BIG DEBATE: Has iTunes ruined the real music browsing experience

As the music retailer HMV heads into administration, young music fans are losing a portal into the world of discovery and wonder, something that iTunes cannot replace, writes Anthony Barnes

The demise of HMV will mean the end of an era for music fans who have whiled away hours browsing for nuggets which have gone on to become the soundtrack of their lives.

For generations of teenagers, and for those who refuse to let go of their youth, a trip to a record shop to flick through the racks was a weekly — or more frequent — ritual.

The loss of HMV will mean a world of musical discovery will now be lost, according to the editor of Q magazine Andrew Harrison. “It’s a bad thing for the music business because HMV was more or less the gateway drug to the idea of going into a record shop as a regular thing,” he said.

“It’s on the high street, it’s convenient, it’s next to the other places that you’re going, and it showed people the value of random browsing, where you can just walk along the racks and look and think and just be inspired by something, discover a record you wouldn’t have found another way.

“I loved going to HMV on Mondays when the singles came out, and often the first time I discovered something was when it was racked out and you would see a special offer and you would give something a try. You discovered new music like that.

“With digital music, you don’t browse in the same way — you go in with a name in your head and you search by text only. It’s very hard to make those serendipitous discoveries that can sometimes lead to a lifelong love affair with a particular artist.

“Someone once described iTunes as like listening to a spreadsheet, and it kind of is, because you are driven by statistics and names, not exciting things like a beautiful album cover or a stunning logo or some unusual packaging.”

One side-effect of the move to digital music has been the demise of cover art. “One of the most amazing things I ever saw was when Pink Floyd released a live album with an LED on the spine which blinked,” Harrison said.

“I went into HMV the morning it came out and they had racked hundreds of copies of Pulse with the spine sticking out at the front of the shop and they were all blinking arhythmically — it was like an astonishing piece of artwork.

“People were standing around staring at the flashing, strobing little red light. You don’t get that with iTunes, you don’t get that with Amazon. We’ve moved into a slightly less romantic, less surprising world.”

With digital music blamed for the demise of high street record stores, Conall Ó Fátharta and Dan Buckley defend their preferred formats

Cheap and easy is the best option for music fans

By Conall Ó Fátharta

There is always one word thrown at me when I profess a fondness for downloading my music rather than trotting off into town to pick up a CD: Romance.

Perhaps I am a cynical product of my generation, but such an abstract emotion is just not enough to trump the prime reason for how I buy most, if not all, of my music: Convenience.

The news that music retailer HMV is likely to close after 92 years in business has brought into focus that the nature of how people buy music and film has changed irrevocably. Legally downloading music directly to smartphones or laptops is not only easier, it’s often cheaper — a lot cheaper. Furthermore, in my experience, the choice is also far wider than what you find in stores such as HMV.

That is not to say I don’t enjoy buying a CD. I do. I have hundreds upon hundreds of them, and I still find it hard to pass an independent record store without going in for a root around in the hope of finding a hidden gem or a bootleg.

However, giants such as HMV managed to largely put the old independent record shops out of business. Now, it seems, it is getting a taste of the same medicine.

While much of the music I listen to is from an era before CDs even existed, from the day I bought my first album, I didn’t opt for vinyl or head out to buy a record player. I simply bought what was the most convenient and modern method available to me at the time.

That happened to be a cassette tape. Small and very portable, what it lacked in sound quality it made up for in convenience. As technology evolved, I gradually moved onto buying CDs and eventually made my way to iTunes.

Not once did I pine for vinyl or an old record player. The reason is simple: At no point did I ever listen to music on vinyl. What I never had, I never missed.

While playing records and purchasing old record players and even gramophones is making a comeback as the hip and trendy option for the discerning muso these days, it’s still not an option I will ever take up. The reasons are manifold, but simple.

The first one is that I don’t have the room. In the main, those who buy records come from a generation where they bought a house and settled earlier. As the typical Celtic Tiger renter who has moved so many times in the last decade I can barely keep count, the option of lugging CDs around from place to place just doesn’t appeal.

As for records, you need to dedicate half a room just to set up the system to play vinyl. That’s before you try to find the room to store hundreds of delicate and bulky records.

Then there is price and choice. The fact is, stores such as HMV are expensive. You can pay anything from €15 to €20 for an album from the high street music retailer. You do get cheaper options on older albums, but often the choice is limited unless you are buying new releases or relatively mainstream and best-selling music. The independent record stores give you choice and value but are increasingly hard to find.

Sites such as iTunes cater to every taste. The choice is vast. In most cases, you can sample each track before you buy. If you don’t want to buy the album, you can buy an individual track from as little as 99c. Albums are also far cheaper to download than to buy on the high street. And you have them at the touch of a screen.

Romance? That went out of the music business a long time ago. Cheap and easy is romantic enough for me.

Digital just can’t match up to the revolution

By Dan Buckley

If the house burned down tomorrow, so long as the family and the dog were unharmed, what I would miss most would be my daughter’s painting of Jimi Hendrix and my collection of vinyl records.

Maybe it’s an age thing but I lament the demise of HMV more for what it used to represent than what it became.

His Master’s Voice was the record label of EMI, which produced the most marvellous sounds for the greatest singers and musicians of the 20th century. They did it old-school: First on brittle, fragile 78s — so-called because that was the number of revolutions per minute used to record and replay them. Then the LP arrived and, with it, a new era in sound reproduction that finally matched what was recorded to what you actually heard.

The “frying sausage” sound from the wind-up gramophone was a thing of the past. A well-produced vinyl was the nearest thing to being at the concert hall, folk club, or rock gig. Some of the Beatles’ early recordings were not exactly state-of-the-art. But the fun part is that you can, if you have a good vinyl copy and a decent sound system, hear John Lennon stirring his tea. You won’t get that on iTunes.

Things went downhill from there.

When tape cassettes arrived, convenience was the key. But the sound suffered. Except for the most hideously expensive machines, they produced a horrible, hissy sound that spoiled any hope of listening enjoyment. In order to get over this, Dolby Laboratories came up with a device to reduce the hiss. The problem was it also reduced the sound so that Nat King Cole on cassette tape sounds like he is singing from the bottom of a well.

That, perhaps, is why the LP prevailed until the arrival of CDs and, more recently, downloadable music for MP3 players.

Deutsche Grammophon, the German classical label, was among the best manufacturers of LPs, and they still make them. Listen to any recording of Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic and hear for yourself the difference between the majesty of vinyl and the homogenised, digitised, mashed, mangled, and shrunken sound that wheezes its way through the internet.

An iPod with earphones is fine when you’re walking the dog but does not compare with the glory of a well-made LP; it doesn’t matter whether you are listening to Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, or John McCormack.

Yes, there are downsides. You have to get up off your arse and put the record on. When one side is finished, you have to get up again and turn it over. But what’s the harm in that? Just think of it as armchair exercise.

Perhaps it is part of our culture of instant gratification. We enjoyed everything from on-demand TV to instantly furnished homes during the Celtic Tiger years, when young couples didn’t save for a freezer but added it to their 30-year mortgage.

Convenience isn’t everything if you savour the finer things of life. You can get yourself an automatic piano nowadays that will play anything you want at the touch of a button. But Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto doesn’t sound the same from the bowels of a hard-drive.

Likewise with fast food. There are occasions when McDonald's will hit the spot, but there is still a yawning gulf between a Big Mac and a fillet steak.

Some things are just worth waiting for.

Bring back the revolution.

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