Futuremusic – How We Listen – Part 1


I’ve just spent 79p buying the iTunes-only, bonus track for Malcolm Middleton‘s recent album, ‘Waxing Gibbous’. I’ve now retagged it and incorporated it with the rest of the album in my library. I have no problem paying 79p here or there to pick up bonus material by my favourite acts, I might even go so far as to say it’s a bargain. The recent Magnolia Electric Co album, ‘Josephine‘, had four iTunes-only bonus tracks but there I was, happily offering up my £3.16 for extra music and I didn’t mind. It’s a brilliant record, by the way, and you can read a remarkably eloquent review of it here. My attitude towards downloads has slowly shifted over the years and I’m now happy to accept them as part of the commercial climate of purchasing music. I still prefer a piece of vinyl or even a well-produced CD, but I’m now quite happy to shell out for download-only releases whereas this would previously leave a sour taste. Why couldn’t this be released on a proper format? Why is it only available from one source? But, with an increasing number of download-only releases attempting to combat the colossal drop in singles sales, I’ve become almost grateful that this material is actually being released at all.


Having said all of the above, you won’t catch me loitering on iTunes on a Sunday morning, looking for the new release albums so that I can spend £8 for some digital files. And, when I think about it, I can’t understand why anyone else would be either. If iTunes offered a button whereby you could click and pay £1 more to receive a fully packaged, shop copy of the album along with your download, I’m sure most people would go for it. And yet that offer is already available and being increasingly ignored. Pretty much all new release albums can be found for £9 or less without much hunting around. Rip yourself a set of mp3s for portable use and pop the CD on the shelf. If new albums were £4 to download, effectively less than 50% of the price for a ‘proper’ product, you might have my attention, but when it costs almost the same amount for the digital files and the CD, I can’t fathom why the download is a deal I should be interested in. I realise, of course, that I am increasingly in the minority with this point of view and download sales continue to grow at a fair old rate. While the longevity of the CD, both as a format and in terms of the playback quality of the discs themselves, is always up for debate, aren’t the download generation only one computer crash away from wiping out their entire music collection?

It would seem not, as it happens. Sites like 7Digital and Play.com have always allowed you to log in to your download account and retrieve any purchased files you may have since found yourself without, but the one temple of doom has always been iTunes. While you could always find your purchase history in with your account details, once you’d downloaded a track there didn’t seem to be an option to ever do so again. In recent times, they’ve even charged ludicrous amounts to allow you to upgrade their poxy old 128kbps files to the 256kbps ‘plus’ format. On your side, they seemed not. However, it would seem that all is not as terrible as it seems. Firstly, iTunes does regularly remind you to backup all of your purchased music, even if most of us choose to ignore that advice. Secondly, and perhaps crucially, a bit of a pootle around the interweb reveals that in pretty much all cases where somebody has lost their music library due to their computer throwing a wobbler, a polite email to iTunes Customer Service has resulted in all of the purchased tracks being returned to said customer’s download queue at no extra cost. It is, perhaps, not so surprising that Apple don’t feel the need to make a big song and dance about this, but it would seem that the big, faceless music giant is perfectly happy to ensure that downloads are not as ephemeral as they seem. All rather reassuring really.

Technicalities, format concerns and cost aside, the download remains a remarkable tool in the advance of modern music. In last week’s Futuremusic features, a couple of acts were perfectly happy for the articles to be accompanied by an mp3 download, enabling you to sample their music for free. Air, desperately trying to remind the public that they still exist, offered a free download (via the iTunes store) of their new single to anyone on their mailing list. Anyone purchasing the new Arctic Monkeys single, ‘Crying Lightning’, in Oxfam this week can then go online and use the enclosed card to get digital files of the songs from the vinyl, thus broadening the potential audience for this particular release. And, while for many it has truly fucked up the experience of listening to albums in full, it does allow you to simply pick up the odd decent track by an artist you wouldn’t otherwise touch for fear of being lumbered with an album full of ponderous ear abuse. A recent example from my perspective was the Freemasons single with Sophie Ellis-Bextor. I’m not sure I could last for more than a few songs of a Freemasons album and the former Miss theaudience (with groovy lower case letters and all-one-word chic) is hardly known for her consistent, hard-hitting contributions to the world of long-players, but that one little track appeals to the same part of my musical world that thoroughly enjoys Girls Aloud and has been known to tap its metaphorical foot to the odd tune by The Saturdays. Plus, the way she says ‘darn-cer’ is quite amusing. 79p? Ta very much but £2.99 for the CD single for even £8.99 for the album? Piss right off. This is a new development in my consumption of music. While I still spend the vast majority of my musical budget on physical formats, I’m now quite happy to purchase the odd individual track that actually is available in the last seven (approximately) record shops open in Britain that I wouldn’t otherwise have touched. That surely has to be healthy for the music industry and I do get the impression from general conversation that that is how a lot of people use iTunes. The odd song here and there catches their attention, so they nip on iTunes and spend a couple of quid picking up those tracks. I haven’t yet experienced many people who actually buy their albums via iTunes, but those people clearly exist also. Mind you, you do get a digital booklet with a lot of releases, you lucky, lucky people.


The seedy side of downloading remains the most popular, however. The exciting and enigmatically titled UK Music organisation last week announced the results of a survey which reveal that 61% of young people questioned still prefer to download music illegally. Weirdly, 78% also expressed little interest in a premium, paid-for streaming service such as Spotify, with 89% stating that ownership of mp3s, or similar files, is important to them. 85% expressed interest in an unlimited download service, but that is probably still some way off. What is perhaps the most curious finding out of all of this is that while almost two-thirds of the over 1800 14 to 24 year olds interviewed still happily download illegally, almost 90% of the interviewees value the possession of those files. It seems that Spotify is actually more popular with next age bracket up, largely for dipping into things before buying or simply reliving past joys for a brief period of time without having to spend any money. The kids do not think it’s alright. I suspect most music loving internet-goers have, at one time or another, downloaded a file or two in a less than legal fashion but it holds little pleasure for me. Whole message boards are dedicated to people banging on about how many gigabytes of music they have on their external hard drive, what their ratio is on file-sharing sites and starting threads like ‘What’s the most exciting band you discovered this week?’ working from the assumption that you will have downloaded such a brain-shreddingly gargantuan amount of folder filler in seven days that your musical perspective may well have shifted entirely. I’m not quite sure when these people actually have time to enjoy the music that they’re almost incessantly acquiring and I wonder if that is part of the allure of illegal file sharing. The acquisition. The ability to say, “I’ve got all of this. Look at me.” For some people now, they don’t define themselves by what music they listen to so much as what music they’ve heard. Which, let’s be clear about this, is a very different thing. Playing an album once or even twice before consigning it to the vast swamp of the iTunes library isn’t really listening. It beggars belief when a hugely anticipated album leaks and there are people posting reviews of it within an hour. Sometimes even sooner. I suspect that the increasing power of legal download sites and the improving formats offered may go some way to rendering illegal downloading a little bit grubby and uneventful, but it still seems that access to phenomenal amounts of music doesn’t always mean that people take the time to invest (emotionally, rather than financially) in it.

Ultimately, the download is the format upon which the music industry appears to have settled. The new consumers of music all seem keen on this approach and so it’s now time for the record labels to fully embrace it and go to town on making sure that it’s an engaging and satisfying experience for the consumer. Even so, with so many digital files out there for the taking, who curates all of this stuff? Where will we now get our recommendations from? Where will we hear new songs in the first place? All that, and more, will be under consideration in the next instalment of the Futuremusic series tomorrow.

OK, use Computer

Just ahead of the next FUTUREMUSIC post, it’s worth pointing out a few things of note from the last couple of days. Firstly, a ‘new’ Radiohead track has leaked all over the interweb and it’s really rather good. You can listen via this YouTube video clip:

Use your common sense when looking at the video to figure out where you might be able to find a link to download an mp3 of said song. Some of the guitars sound very much from the ‘In Rainbows’ era, but the general murkiness and brooding nature hint at a different direction. No idea where it’s actually from but some of their more obsessive forum types have come up with a theory that this is the lead track from a secret EP to be made available on Monday. I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Secondly, Domino Records are getting bloody good at including MP3 download links with their new vinyl releases. Last week, I opened up the Wild Beasts‘ new album (good, but a bit obsessed with sex) and found a card allowing me a free download, went to the Domino site and found that, by using the drop down arrow next to where it tells you that you’ll be getting a 320kbps MP3 download, you can actually opt for a free download in the uncompressed WAV format. For nowt! Bargain. Likewise, this has happened today when I typed in the code that comes with the new Arctic Monkeys 10″ for ‘Crying Lightning‘. A very generous approach from Domino – worth bearing in mind, as there’s a download code included with the Oxfam-only 7″ of this release, which is out on Monday – and something which will crop up in more detail in one of the upcoming FUTUREMUSIC pieces.

Finally, you’ll notice some really rather lovely little changes have occurred down the side of the blog, largely to do with Spotify. Provided you have the splendid free music streaming service installed, you’ll be able to listen to a vast majority of the music covered on the site. The albums listed in my ‘Just Played’ section (stuff I’ve, you guessed it, just played) plus my current top ten of 2009 and the 20 Best from 2008 are all linked to Spotify is possible. The odd album isn’t on there so I’ve provided the next best thing but, if we take the Top 20 albums of 2008 as an example, 19 out of those 20 records can be played on Spotify. Treat yourself and fill your ears.

Right then, FUTUREMUSIC 5 time…

Aren’t Waterstone’s points great?

Where to start? Having spent a week trolling around the South East of England, I have returned with copious new records and a sizeable pile of books. The Great British Holiday – bugger all use if you’re after a tan but pretty reliable for enhancing your CD collection. I’ll start where it ended, which was the purchase of Simon Goddard‘s hugely enjoyable masterwork on Morrissey, entitled ‘Mozipedia‘. Priced at £25, but easily found online for £14.99 delivered, it’s a gargantuan study of all things Moz, with entries for every song he’s been involved with, both as a solo artist and as a member of The Smiths. There are also numerous cultural entries to offer a fuller picture, something Goddard is keen to emphasise in his introduction, imploring readers to draw their own conclusions about Morrissey by piecing together whichever entries seem appropriate. The carefully ambiguous, not to mention beautifully written, overview of Moz with which Goddard opens proceedings does the required job of stirring up a passion for the man and his music and ensuring that the ensuing six hundred or so pages are a delight to dip into on numerous occasions. Highly recommended.*

Speaking of Morrissey, the infamous 1992 NME vs Moz race row was brought back to the public domain this week as a result of some pretty heated debate on the really rather splendid Andrew Collins‘ site. It all came about due to some chronically mediocre reporting in The Guardian about offensive comedians which took as its centrepiece Richard Herring‘s new show, ‘Hitler Moustache’. Whatever your take on the imagery used to promote the show, or indeed some of the material contained within, it would surely be difficult to conclude that Herring is anything even bordering on racist. You’d think. Not if you’re Brian Logan, critic for said newspaper, who had a pretty good go at trying to paint him as a racist, or at least somebody with a great deal of sympathy for racists. Andrew Collins, with whom Herring records an often mildly amusing podcast each week, naturally opted to defend his comedy chum via his blog. As part of the ensuing debate in the comments section, a couple of readers drew parallels with Andrew’s involvement in the NME cover story about Moz, Madstock and the Union Flag (Covered in detail in the aforementioned ‘Mozipedia’. ) This, in turn, led to Andrew posting an additional article on his blog in which he attempted clarify why the two events had little in common. This appears to have simply stirred up emotions further and it has since been removed. Instead, Andrew opted to wade in on a related discussion on the Morrissey Solo Forums, where he encountered both ends of the scale: the intelligent, articulate and thoroughly knowledgeable Moz fans and those for whom Mozipedia will function as little more than a door stop. Still, all very entertaining reading and worth an hour of your time, if you’re willing.

In other internet confusion this week, Live Here Now, the company responsible for doing immediate live recordings at gigs continued to show why they’re not really deserving of anybody’s money. A quick pootle round the web will reveal exactly how many times they’ve delayed issuing recordings well beyond the date stated in the past and so it has proved with Blur’s Hyde Park gigs. I’ve had a negative experience with this lot in the past also, opting for Richard Hawley‘s ‘Live At The Devil’s Arse’ concert CD, which arrived many weeks after the stated date. The Blur gigs were to be available for download a week after they had happened and the CDs would follow a week later. Now, even when I ordered, I was pretty certain that this wouldn’t be the case and simply sat back and waited for them to be crap. They didn’t disappoint. If you ordered the CDs, you were promised the downloads for free, as part of the deal. Those downloads were finally available this Wednesday, July 29th. As I’m sure you can spot, this is not a week after July 2nd and 3rd. Still, at least the downloads were here and grumbling can cease, eh? Well, no, actually. When the shop site first went live, it offered the recordings as CDs or ‘High Quality 320kbps’ mp3s. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, those buying the CDs would also receive the downloads free of charge. However, upon making the downloads available to those who had preordered this week, it became clear that the downloads were only 160kbps mp3s, hardly sufficient quality for a product that is being offered up professionally in 2009. As you might expect, numerous Blur fans opted to complain about this poorly encoded product and were offered the following explanation: “We do apologise for the wording of the download quality on the website and are sorry if this has caused confusion, however as per our help section as linked below the bundled/CD purchases of the shows will have received the 160kbps version of the download.” Fair enough. Except it’s not. This information was only added to the site in the last week or so and thus it is not an excuse for why the downloads are substandard. A quick search of Google, using the cache option, yesterday unveiled the original version of the help page, which simply referred to 320kbps mp3s. Frankly, if you’re going to be utter shit, be utter shit, but to then lie about it and twist the facts is pretty bloody pathetic. I’ll be glad to finally get my CDs whenever they actually emerge, but I won’t be using this bunch of unreliable, untrustworthy cretins again.

Having mentioned the acquisition of numerous records above, I feel like I should offer some additional comment, but there’s far too much to talk about in one go. Suffice to say, a wonderful time was had in Brighton, particularly in Resident Records – as good a record shop as I’ve been in since my beloved Reveal Records died some 18 months or so ago – but not to take anything away from Rounder, Wax Factor or Ape. A special mention the glorious, and rather charmingly named, The Record Shop in Amersham, at which I stopped en route, where I had an enjoyable compilation about Honest Jon’s compilations as I purchased ‘Marvellous Boy – Calypso From West Africa’ and reduced copies of two of the ‘London Is The Place For Me’ series. Something I don’t think I’m ever likely to get in my local branch of HMV. The inevitable trip to London was conducted and Rough Trade East did its best to lure me in many musical directions, with not inconsiderable success. Berwick Street was rather disappointing, with only Sounds Of The Universe (just off Berwick Street on Broadwick Street) tempting me to open my wallet. Still, plenty of good stuff was found and will be mentioned on here as I get my ears around it over the next few days. Weirdly, the album of the holiday was Maps‘ new one, ‘Turning The Mind’, which won’t be released until September 28th, but which I spent plenty of time with in order to write a review in the next day or two. It really is as good as you might have hoped. I’ll endeavour to say a bit more soon.

Finally, keep an eye on the ‘Special Purchase’ section in your nearest HMV for the next week or two, as some decent stuff has started to appear of late. The Portsmouth branch provided me with four of the ‘Talcum Soul’ series at £2 each, while the Southampton store had the best bargain, with a copy of Lewis Taylor‘s beautiful ‘The Lost Album’ also priced at only £2. Have a listen to that rather wonderful record here.