Hitting the right note in music streaming

Hitting the right note in music streaming

There it was again, playing through my laptop. It sounded … well, not as good as I remembered it on the radio in the days when music meant listening to a radio. It sounded soppy. I regretted paying a few dollars to discover that. I also retrospectively regretted quoting its lyrics in a tortured note I sent to the poor girl at the time (who sensibly never replied).

Many of those early downloads ended up on an iPod, something which – like that first smartphone – was given to me rather than bought. Well-meaning family members nudged me towards technology they thought I would end up embracing. They were right. I hadn’t wanted one. Hadn’t thought I needed one. Why, I still had my portable CD player, a great leap forward from the Walkman it superseded. (Hmm … I still have that also; so, too, the cassettes it played, including the carefully crafted mix tapes, each of which represented hours of play-and-pausing on a tape deck linked to a record player.)

That portable CD player used to travel everywhere with me. A crucial prelude to any trip was selecting the six or so discs to bring, perhaps a couple more with one in the player and another piggybacking in a foreign case. It was a revelation to then have an iPod, weighing not much more than a CD or two, which could store hundreds of albums and still have space for more.

I became one of those people I used to dismiss as wankers. The guy sitting on a train or walking along a city street with wires dangling from his ears, sometimes waving a finger in time with a tune or singing along much louder than intended. Worse, I became a shuffler.

This was both a shock and the cause of some shame. I could bore you silly banging on about how much time the Beatles invested in the sequencing of songs on their albums. Once a year, I still try to play their White Album from go to whoa: Back in the USSR to Good Night. And I don’t want to hear a symphony starting from the fourth movement.

Yet I became an iPod shuffler. I rationalised this as being acceptable for a commuter. This wasn’t serious listening, just a pleasant diversion between home and office to distract me from an overcrowded carriage or unexplained delay. In truth, I liked the mystery. Never knowing what was coming next (and it had to be okay, as somewhere along the way I’d selected it). It was like being 14 again with a tranny, wondering if and when they’d play that catchy new song I hadn’t identified just yet. Except that now I was in control: one glance would give me basic information about the track, a tap could take me back to the beginning. Brilliant. I still can’t fathom how it works.

Then again, I’ve never understood how Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto or Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog are contained in the grooves of an LP or, even more mysteriously, the flimsy brown tape in a cassette. But then wheels turned and I discovered that iPods were considered passé. I was talking music with a friend. Mentioned I’d brought my iPod along. “An iPod?” she replied, raising an eyebrow, clearly wondering why I didn’t have music on a phone like other people.

I’d inherited my daughter’s old smartphone by then. I could have used it more than I did for music. But I liked the way the iPod did its job and had instituted a kind of musical separation of powers. Instead of church and state, it was music and communications. The iPod was for listening; the phone for talking and texting and checking news or sport scores.

But then technology failed, as it almost always will – eventually. Something went wrong. I could no longer add music to the laptop and synch it to the iPod. No big deal. It still worked okay, but was now … finite. Stuck at 2236 tracks – an absurd number by any reckoning, and especially in comparison with the portable CD player. The iPod went to the car; more music went into the phone, which paused a song if somebody called me. Amazing.

It was while trying to sort out the iPod-laptop synching standoff that I stumbled into the streaming world. I was aware of it; had heard people raving about their access to capacious music libraries. But I’d resisted being a streamer, swept away on a rising musical tide. Even the name “streaming” suggested indiscriminate listening, like being stuck in a store with no say about background music.

And I never fancied the idea of other people (or is it an algorithm?) devising a playlist based on my previous choice of tracks, especially as I’d already noted the bizarre selections of genre for stuff I already had. (Van Morrison and Sinead O’Connor turned up in “Alternative and Punk”.) Besides, you might have a library card but you’d never own any books. The music would never be tangible, unlike my rickety rack of cassettes or the rows and rows of CDs and, of course, that long uneven line of LPs, which crossed the ocean to spend three years with us in the US in the mid-1990s.

Anyway, after clicking a Help button while trying to fix the synching issue, I was redirected to the music library, where I saw the irresistible words FREE TRIAL. For three months I could roam the library shelves, listen to what I liked and then, if I chose, wander out again. I understood, of course, that anything borrowed during the trial period would vanish overnight, like a frog in a fairy story, as soon as the trial period lapsed.

So I signed up. Just looking, I told myself. Not committing. I was exploring a new way of doing things. Keeping current. Then proved how non-current I am by first accessing not new cutting-edge stuff but recordings I didn’t already have at home. At first I was just a listener – just as I’d been four decades ago when a popular hangout at uni was the music library, where you could don primitive headphones to hear albums already playing. (Usually Cheech & Chong, for stoners lying giggling on the floor.)

Downloading music from the new music library seemed almost reckless, a way to hoover up data. But when I did download, I discovered that the same tracks then mysteriously appeared on my phone. Even a single track came with an invitation: Show Complete Album. And there it would be.

So it was no surprise when the free trial rolled on into that one-year subscription. It didn’t cost so much, per month, especially when I added the three free months or calculated how many CDs I’d usually buy in a year. Like the new Ry Cooder album that came out early in 2018. I read a positive review in a paper, then wondered … Was it? Yes. In the library. Soon afterwards, I was listening to it in the lounge room. Without making an excursion or phoning stores to find out if anyone had it. Remarkable. I hoped, meanwhile, that old Ry was being rewarded for my interest in his work. He is. But not extravagantly.

I soon found another use for the library. I usually have the car radio on ABC Classic FM when I take the dog out in the morning. (With the old iPod on standby if there’s too much talking or brass-band music. Sorry, tuba players.) If I hear something gorgeous, as often happens, the dog has to wait until the track is over and the announcer reveals what it was. I keep a notebook and pen handy to scribble down some details, and then see if I can hunt things down.

This was how, over the past year, I’ve been led to music from several films I haven’t even seen. My daughter told me about a movement from a Chopin piano concerto she’d found soothing. Click. I watched the BBC adaptation of War & Peace on TV. Prince Andrei gets a big death scene, accompanied by some luscious music. Did the BBC ever put out a soundtrack from the series? Yes. Click. Poor Andrei has now died many times late at night in my study.

But it hasn’t just been classical music or old stuff. Sometimes I listen to Double J, not just Classic FM. So now Courtney Barnett’s on the phone. And Ólafur Arnalds, a cool guy from Iceland my younger son took me to see. Also Benjamin Clementine, Sarah Mary Chadwick, Luluc … music I might well have missed otherwise. And, of course, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s out there.

This is part of my problem now. There’s too much music. My tentative entry into the stream has given me access to extraordinary riches. Near the back of a Beethoven biography I found the author’s choices of finest recordings of his major works. Click, click … there they were: Howard Shelley at the keyboard for the Emperor Concerto; Arturo Toscanini with the baton for the symphonies. Terrific. Except that I’ve only got around to listening to some of them and confess that I already had other versions of the same works in either CD, LP or cassette form (in some cases, all of the above).

I’ve been relatively restrained with downloads. We’re not talking truckloads of new stuff arriving every day. Yet handing back the keys to the library would mean losing an eclectic collection I’ve curated myself. Yes, I could then purchase particular favourites, but that might end up costing as much as the subscription. The streaming people know this, of course. The further I wade into their stream, the more effort it will take to get out.

And still it happens. Old favourites are eclipsed by new things. So now I’m making an effort to wander around the dusty back rows of my library, a copy of which sits damply in a cloud, reminding myself what’s there and playing particular tracks again to recall why I got them in the first place. And still I chance upon pre-stream music. Looking for one CD I came across another, a collection of live jazz performances by Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and others. I vaguely recall snaring it for a few dollars in an op shop. It’s terrific. Perfect for the car or while chopping vegies. It grieves me, incidentally, that no modern cars seem to come with CD players. I speak as someone who used to drive, until not so long ago, a car that could play both CDs and cassettes.

That jazz CD, which I was pleased to discover is not in the library, reminded me that streaming has sapped the joy from one of my favourite things: flipping through bins of LPs in op shops or at fetes. I once played a game that lasted for years, searching for Smoke Dreams by the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band (1973). Unlike anything ever released by Barbra Streisand or Olivia Newton-John or ELO, it proved elusive. Which made it all the more desirable, especially when I mentioned it at a record fair to a bloke who knew his stuff and he muttered, “Hard to find.”

But I did find it, eventually, in a specialty record store that has since closed. I took the LP home and played it straight away, start to finish. It’s good, though not good enough to justify such a protracted search. This was all about the thrill of the hunt. After I played Smoke Dreams a few times, I left it out on display for a while, showing off its elegant Jazz Age cover. Not that anyone noticed. Now it’s in darkness, on the bottom shelf of the cupboard, between J.J. Cale and Glenn Cardier. Ah, but it will still be there if and when I stop paying that streaming subscription.

Is it likely? Not yet. I’m only just getting to know what’s in that dauntingly huge library. I checked, by the way. Of course I did. Smoke Dreams is in there. With no clicks or pops or scratches. But there’s also no thrill in finding it with a few clicks, although it’s amusing to see it only comes up in a search after a 1997 k.d. lang album called Drag. Nor is there the buzz of unearthing other appealing stuff along the way. A Chris Rea LP, a rare R.E.M. CD box-set and Beethoven’s string quartets bobbed up while I was looking for Captain Matchbox.

There’s something to be said for owning just a limited amount of stuff – music, books, movies, whatever – and becoming totally familiar with all of it. The first two LPs I ever bought, in the early 1970s, were Jethro Tull’s Thick As a Brick and Slade Alive! An unlikely pair. I still have Jethro. (It hasn’t aged well.) My Slade records were traded in for others around the time I got older and wetter and moved on to the Moody Blues.

At the end of side one of Thick As a Brick, the sound bounces between the left and right speakers. You sat between the two to get the full effect. It was worth waiting for. What can I say? Stereo seemed remarkable when you’d grown up with mono singles. I played those early records again and again. Could have listed all tracks in correct order. Mike Oldfield spoiled that in 1973 when he came out with Tubular Bells. Two sides. Two tracks. Try shuffling that.

Feels like the more music I’ve owned, the less I’ve lost myself in individual recordings. When I travelled with six or eight CDs, or took a handful of cassettes along on a road trip, I really got to know them. The most I’ve ever appreciated Mozart’s Symphony No. 25, say, or Maria Callas, or R.E.M.’s Up is when I’ve been driving and can play things from start to finish. I could still do that with the phone, of course, though it means resisting the temptation to hit Songs, or Downloads, and then – oh dear – Shuffle All. There’s an archaic kind of shuffling I indulge in from time to time, usually when heading out somewhere. I go to the CD racks or cassettes pile, pick something at random, then play it without even checking what it is. I get some pleasant surprises that way. It’s like bumping into an old friend and realising you still have things to talk about.

A different kind of accident happened the other morning. I started the car, which was filled at once with glorious music. I identified it quite soon: the fourth, and longest, of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, which would be high up on any desert island list I was asked to compile. It was wonderful, but I couldn’t pick the singer. She didn’t sound like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, whose version I know best. Why, it was possibly even better. More lush.

I would wait until the end for the back announcement by the ABC broadcaster. If that meant staying in the car once my journey was over, well, so be it. I was almost home when I realised I wasn’t listening to the radio at all. The music was on the old iPod. The singer was Gundula Janowitz; the orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

Here was another piece of music that I clearly hadn’t got to know as well as I should. And it had been there all along. I think the track came from another op-shop CD. I’ve been looking for it since, without success. This irks me. But I know where I could find it. Along with many other works by Janowitz or Von Karajan.