Monday, 3 August 2009

The new way to listen #2: Too much music, so little time

A very good friend of mine is a very heavy CD buyer. His guilty pleasure is small but frequent (almost weekly) Amazon splurges – batches of three or four CDs, including lots of new releases. Just last week, to my surprise, his batch included albums by La Roux and Little Boots, two dangerously over-hyped UK female pop acts – not my friend’s usual fare at all.

I had to ask, why? But I do know the answer. Three years ago that’s how I used to discover new music – buying CDs on Amazon & For us, the CD generation, it’s easy to see the attraction. At around eight-nine quid a pop, the average price is 30% below when we began buying CDs in the 80s. And with many new releases attracting good reviews, it seems like good value. As for CDs vs. downloads it seems like a no-brainer – CD wins for sound quality, last-ability, tactile comfort etc.

But this kind of consumer behaviour is anachronistic these days. For one thing, these frequently bought CDs are unlikely to be played much – nothing like to a level of frequency reaching a good return on investment. My friend admitted to both the above mentioned albums being “alright, not earth shattering”. I’m guessing he’ll never play either disc anything like enough to become nicely familiar with, or to discover any hidden depths within, the music.

I’m placing no judgement whatsoever on those two artists or their debut records. I am placing judgement though, on the times, and on how we as consumers, are best place to navigate them to enjoy our music to the full.

As engaged, interested and active music buyers, we’ll simply never ever keep up with the supply on offer. Let me bore you with the statistics. There are more records released commercially now than ever – nearly 34,000 separate albums in 2008 (BPI data) – steadily increasing every year from just over 19,000 titles released back in 2000. In the US, over 100,000 album titles were released in 2008 (Neilsen SoundScan), a large increase on any previous year, thanks to digital-only releases.

And that’s assuming that, like me, you are essentially uninterested in wading through the oceans of records released by unsigned or DIY bands via Myspace, brands and blogs. If you are interested in those then double or treble your already overwhelming choice.

However, more critically than volume is the issue of the music’s qualities. The heavy buying CD generation has invested much time & money buying up their collection of classics – those albums they return to time & again. Those albums we played in full, in a darkened room in our youth. Those records that helped us through the formative years, the early big choices in life, etc. etc. Often these were bought on CD some time after we first loved them on vinyl or on tape.

However good modern music gets, it’s so hard for new artists to compete in that space – to compete with nostalgia. And with so much new music derivative of what’s gone before, new artists are sometimes no more than an interesting twist on what’s past – the stuff we really loved and still love. Witness the recent revival of synth-based pop – never done better than the eighties. And even if the Tings Tings, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LadyHawke, and swathe of more recent acts like Florence & The Machine can compete creatively with the eighties, can they compete emotionally with how that music caught on and connected at the time - how it joined people together en masse.

No wonder there is room even in today’s jam-packed music market for eighties revival bands – playing live and even making new records (for the record, Aha, Duran Duran and Simple Minds never actually went away). Those bands were lucky enough to come of age at a time when growing a fan base was easier. And for their fans, it’s easier nowadays to gravitate towards those artists you know, the one you invested in back in the day. It’s comforting that they’re still around.

For young music fans and for older but active music discoverers, the only way to navigate the modern level of choice is to prioritise. And this is where music consumption becomes personal – when we apply our own priorities to it. I’m thinking beyond prioritising the tools you use to discover music, though. Yes, we all will choose our favourite filters and content brands. Some of us will use Spotify to stream (for as long as we are blessed with it!), some will like to play around with Pandora or until they perhaps get bored with those.

Less and less of us will buy a slew of CDs each week though, as these other tools present far cheaper, less risky and more convenient access points. But the new filters won’t help that much in terms of enjoyment. They’ll help filter through the dilemma of discovery – like Oysters. They’ll insure us against the hype and against the great swindle of the CD age – album filler. But they will not help us really enjoy our music listening.

To get return on investment from music, you need to invest - mostly time, but sometimes money helps, since when you buy something, you naturally give it at least some time to bed down. With current filters, you don’t need to make a financial commitment to hear most new music. But when I'm streaming the latest new release - just to gut it - it perhaps doesn't feel quite as it should, experience wise.

Would you rather listen to your favourite song 100 times or 100 songs once?

With the oversupply of music, the currency of music isn’t so much the format – CDs, downloads, streams, plays etc. – but time – how much time we have to listen and what we choose to listen to in that precious time. Since this is personal to every consumer, I’ll share with you here my own conclusions about music consumption, and my own set of priorities from now on.

The days of frequent flutters on Amazon & are done – just don’t make sense. It’s not so much a question of price, or quality - there is not enough time to give those records the proper listening they required to really enjoy them. It just results in a greater pile of albums that you never really get to know. Subsequently, very few new titles get added to your classic albums collection, most just drop into landfill.

From now on my music enjoyment is prioritised, not by payment method, or by format, but by the type of music it is. Until further notice, the following basic ‘system’ applies to my listening hours, in priority order:

  1. The back catalogues of my recently discovered favourites. These include Spoon, Death Cab for Cutie and I am Kloot. For these, I know I’ll get great return on investment, so I’ll be buying these catalogues on CD. It will be an infrequent Amazon splurge. I won’t preview these on Spotify if I can help it, as I don’t need any reason to doubt the ability of these records to grow on me over time and with repeated listening.
  2. Play all the classics at least once a year. No financial outlay required, just time. I’m of an age where if I don’t make this decision now, I’ll literally run out of time to enjoy Autoamerican by Blondie, Achtung Baby by U2, Seven by James, Stories From The Sea by PJ Harvey and the 100+ other titles I consider my own personal classics. They need to played once a year and that is going to take maybe 80 hours of listening time. That leaves no more room for Amazon splurges.

  3. Listen to more music that’s ‘different’. Oh the wonders of specialist music labels like Nonesuch, ECM and Real World – labels I am undertaking right here & now to give more of my precious time to, whatever it is they might bring my way. Nonesuch just introduced me to Bill Frisell. ECM has fallen victim, temporarily, to my change in priorities, but will come ‘round as things settle down. Real World has blessed me with the music of Spiro – which has rightly received the heavy-rotation treatment in recent weeks at the expense of everything else. It might even be a modern classic. I want to give more time to alternative genres for so many reasons, not least I want my three daughters to grow up hearing music from all over the world, not be confined to western pop. Label brands come into their own in times like these and there will be case studies featured on this blog in future on the labels I think work on this level. I guess this will be a combination of streaming & buying, and for these labels I will maintain a direct relationship - on the mailing list, basically.

  4. Give the old masters more time. It’s getting tight now, timewise. I don’t really know the catalogues of Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Springsteen, beyond the obvious handful of songs. I suspect their stuff is worth some investment though. It has to be – everybody in the world says so. I have in my current collection best-of’s by all of these - that'll be where I start. There are so many classics to discover, that anything I've seen live or in a different context will get immediate priority. So Crosby Stills & Nash for example, I’m suddenly interested in after their superlative display at Glastonbury. I have just invested in some Peter Gabriel catalogue after seeing him at WOMAD. and I'm listening to Ry Cooder after seeing him at The Lyceum last month. Another late great discovery for me personally. These classic artists are shouting loud and clear ‘We Can No Longer Be Ignored’.

  5. New stuff when the hype has settled. And so here we are. New music has been re-prioritised out of sheer necessity. It’s not that I won’t listen to new music, I always will. I’m the guy so many people rely on for recommendations after all. But I’ll struggle to recommend anything brand spanking new from now on, because for me it needs to earn its place in my ears. I’m tempted to buy new records all the time, but I’ll happily wait until the hype has settled and time has done its work. I don’t see much point in investing in artists that won’t last, since I enjoy going on a journey with the artists I like, seeing how their work progresses, evolves or changes direction. It’s the pleasure and privilege of being a Radiohead fan, for example, even if that can also frustrate from time to time. And here is where Spotify comes into its own – I can take my time and work my way through new release without spending a fortune. Whether or not this is good business for the industry I doubt, but it works for me.

For me, music discovery has always been a search for the next addition to the classics – the next record that has the power to literally become part of my life, part of me. With 40 years of listening behind me and hopefully at least 40 more to go, it’s time to apply a strategy to ensure I get to discover, hear and enjoy as much music as possible that has the potential to become a personal classic. The ephemeral stuff can pass me by, I just don't have the time. If it’s too good to miss, something or someone will alert me to it, I hope.

I’m always vaguely excited about forthcoming music and for the next few months, that would be The Arctic Monkeys, Portico Quartet, Laura Veirs and my new favourite band I Am Kloot. There's nothing better than discovering artists late, when you can catch up on back catalogue at leisure, as with reading all the novels of a great author you just found out about. I love that serendipity and hope that will always be part of my music discovery. More to come on that next...