I confess, I don’t get the Music thing. This may be because I am old, but I think it’s more than that. I think we’re talking here about a cultural gulf between filtering and collecting. I wouldn’t be so crass as to say there are two kinds of people, however. Somewhere between filtering and collecting lies curating. And somewhere west of filtering are the gnomes of no interest at all.
I remember once having a conversation with a friend about the fact that I occasionally took 10 or so compact disks down to the second hand shop and traded them in for enough money to buy a couple of new ones. He was, at first, nonplussed, because he’d adopted the mindset of the collector, in which having thousands of albums is better than having hundreds, and having hundreds is better than having, say, 90. But I was always ruthless: if I didn’t play it anymore, I sold it. This was back when a second hand CD had some kind of value. When Amazon came along, I switched to selling online – until that method of recycling was killed by the people who steal postage from their employers.
[You know who you are: you put the item (book, CD, DVD) on Amazon for a ridiculously low price (0.01p for example), knowing that you get the standard £2.75 postage fee. Which you don’t have to pay because you put your item through your employer’s postage franking machine. If employers were to crack down on this, those of us without access to a free franking machine and those of us who are, you know, essentially honest, might go back to selling second hand goods for what they’re really worth. But there’s no market for books or CDs right now. You might as well just give everything to a charity shop.]
I’ve always been suspicious of the kind of person who has an all-inclusive musical taste. Jay Z and Taylor Swift, and Fleetwood Mac, Queen, U2, and Beyoncé, and Madonna, REM, and Bruce Springsteen, Snoop Dog etc.. I just don’t see it. This is collecting rather than filtering.
So I was reading something about the history of illegal music downloading the other day, and a penny dropped, kinda. Because the author of the article basically admitted that his vast music collection, across multiple terabytes of hard drives, was an end in itself, and that in no possible way could he have ever listened to it all. He admitted he had things in his collection that he didn’t even like, but that the whole point of the collection was for it to be complete.
So that’s the far end of the spectrum, away from no interest at all, into a territory where ownership is everything and it almost cycles right back around to no interest at all (in actually listening).
I’m not a person who walks around all day with an earbud in, so the longest stretch of time in which I might be listening to music would be on a long drive to France. So let’s say that’s 10-11 hours in the car. By my reckoning, you can comfortably cover that amount of time with between 400-500 songs. I keep a (filtered) playlist on my phone of 1000 songs, so might get through most of them on a round trip – if we ignore the probability that for some of that round trip I’d be listening to several hours of podcasts.
As of now, I have somewhere over 4000 songs in total in my iTunes library. That’s not my entire music collection, as there are large numbers of CDs that I have never bothered to import and probably couldn’t even give away by now. Using the star rating system, I filter these down to 1000 for the phone, but even that is unsatisfactory, because I’m not happy with the way the Music app on the phone handles playback, and OTA synching doesn’t work properly. Here’s why.
I’d like my 1000-song playlist to regularly update itself based on recency of playback. But there’s no synch (or ‘continuity’) between ‘recently played’ on my laptop and ‘recently played’ on my phone, as far as I can tell. My phone also keeps forgetting where it was in the playlist and (when you plug it into the Media interface in the car), it just starts over from the beginning all the time – especially if you swap cars often, which I do. Hit Shuffle, and I still keep hearing the same songs repeatedly, even though there are (in theory) 1000 to choose from. I have a theory about Shuffle, but like most people I am always dissatisfied with its idea of shuffling. Playing three Rolling Stones tracks in a row may be mathematically random, but it’s also a pain in the arse, especially when you keep hearing the same tracks at the beginning of Shuffle playback, as I do. I have the track ‘Anchorage’ by Michelle Shocked. It’s near the beginning of the alphabetical listing, but it has also appeared several times (in the past couple of weeks) on the Shuffle playback, so I reckon I’ve heard it five or six or more times in the last fortnight, which is more than enough times, thanks.
When it comes to updating, the iPhone should synch over the air when connected to power, but I guess it only works if the laptop is also plugged into power and left on. Well, I’m not going to leave my laptop on all night just to synch the phone, but I rarely get around to synching manually. So the playlist gets stale instead of refreshing itself. A song should play once and then disappear until it comes around again. (If I wanted to hear it more often, I’d add a separate playlist with different algorithms.)
I’ve always been a filterer. Rarely had an album, in any format, I wanted to listen to all the way through. Even more rarely do I go on listening to something, even if I love it, once I’ve reached the played-to-death stage.
My daughters occasionally berate me for the fact that I sold almost all of my vinyl. My youngest and I were watching a Bruce Springsteen concert on YouTube the other day (we do this occasionally) and, although it was the Born in the USA tour, most of the songs seemed to be coming from The River. At some point my daughter asked me which was my favourite Springsteen album, and after thinking about it, I said it probably was The River. And yet: there was not a copy of this record in the house. I owned it once on vinyl, and then I owned it once again on CD (to the distant sound of cash registers ringing in Sony headquarters). And now, under pressure from my kid, I was buying it for a third time (kerching, -ing, -ing).
Ironically, this was an album Bruce originally packaged as ‘a double album for the price of a single’, back in the day when artists like him and Tom Petty were fighting against the record industry’s attempts to hike prices for what they saw as a gullible captive audience.
But there it was: The River was an 18th birthday present that I then played to death, and then bought a second time and didn’t play as much – so the CD ended up being sold on, or given away or something. Or maybe, and this is possible, it’s actually upstairs in the loft in a box. I’m sure I’m not the only person who would rather just pay for it on iTunes than hunt around in boxes up in the attic.
Which brings me to this Apple music service, which I just don’t get. I don’t get it because I don’t want to play playlists compiled by other people. It’s not that I’m closed minded: it’s that my whole life has been about an exploration of music in which I follow my nose and my own interests on a journey of discovery that has taken me from Beatles for Sale to Jason Isbell via 70s rock, 60s soul, 80s country and so on. The pleasure this has brought to my life is immeasurable, and I don’t understand why I would turn my back on this (ongoing) personal discovery in favour of streaming stuff from some online music service. As to the radio offering, no. I’ve spent almost my entire life avoiding the tastes and wittering of DJs, and I’m not going to start now, thanks.
My real world experience of 3G and 4G data connections also makes me skeptical about streaming in general. Outside the house, my opportunities to listen to music are either in the car or on the bike. Well, my data coverage in the country lanes on my bike rides is patchy to say the least. On the move in the car, I don’t know. And the longest stretches of time I’m away from wifi are in France, where the data coverage is good, but the data speed is pathetic. I’ve never managed to even listen to a low-quality BBC iPlayer audio stream over there. I suspect that my network speed is throttled because I’m on an international roaming plan.
So I can’t see Music fitting into my life, is what I’m saying, and yet I live in a world in which it’s a big enough thing that it fills up my Twitter timeline and most of the podcasts I listen to. I like to own the music I play, I like to filter and curate my own playlists, and I don’t want to listen to some jackass DJ wittering in the background.