Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Why downloads will never be real music to my ears

Gail Walker, Belfast Telegraph

The news that music chain HMV is closing 40 of its branches (and 20 Waterstones shops) is no real surprise.

For truth be told, who buys CDs these days? You may as well cruise around Royal Avenue looking for a store specialising in penny farthings, moustache waxers and buggy whips.

But the apparent demise of the record store (entertainment centre be damned - they'll always be record stores to me) is a cause of regret.

Yes, you can illegally download, copy or fileshare (all just fancy euphemisms for steal) music by the bucket-load. You can even be Mr Conscience and pay for your download. You can visit YouTube and get pictures as well as sound. Or, for a few quid a month you can join Spotify and have - give or take the odd LP - The Whole of Musical History From Twelfth Century French Carols To The Latest Stylings Of Katy Perry.

Music these days is everywhere. It's ubiquitous and it's more or less free. Do we value it? Do we settle down of an evening for that life-enhancing encounter with Harrison Birtwistle, Captain Beefheart or the Incredible String Band's Wee Tam and the Big Huge?

I suspect not. Because while music is everywhere, it is - ah those little Zen-like ironies - literally nowhere as well. What's the sound of one download clapping ... or something like that.

I'm lucky enough to remember the last days of vinyl. The Saturday morning trip into Lurgan town centre, pocket money gripped tightly, determined to shove it over the counter of It Records, a shop little bigger than my bedroom. I'd browse and re-browse, making sure my choice really was an "It" record. Would I die of mortification if I met anyone who could see through my wee plastic bag and glimpse the LP therein? And maybe if I hung around long enough I'd impress the older guys who'd talk to the assistant for hours, a rolled up NME in their back pockets.

And, well, they were beautiful, the old records. Big and distinctive, you always knew when someone was carrying a new LP home. You envied them and respected them.

LPs were works of art: the dark rainbows shimmering on the vinyl. You'd spend hours studying the sleeve notes, with their mysterious thank you to Trevor "The Dink" Jones or quotes from William Burroughs.

Gatefolds, sleeves with holes in them, even little cryptic little messages scraped in that wee smooth bit between the end of the LP and the label.

And who could forget the wonder of Side A and Side B, that marvellous metaphorical interval in the drama where we could nip out to the lobby and get an ice-cream while composing witty insights in our heads.

Different sides allowed us to demonstrate our oh so nuanced and discriminating tastes. (Yes, while I agree that Side A represents a departure for Ultravox, Side B sees Midge and the gang settle for safer, more familiar pastures ...).

Sometimes Side B was a 'concept', like Kate Bush's The Ninth Wave on The Hounds of Love. Hmmm. Thinly veiled references to drug-taking? Or tale of near-drowning? How we studied the lyrics, line by line, in search of hidden meaning. Did that heavy metal track really contain satanic messages? You'd go round to a friend's house for the evening, just to go through their album collection and ponder it all.



Of course, CDs were the beginning of the end. They were too small. Suddenly your carrier bag suggested you'd been to Accessorize rather than grappling with Great Thinkers of Our Time such as Phil Oakey and Marc Almond.

The little cases were too cold, too impersonal. The accompanying booklets looked like a cross between a government leaflet about the terrors of Aids and an eyetest by a particularly sadistic optician.

There was no marvellously detailed artwork, no Side A and Side B. Video may have killed the radio star, but CDs killed the concept of the artist as Artist. Too many "bonus" tracks (for which read substandard) and knowingly camp versions of Burt Bacharach songs. Sometimes less is indeed more.

Clear sound quality? They were just taking the hiss ...

Still if CDs were small, at least they were something. Now you get absolutely nothing: a wee icon on your desktop, a thumbnail pic of the cover. There's more fun in doing your tax return.

What were you up to when you first downloaded this new sound? Er, downloading it on my laptop. I'll stick to memories of heading into It Records. Downloads? Music you can't see or touch and, increasingly, you can no longer "feel".

Want to browse my groovy collection of USB sticks? No, thought not ...

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