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How to manage your music

Vinyls, CDs, digital, streaming – Simon O’Hagan spends a week with each

Simon O'Hagan | March/April 2012

They are adjoining houses in a quiet street in west London. The occupants of both homes like their music, but the ways they consume it differ radically. In one house, the music has no physical dimension. The couple who live there own no records, no CDs, no cassettes. In every room they have built-in speakers and a Sonos box, which they switch on from their phones or their iPad. They subscribe to Spotify, the music-streaming service, and say that they now listen to ten times as much music as before. Their priority is a clutter-free home. Music that comes out of thin air—that drifts into their lives, that doesn’t have to be taken down from a shelf—is just fine. When they gave a party for their son’s second birthday in the local church hall, they had to borrow a CD player for Pass the Parcel.

Next door is the polar opposite. The house contains 150,000 LPs, kept in a specially designed basement. Their owner is a DJ who has made a career out of his enthusiasm. He uses the internet to find music too, but his devotion is to these records. And they aren’t relics. They live and breathe and get played—just as music used to be.

This tale of two households shows how drastically the music landscape has changed in 20 years or so. Although, in one sense, the thin-air couple have gone for the simpler option, in another their set-up embodies all that is bewildering about the process by which we now imbibe our sounds of choice. Their neighbour’s approach raises a different question: has the technological revolution brought losses as well as gains?

Most people are somewhere between the two extremes. If you came of musical age by, say, 1980, and possess an ounce of sentiment, you’ll still own some vinyl. And though they’re much harder to love, you probably still have some cassettes lying around too. CDs, which blew those two formats away in the 1990s, will form the bedrock of your physical collection. And then there will be all your digital music —what’s on your iPod, and the infinity waiting to be clicked on online.

There are now so many ways to experience music that it’s hard to get your head round them all. Aware that different technologies were providing different sensations, indeed changing our relationship with music, I put a series of them to the test, from vinyl and CDs to MP3 and music-streaming. And I’d try and find time for this rather good thing called the radio.

Are some methods better than others? What exactly do they all involve? How much do they cost? Where—practically, emotionally, financially—does the value lie?

Vinyl

Once, vinyl was king. But a few years ago I got rid of most of my LPs. I’m down to my last hundred albums or so—the ones that mean the most—and they reside, largely undisturbed from one year to the next, high up on a shelf in my study. Getting them down was like being reunited with old friends. Nice to begin with, but is there really a place in your life for them?

I rigged up a turntable and put on Lou Reed’s “Transformer”, which I borrowed from a classmate nearly 40 years ago and never returned. (Don’t cry for him—he still has LPs of mine.) As the needle landed on the first track, the hiss and crackle hit me like a rush of adrenaline. A much-loved record of Arthur Rubinstein playing Chopin had a similar effect.

Vinyl is undergoing a revival. Last year just over 250,000 vinyl albums were sold in Britain, an increase of 40% on 2010, echoing a rise in America the year before. Of course these figures are minuscule compared with annual CD sales of 86m and digital album sales of 27m, but there’s something going on, and I can see why. On vinyl, even a studio album sounds live. Everything has a wonderful, tactile quality, as if the music is there in the room. I loved showing the album covers to my teenage daughters, and cheered when, on a BBC 6 Music programme devoted to vinyl, I heard a starry-eyed young musician referring to “the lost honesty of a bygone era of better values”.

But is it really a viable listening option? I found plenty of turntables on sale in what’s left of London’s old hi-fi hub on Tottenham Court Road, and the assistants said that business was brisk. The new-generation turntable to go for is the Rega RP1 (£229), but some are as cheap as £50 and others you can plug into your laptop, to convert your vinyl into digital form.

Where vinyl was once an eccentric choice, to me it now feels essential. I just wish I had looked after my LPs a bit better. Authenticity is one thing, but the scratches made “Perfect Day” a less-than-perfect four minutes. And new vinyl is pricey. At HMV in Oxford Street a vinyl album typically costs around £25, the same as two or even three CDs.

If de-cluttering is your priority, then of course vinyl has its downside. Personally I wouldn’t be without my 1979 vintage Technics tuner/amplifier and my big Kef speakers bought at the same time, but they do take up space. And I can’t even pretend that vinyl gives me stuff I can’t access anywhere else. Going through my record collection, I discovered that the only thing not available online is an album my old school put together of music performed by the choir. Does that matter? To me, no, and I’m enjoying adding to my collection with the vinyl versions of new albums, which more and more bands are keen on—and which can be found at Urban Outfitters, where students go to kit out their rooms.

I can’t say Taylor Swift figures in my collection, but she got it right when she said recently, “Vinyl is really important to me, because I’m so in love with the concept of an album.” Yes, the album. Two sides, and a track listing that means something. Albums I knew only from MP3 acquired a clearer identity and a thread of narrative when I listened to them on vinyl. I already knew and loved the folk-rock act the Decemberists. Their 2011 album “The King Is Dead” is packed with wonderful songs, but I like it even more now I know that side one, like side two, comes to a contemplative end.

CDs

Compact discs destroyed the romance of vinyl. The sound was tinny, they weren’t a pleasure to handle, and the music industry took the opportunity to profiteer. Few people realised this at the time, so we all ended up with hundreds of them. But the sound improved over the years, and though sales are falling in the age of the download, CDs remain by far the most popular format, accounting for 76.1% of total sales in Britain, according to British Phonographic Industry figures for 2011.

Does familiarity breed contempt? Restricting myself to CDs for a week, I was struck by something said by David Thomas, a member of the 1980s art-rock band Pere Ubu and champion of “valued music”. He wrote that the rot set in with the jewelbox cd case. “People love vinyl because the object must be valued else it is damaged beyond use,” he said. “The value of the vinyl object emphasises that the music contained therein has value. The jewelbox says, I am disposable, what I contain is disposable. It says, dispose of me and choose another, we are all the same.”

But, as with vinyl, one virtue of CDs—which do at least remain “records” in a way that online music just isn’t—is that they encourage you to listen to albums in their entirety. I made a car journey recently with my younger daughter, and we put “Abbey Road” on the CD player and played it right the way through. I got to tell her between “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Here Comes the Sun” that now we were turning the record over, and that was great. I can see why “Abbey Road” was America’s No.1 album on vinyl last year.

We have a family tradition of compiling “holiday CDs”. Everyone gets to choose five or six tracks each, and they make the journey go faster. Until iPod docks become standard in cars, CDs are worth hanging on to. They have formed the basis of what’s on my iPod, and I’ll still put one into the CD player connected to my tuner/amp and play it through the big old Kef speakers. Or I’ll stick one in the computer. An old ghetto-blaster CD player still resides in our kitchen, and it gets used sometimes. Next to vinyl, the sound lacks depth and personality, but the versatility of the CD will ensure its survival for a while to come. If there had never been vinyl, we would cherish CDs. As it is, they remain the cheap paperback to vinyl’s handsome hardback. And the e-book is at the gates.

The Brennan

A machine for digitising all your CDs, the Brennan suffers from an image problem—maybe because its rather plodding magazine ads tend to appear alongside ads for stairlifts. But Martin Brennan knows its market: older men with too many CDs. The Brennan JB7 is designed to house them all. It costs £400, is the size of a hardback book, and it will store the contents of up to 5,000 CDs. It takes a couple of minutes to transfer each one, so it’s a time-consuming process, but what I liked best about it was the random play function, similar to the shuffle function on your iPod. Tracks you never knew you had—possibly had never even listened to—would suddenly turn up, and the whole experience was a bit like having your own radio station. Of course, you are stuck with the playlist of music you already own, which brings us, inevitably, to… 

Spotify

“The single most extraordinary musical development in the internet age,” says the musician and tech guru Rhodri Marsden of the marvel that is Spotify. “An on-demand digital jukebox, with almost everything in it? Astounding.” Dreamed up in Sweden in 2008, based in Britain and now rolling out around the world, Spotify is very simple. You sign up online and take your pick from its library of millions of tracks. You can’t buy them (that’s what iTunes is for), but you can stream them free, to your computer or mobile, if you don’t mind ads interrupting your listening—or being limited to ten hours, and five plays of the same song, per month. If you do mind, you can pay £9.99 a month and have the run of the place.

Spotify was the only form of listening I tried for which a week wasn’t enough. It is already embedded in my life like nothing else. The beauty of it is that it allows you to browse all that stuff you’ve heard good things about but don’t want to buy blind. It’s the ultimate listening booth: 90% of what I call up is new to me. It may have engendered some bad habits, admittedly. Too often I’m guilty of playing 30 seconds of something, deciding I don’t care for it, and clicking on the next song.  

How do you know what to listen to on Spotify? Often you don’t. I’ll open it up on my laptop and, faced with almost unlimited choice, my mind goes blank. That’s where sharing comes in. Spotify recently linked up with Facebook to allow friends to see what you are listening to. Sharing playlists is a key function of any streaming service. I’ll pick up stuff from Twitter as well. For new music that’s not on Spotify there’s MySpace, where bands will post their music, and YouTube—according to my twenty-something band-member friend Owen, the place where “everybody posts what they’ve just recorded”. Both are cumbersome if you want an extended listen. But great if you’re after something specific.

“Sharing”, according to the web guru Kevin Kelly, is the “primary verb of this world”. But actually I tend to bow to the superior knowledge of professionals—people I can’t share with (which is fine) but who will share with me. I subscribe (free) to National Public Radio’s “All Songs Considered” show, one of America’s great cultural institutions, and every lunchtime it e-mails me its Song of the Day—the starting point for many an exciting journey. Without “All Songs Considered”, a treat like St Vincent, with her edgy, New York art rock, might not have come into my life. Or at least it would have taken longer. Other key figures for me are Guy Garvey, the lead singer of Elbow who has a brilliant show on BBC 6 Music, and his station-mates Stuart Maconie and Mark Radcliffe. These people are not so much DJs as curators—experts in their field who research, hand-pick, fill in deep background.

iPod

There are 300m of these little beauties out there worldwide, and I sometimes think they are as much about keeping sound out as letting sound in. Look at the many people who will tell you how vital their iPod is on public transport. Like them, I listen to my iPod on the move, which means I’m not quite giving the music my full attention. In fact the spoken word works better for me in these circumstances. A week’s worth of wearing the iPod around the house is not something I relished, unlike my teenage daughter who delights in the experience. Indeed, this behaviour results in a reversal of the normal way of things. Instead of shouting at her to turn that racket down, I find myself frustrated at not knowing what she is listening to.

On the iPod, music is music like any other, but the experience is somehow more ephemeral than putting on a record. The shuffle function remains a source of delight, and you can play the old game of Beat the Intro to your heart’s content. If that’s all you require, the latest iPod Shuffle—the model that has happily kept me in music on the move for years—will house 1,000 songs. The Nano holds 4,000, the Touch 14,000, the Classic 40,000. Who needs 40,000 songs?

Prices range from around £40 to £169, which includes a serviceable pair of headphones. “Serviceable”, however, is no longer enough. The urge to be stylish has colonised our ears as well as the rest of us, thanks largely to Dr Dre’s Beats headphones, which cost well over £200, yet still sell. Of course you don’t have to listen through headphones. Mount your iPod on a dock and there’s your 2012 equivalent of the old-school music centre. Hard to love but hard to beat: the miniaturisation of music, now taken for granted, is a modern miracle.

Kit

With any music that comes via your laptop, kit matters unless you are prepared to put up with really poor sound. I don’t want to wear headphones to listen at home. So I have speakers attached to the laptop—Companion 20s, made by Bose (£199 the pair), which are fantastic. Which means that in the same room, I have those speakers—neat and compact, on my desk—and, on the floor, my swing-bin-sized, 30-year-old Kef speakers rigged up to the hi-fi. It can’t go on. Not when there are even more advanced systems like Bowers & Wilkins’s Zeppelin Air, “the ultimate wireless speaker dock”, which looks like something doodled by Zaha Hadid. There’s Sonos, which boasts of streaming “all the music on earth wirelessly in any room” and has that couple in west London to vouch for it; and the iCloud, promising to lay on your music collection wherever you are—it will just float above you, following you around, summonable by smartphone or laptop.

Do I really want to shed all my physical music? Tempting, but no. While the radio, Spotify and an iPod serve nearly all my musical needs, vinyl offers something they don’t. Records are more than just a means to an end. They are a reminder of who you are that is too powerful to cast aside.

Decisions, decisions. During my experiment, a tweet came my way from Andrew McConnell Stott, a stand-up comedian turned professor of English at the University of Buffalo. “I’m chucking my iPod & going back to CDs,” he wrote. “Can’t take any more archival neurosis.”

A few weeks later the novelist Linda Grant was encountering problems of her own. “Can’t download off iTunes,” she tweeted. “Going back to CDs.” Both these tweets resonated. Someone should set them to music. 

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