Saturday, 12 June 2010

Rent or buy?

I remember that when I left school and spent a year working before going to uni, I decided to make an effort and build up my record collection. Every week, on Saturday mornings, I went down to Smiths in town, and bought myself an album. Sometimes I had a specific one in mind to buy; a recommendation from a friend perhaps, or a group I had heard on the radio and wanted to get to know more about. Occasionally an album of classical music.

This ended up being harder than it seemed, because records were often scratched, or sounded like someone had sprinkled sand on them. So often I was taking back one or two, occasionally three records, trying to get ones that played properly. And I was reluctant to buy classical music because the quiet passages were always crackly.

Once I had heard that CDs were on the way, I didn't buy any recorded music for about five years. I bought the very first CD player, a Sony CDP 101 when they were launched. It was great to play CDs and not worry about scratches, although the sound quality of the CDP 101 was a bit dodgy. It only had one DAC, and the two channels were therefore very slightly out of phase. So for example, a loud cymbal crash that was supposed to be in the middle of the sound field, would come first from the right-hand speaker and then centralise itself immediately after. Very odd. But anyway, I set out on a voyage of discovery of all kinds of music, pretty much safe in the knowledge that the CDs would play faultlessly.

I now have a big collection of CDs. All except my recent acquisitions are recorded in MP3 or FLAC format, and I listen to them on my now-improved stereo.

Last week I took out a sub to Spotify. For 5 euros a month, this gives me access to their enormous collection of classical, rock, pop and jazz music, without my needing to pay anything more (and without adverts). I have been able to explore the more recent output of artists I listened to ages ago, wondering what they have been up to. I have been able to listen to music from groups that I wouldn't normally bother with, and also some left-field but excellent songs about cricket.

What then of my collection? Are my CDs a "legacy" of old technology, that I should dispose of? And future purchases? Is there any point in buying CDs, new or used, now?

There are a few points of debate. The sound quality of Spotify is very good, but it's not up to that of a well-recorded CD. So for best sound quality, CDs remain better, and for ultimate quality, some vendors are now offering studio-quality masters, 24bit 96KHz or better, that you can download.

Secondly there is an emotional element. Having invested in a CD, I am more inclined to play it repeatedly until I really get to know it and decide if I love it or not. In fact I tend to find that the music I love the best is that which I found hardest to "get into". There is no such commitment in Spotify, and therefore I'm going to be inclined to browse over music that I would otherwise come to love.

Thirdly there is the tendency of people to like to own rather than rent. I own my CDs, but have nothing to show for my investment in Spotify. But if I can play everything I own on Spotify, what is the point of my collection, other than to demonstrate my manifest good taste in music to those of like mind?



Robyn said...

I'm still grieving my record collection.
When I was young I worked in a record store so you can imagine the extent of my record collection.

I no longer have this collection and there are moments when I wish they were still with me.

Hang on to the CD's for a while if you can before making any rash decisions.

Enjoy your music
best wishes
Robyn :)

Jonathan said...

I still regret a minor cull of vinyl in the early eighties but have retained most of my collection. The combination of art-work and music reached some kind of zenith in the decades when the LP was king. The CD probably gives a better listening experience - scratches were such a wind-up - but as an artefact it is like comparing a postcard print with an original oil. And the sound isn't perfect; hence the higher sampling rates now on offer.

But 150 years ago, unless you were the ruler of a sophisticated European nation, music on demand just didn't exist. And even Victoria would have had to wait a few months if she suddenly found herself in the mood for some Javanese gamelan.

Was the 19th century concertgoer 'renting' the music for the duration of the performance or buying an experience? The sound quality on offer at a live performance is streets ahead of an mp3 but you can play the sound file whenever you like. An mp3 is like a postcard of the Mona Lisa; and maybe all that is required to trigger a memory of the original.

I think there are commercial reasons why we were conditioned to buy all the music we did. They were fashion statements about who we were, too. Would you be losing some sense of self if you just go rid of it all?

This subject is vast and now I'm rambling. I'd better stop now!

Cogitator said...

Hi Robyn, Jonathan, thank you for your comments, you raise some interesting points.

Certainly the music I bought as a teenager has stayed with me all my life, and is a part of who I am. I suspect that that is true of most generation now, and teenage rap fans will be old rap fans one day too. But I'm wondering if it is my liking for the music, rather than the music itself (or the LPs / CDs) that is this part of who I am.

Certainly the LP, with its artwork, its big "in your face" size, (specially the fold-out ones) and the ritual of getting it out of its sleeve, getting the static off, cleaning it and putting the needle onto it was all part of a big ritual that is now lost. Perhaps tying CDs (or download files) into internet content might be a way of getting at least some of that back.

And yes, compared to a working person of the 18th century who had no music on demand, we don't know we're born.

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