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.