums straight from the net. Maybe, but I doubt it. Record companies are clearly not very clever, but they are very nasty, and they aren’t going to give up their profits that easily – expect Spotify’s library to either shrink in volume or expand in price during the coming years. Besides, at some point, you will want to play these albums on the bus, or in a different room to your computer. Or you’ll want to make a compilation for your car. Or you’ll want to listen to the Beatles. Instantly, Spotify becomes redundant and that old fashioned concept of owning music suddenly seems attractive once more. John Harris is a ‘freelance journalist and political commentator’, a profession which – like its spiritual nephew, the postgraduate student – leaves one with not much money but plenty of time. And what could be better a way to fill the seven or eight hours a day when Mr Harris has nothing whatsoever to do than to choose between thousands of free albums on Spotify ? But, with a multinational corporation placing regular demands on my working day, I’ve already given the whole online music fandango up. I listen, I suspect, to a volume of music that is far above average. But even I only really need five or six new albums a month – there simply isn’t time to listen to any more than that. Assuming that only one or two will be from the new releases section, and most will come from the sales or the second hand shop. Even at my most reckless I’ll barely spend £50, which is less in a month than I’ll spend at the pub. Some people will build up vast online libraries, because, as is the case with most things, some people always seem to. (It’s the same reason why some people make vast profits touting Glastonbury tickets they never really wanted). But, in spite of the criminal class, the forty minute album remains a mysteriously perfect way to listen to music. It surely has life in it yet. Granted, there are exceptions. But for the most part, the album allows us the perfect balance between catchy hits and subtler moments that almost always end up as personal favourites. Part of the fun of record buying is the need to make a choice, usually a difficult one. “Do I buy the Leonard Cohen live album (the record of the gig that I didn’t attend but definitely should have done) or take a punt on the new one from Doves (4 stars in the aforementioned copy of 'Q') ?”, I found myself wondering the last time I was in HMV. Back at home, the sensible choice made and disc one of the new purchase ringing out in the background, I thought, “Well done, me. 'Leonard Live in London' will be the soundtrack to the next month, at least, so I won’t need to look for anything else”. Meanwhile, Spotify, in all its bandwidth-hugging, hard drive hogging, time-wasting glory has been sent to the recycle bin, with just one click.

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