Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Vicar Shits on Baby's Face - You'll Never Guess What Happened Next?

Just testing a theory...


A couple of times recently I've been reminded about my age and my lack of technological know how. Several people have informed me that everyone (I know and don't know) is now streaming everything and no one has record collections any more, they all keep it in the 'cloud' and play it anywhere they want, whenever they want with a thing called a 'playlist'.

Honestly, I'm over 50. I don't want, need or desire that shit.

I have a cupboard of vinyl I'm never likely to play ever again, but I'll be buggered if I'm getting rid of them (especially as record prices are pathetic compared to say that of collectable comic books) and one day, you never know, I might treat myself to a turntable.

I also have shelves and shelves and shelves of CDs; about 1000 to hazard a guess and this became a kind of point of jovial derision from a pal just before Christmas, because he couldn't understand why I just didn't upload everything onto my computer and claw back the valuable space being taken up by all those discs (he was suggesting I do this with just downloads, not pre-recorded CDs) and he argued that if anything happened to the hard drive, if I didn't have a decent back up I could just as easily re-download the stuff, or just never bother and listen to it via the net.

My stock answer is and always has been, I like to have something physical. It's probably why I was so resistant to making Borderline Press books digital, because in my world a book or a comic is this physical thing you hold in your hands, you can smell, you enjoy the entire feel and experience. It is why I have about 200 extra CDs containing MP3 libraries of things I probably won't ever listen to (again) but feel the need to own. It's there because if I ever get an urge to listen to some obscure Norwegian band or say a discography of early John Martyn, I know where to look (even if it takes longer to find now than downloading an album illegally).

Now, I have toyed with the idea of transferring it all to a portable hard drive that I can plug into other technology and have access to it (that way I can still keep the original CDs but tucked away in the loft or some place until I need to access them again, if ever), but because home habits have changed since the birth of the CD, I find that [our] listening habits have changed the most. Once, the stereo was the focal point of my living room, in many ways it took precedent over the TV - music was far more important than soaps or sport - but as computer technology developed and the internet appeared and then Napster, Apple, Spotify and those other slightly evil companies, who all became synonymous with music. It is a rare thing that the stereo in the living room is ever used now; if we want to listen to the radio we do it through the TV and the idea of putting a CD on and just sitting there doing other things seems to have become something from a bygone age, like watching Top of the Pops.

Then an interesting wrinkle appeared last week, something which I might have explained away as cheap technology. I mentioned that a band I liked released a new album in 2015 and I only discovered it existed the weekend before Christmas (and to add insult to injury it was so un-patronised I couldn't find a single illegal download of it anywhere on the net). My mate lent me the album. It's about as common as me playing CDs in the lounge that I actually put a proper - shop bought - album into my PC and within a track or two something odd happened...

Not only was I taken with the album, I was impressed with the sound quality. Now CDs are anathema to vinyl heads, a little like the way I can't get my head around the way that young people listen to music in 2017 - tinny little phones playing even tinnier music - yet here I was sat here listening to an album that sounded richer and full of depth. I ripped a copy and a little later played it back, and then played the CD again - using the same PC music playing app. The difference was quite audible and made me realise that I was in a strangely unique situation in that I had the foresight to compare the CD version to the 320kps version I'd ripped; if I download music I don't have that point of comparison.

Now, take one of my favourite albums of 2016. I received authorised WAV and mp3 versions, downloaded from the album's creator (for review), but unlike this guy's debut album I didn't have it as a physical CD and because I still haven't bought the new album I'm not totally sure that my wife's description of one track sounding like 'clowns having a fight' is going to sound at all like that played through my ghetto blaster, CD drive or car stereo.

Is it any surprise that vinyl is now selling more than it has for 25 years? Not only is the ANALOGUE sound much more aesthetically pleasing to the ear, there's a surprising amount of depth that digital can't copy, the same way. Yet, here I am suggesting that the humble (and soon to be obsolete) CD is as much of an improvement on MP3 files as vinyl is to the CD. I'm sure if your granny knew how and why to suck eggs she wouldn't need a manual...

I have always prided myself in the fact that while I illegally download 90% of my music, anything I really like I then go and purchase. There are bands who would never have got my money had I never got one of their albums from a torrent. Ironically, I would never have got into Steven Wilson and his band the Porcupine Tree without an illegal torrent, so he would never have got any of the money I spent on him had I been as tight-arsed about illegal downloads as he is.

A lot of my illegal downloads are digital versions of albums I own. I bought the things in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, I'm not paying for them again.

The point I'm dancing around is for a little while my mate's suggestion that I could have every bit of music I own in a little portable box sounded not an unreasonable idea (just so long as I could be happy that I had sufficient back ups), especially if the idea is to wire (or wireless) up the house so that I can access stuff through other technology. It would probably resurrect the old pastime of listening to music together in the lounge, especially when we don't want to watch TV and I commit to spending less time on the internet.

Oh and there's something else... I don't have very good tech. My speakers are cheap, my sound card is only slightly above adequate and I use a fairly standard and generic music player with basic settings. I pretty much always resisted the idea of going the full-on electronic route purely because of my shit gear. It then dawned on me that the album I borrowed from a friend was played on said shit gear and it didn't sound shit... I don't play CDs through my PC because I have a perfectly adequate Sony portable CD/Radio/Cassette thing less than 18 inches from my left hand. In my office I have the albums of one of my fave bands, on this PC I have these albums which I downloaded presumably to prove the point that it's easier to download something than turn round and rummage through 1000 CDs to find one thing in particular.

I played both versions. The CDs - bought in the mid 1990s - sounded considerably better than the FLAC (apparently CD quality files) downloads, even with my monkey-metal speakers... Apart from the fact that I was thinking I could eventually buy all Cardiacs material and hear it all like the first time, it also made me realise that having everything on computer file - whatever claims are made about which is better than the other - is a little like having photocopies of an artist's works. It has everything you need, but is maybe lacking in specific detail. If you squint hard enough you can hear the sampling...

Now, I'm also aware that anyone reading this is probably wondering if stating the bleeding obvious is going to be my blog theme for 2017, because if you're old enough you'll know much of what I've said already. I just wonder if for the sake of convenience we've allowed our standards to drop and with barely a whimper?

Waaay back when the century was young, I was on a forum with some like-minded chums, one of which was extolling the brilliance of TV at the time; how it was so much better than it has ever been before and I sat there thinking not only was the guy a plonker, he had also allowed himself to be swept up by the hype. I accused him of having allowed his standards to drop in the face of too much inferior product and the need to categorise. I was, not for the first or last time, called a miserable curmudgeonly old cunt who needed to lighten up...

Then recently the wife and I watched Edge of Darkness again, considered by many to be one of the top 3 TV dramas of the 1980s. It wasn't at all how I remembered it and it has dated terribly, like a Howard Jones single or the Boy George look. It was littered with absolutely awful (testosterone driven) dialogue; some really contrived situations and seemed to ooze '80s smugness. In short, had it arrived on screens in 2017 the way it did in the early 1980s, it would have been dismissed faster than Mrs Brown's Boys.

Measuring quality in a subjective setting is a personal choice; and time and memories change, distorting views and altering our perception; the same applies to growing accustomed to listening to lo-quality. However, if you can actually, physically, determine something is better by the quality on offer that is a different and objective thing and I think today's yoof (and a few of yesterday's) have slightly devalued music quality to the point where it has seeped into all of our lives. Elevator music quality is now the sound of the world and while many of us enjoyed pirate copies of blockbuster films back in the good old VHS days, it was so much better seeing it on TV or better still at the cinema. I discovered we still still have that kind of divide today.

One final point: I also don't think the sound quality applies to people trying to make money in music. Even The Guardian has latched onto brands rather than artists or genres. It's almost like the music is secondary to the brand appeal, so very little of the real music that is produced in the 21st century actually gets any air time... Unless of course there's a brand to go along with it. It's no longer music but cynical marketing with something rarely innovative at the end apart from people telling you how innovative it is.


Now, here's the weird one. When I wrote the opening paragraph of this, it was my intention to actually talk about radio and why, like the old-style music industry, it appears to be entering something of a swansong.

Listening figures continue to fall, less people listen to music radio because they have their own customised playlists or for variety they'll listen to a friend's (almost identical) playlist, or some artist... or brand's playlist. I can't help think that young people are as interested in radio as they are in serialised weekly television.

For example; I've grow increasingly disappointed by 6Music's output, because I believe it barely scratches the surface of alternate music (based on the station's supposed demographic) and spends far too much time promoting genres that Radio 1Xtra was created for and also seems, especially during the day, to want to be more like 1970s Radio 1 or 1990s Radio 2 but still playing too much populist 21st century shite. I really don't give a fuck how so-and-so is doing new things in hip hop or RnB; that should be 1Xtra's brief, not the god awful Lauren fucking Laverne, who is marginally more exciting than Mary Ann Hobbs, who simply just makes me wonder how these people ever got on the radio... I know Tom Ravenscroft is John Peel's son, but other famous people's children have been removed from the TV or radio for being much better and more charismatic...

So, this morning, in a vain attempt to reconnect with modernity I thought I'd try and find an internet/digital radio station that ticked 75% of my boxes (because expecting radio to tick anything greater is like expecting Middlesex Cricket Club to win football's World Cup - impossible for many reasons...).

My first port of call was Last.FM, which I once used regularly and is to 'blame' for a number of bands I now like based on their similarities to other bands I already liked. Obviously I can't remember the last time I went to Last.FM but I was sure I had it bookmarked, but couldn't find it. When I found the site via a search engine I didn't understand it. I had no bloody idea at all what a scrobble is/was/does and I couldn't find how to play a radio station or anything and when I finally managed to get it to play something it opened a link to a small You Tube video... In the immortal words of every young person ever - WTF? Look, I know I'm 54 and a self-confessed Luddite, but, come on... Websites shouldn't read like Albanian farming manuals!

Five minutes of trying other Bing suggestions, such as Jango and two others with instantly forgettable names and I decided to look at the free channels available on my (cheap and free) VLC media player. I (later) found out that almost 300 stations available at any given time will have as little as 0 listeners, on a daily basis, and that of the literally thousands of stations available many are duplicated, huge swathes are run by companies that flood adverts all over the stream (several you have to listen to at least 30 seconds of advert before you even find out if you want to continue listening - and if you hit refresh or back or even pause, the ad has to be played again).

Literally an hour of the 21st century equivalent of channel hopping yielded a monstrous fuck all. I found nothing that grabbed me by the balls or made me get all priapic - musically speaking, of course. Plus a number of 'specific' genre channels were playing music that I would not have put into that genre. For someone as bloody anal-retentive as me this was just a load of shit.

I couldn't find anything that seemed remotely up my street or that looked like it might introduce me to something different - because that was the main reason for wanting to do it in the first place. To listen to something new that I might not even be remotely tempted by. To find a new North Atlantic Oscillation, Blow Up Hollywood, Porcupine Tree, Ulrich Schnauss, Manual, Nordic Giants or whoever.

I am totally amazed some of these musicians continue ploughing their furrows in a world that ignores their genius. I know, why do I continue to write despite the fact I'm never likely to be paid to do it again? I do it because I enjoy it and by whatever Gods might exist if I could play musical instruments I'd be just as dedicated and creative even if no one wanted to share my own brilliance.


One last thing about creativity and ting...

Umpteen months after saying she'd read my book, a window of opportunity appeared where the wife could read and edit my book. Then she chickened out and came up with an excuse (that sounded very Hall-like in its 'logic'). I joked that it might be a multi-million selling book in waiting and her reaction to this felt more like a 'Yeah, but what if it isn't?'

I swear to whatever gods there might once have been if I end up pegging it and then she reads it and thinks it's brilliant, how is that going to be of any benefit to me? Huh?

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