Friday, 18 January 2013

Thank you for the music

With the likely demise of HMV, the already piss-poor availability of music on the high street is going to become a barren wasteland. Technology has changed both the way we purchase and listen to music.
The advent of the MP3 initiated the decline in music sales on physical media, and its portability and versatility caused the masses to make a shift in how they listen to music.
Music on the go went through a dramatic change when Sony brought us the Walkman in the 80's and suddenly people began walking around in their own little isolation bubble, but as battery life was an issue the idea of walking around plugged in all day was out of the question unless you had a Rambo-style bullet belt filled with AA batteries.
Fast forward to today and memory capacity has skyrocketed and MP3s can be played on anything from a home PC to a mobile phone. And although for many this has been a step forward, there are those including myself who see it as the death of real music, mainly because the way in which it's listened to means that it becomes simply the aural wallpaper of life rather than an activity in its own right. Seriously, how many people under about 30 actually own a decent hi-fi and make a point of sitting in front of it to listen to music?
The thing about MP3 is that it is a compressed format, meaning that data is removed from the original uncompressed file to make it smaller so you can fit more tracks on your MP3 player. The more you compress it the more of the original data you lose. What this means is that MP3 doesn't tell the whole story of the music as played by the artists. The level of detail missing in an MP3 compared to a proper CD is huge, but as so many play their music through crappy little earphones or worse still the annoying scratchy noises produced by the speaker in their mobile phone, they wouldn't really notice.
As a kid I was introduced to lots of music as I had the influence of four older siblings. Growing up was a deluge of R Dean Taylor, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Toyah, Ultravox, Deodato, Hawkwind, Justin Hayward and many others who shaped my musical tastes for the rest of my life. Although my tastes have gone through phases and expanded over the years, the things I listened to in my teenage years I still listen to to this day, and I suspect that's true of most people.
When introduced to the world of real hi-fi at the age of about 14 by a friend's father I immediately saw what I'd been missing out on. Being able to pick out each individual instrument in a level of detail that allowed you to hear the guitar players fingers moving over the strings, the subtle vibrato of a bow drawn across a cello, the player's breath intakes whilst playing the saxophone, everything that transformed a pleasurable sound into a magical experience that made me spend many happy years sitting down with my eyes closed immersed in music. A time when you'd put on an album and just listen from start to finish without thinking about anything else - almost a kind of meditation.
The selection and purchasing of this music was something you used to look forward to, but HMV decided to make it impossible to find what you wanted, because the layout was confusing, genres were mixed up making browsing next to impossible when combined with the vast fields of cd racks containing little you'd ever heard of. The listening posts where you had the opportunity to discover something new and different seemed to vanish without trace, and half the store was full of electronics, memorabilia and gaming stuff. Frankly I'm not in the least bit surprised they've gone to the wall because they sucked all the pleasure out of shopping for music. I, like most people now, see websites like Amazon as the first port of call for buying CDs.
I'll research bands on LastFM, listen to some tracks via YouTube, and decide what I want to buy before committing to a CD purchase (how many times have you bought an album to find that the single that prompted you to do so was the only good track and the rest was shite?)
Music and the way it's listened to has changed greatly and in many ways people are now missing out on so much of it's potential to give pleasure, but the technology that has introduced these negative factors has also opened up the gateway to more music than we could ever have imagined. And we won't be buying it from HMV.