The latest shift in format is just that – the latest. But streaming asks questions of record collectors that haven’t been asked since the first gramophone records were pressed
Panic, outrage, consternation. All three greeted Gramophone readers in March 1949. The reason? A good old-fashioned format change. ‘I ask readers if they really want to feel that their collections are obsolete?’ fumed Compton Mackenzie’s editorial in the face of an imposter: the new-fangled 33rpm long-playing record. ‘If one has found pleasure from a library of recordings perhaps acquired by many sacrifices through the years, it is unthinkable that one should junk them all and start all over because new products exist,’ he continued.
Mackenzie went on to pronounce it ‘a mistake to believe the 78rpm will become obsolete’. But he can’t be blamed for failing to recognize the cranking-up of a cyclical process that would sustain the record industry for 70 years. In the face of multiple format changes, we have apparently come to the conclusion that it’s the music, and its increased accessibility, that matters – the very reason we’re happy to keep buying the same recordings over and over. While the MP3 and its siblings felt unprecedented in convenience, streaming has rendered the whole idea of ownership obsolete. Subscribe to a service like Qobuz or Idagio, and we are promised we need never worry about accessing an old favourite or brand new recording again.
Such services have proved revelatory. But the majority of us who have collected records over the years still own some hard copies in one format or another. Streaming might alter or extinguish the number of new recordings we buy physical copies of while concurrently widening the number we actually listen to (or it might not). But it will undeniably have a huge bearing on the way we tend and manicure the gardens that are our music collections – far more so than buy-per-track formats like the MP3 did.
Back in February 2011, I started a thread over on the Gramophone forum asking what rules of thumb readers used for editing their own collections. Most read Gramophone because they buy recordings, which in the pre-digital age (yes, some of us were still living in it as little as eight years ago) implied that unless you had unlimited space, whenever something was bought something else had to be jettisoned to make way for it. The not-so-inner nerd in many of us would happily admit that this process was part of the thrill.
In that respect, there were certain obvious questions to ask: is it better to have maximum breadth in your favoured area of repertoire, or a broader repertoire altogether? How many recordings of Figaro is too many? One comment suggested we examine why particular recordings are really in our collection, and beware of recordings we feel should be kept for dubious reasons of received wisdom or so-called completeness. ‘I can find many a reference recording instantly on streaming services should I need to,’ wrote this early convert to streaming (it was actually Gramophone’s current Editor – attitudes had changed since Compton Mackenzie’s day).
That prescient comment gets to the cold, hard fact that there’s now little reason to retain physical copies of almost any commercial recording. Even if you use streaming as a tool for momentary comparison or try-before-you-buy (after reading reviews in Gramophone, naturally) your subscription will offer you pretty much everything else by default. But still, many of us do keep hard copies, and for complicated reasons. The question becomes not so much ‘how many physical recordings of Figaro is too many’ as ‘if I can hear them all online, which one, if any, do I want to keep a hard copy of?’ The ground has shifted far enough in the last few years to suggest that the catalogue will be permanently available to stream somewhere, even given the merry-go-round of platforms and brands.
Perhaps that makes our physical record collections even more riddled with pointless nostalgia and stale anecdote. It will obviously (and already has) place a focus on special editions and luxury products. But it might also invite more stimulating and unusual practices to take root within the obsessive recreation that is collecting – tending the garden. My thoughts on physical products, and on the very idea of collecting recordings, have been turned on their head in the last few years. But even if you want to retain a certain number of physical recordings, there are surely now different parameters in play for deciding which.
Let’s say you’ve despatched 500 CDs to the recycling depot or second hand store. With a generous budget, what might you do by way of musical consolation? Fill the lingering gaps in that Bach Cantata Pilgrimage? Buy up, new and shrinkwrapped, the entire catalogue of one boutique label? Acquire a physical copy of a great recording project you’ve never owned? Invest only in historic recordings and box-sets with extensive documentation? Retain only discs or records that include music by living composers? Would you keep the first LPs or CDs you ever bought, or ones that were meaningful gifts? Do you have your own solutions to this bittersweet dilemma? I would be interested to hear them.
For all the convenience to us the customer, and despite those many fiscal teething problems, streaming might just be emerging as a golden goose to the big players in the record industry – a way of making us pay for all the music we’ve already bought in perpetuity. Stop to think about it, and you could get as wound up as Compton Mackenzie did. But nothing soothes that anger like being able to access a favourite recording in a strange land, on a plane or out running with a few nifty swipes of the thumb.
Of course, the record industry hasn’t been complacent enough to let its old friend, the lucrative format shift, slope off just yet. One trend to which I’ve happily succumbed is to go ‘back to black’: if you must have physical copies of cherished recordings, buy them up on new, 180gram vinyl. After all, there’s no way of streaming analogue vibrations. I discarded a CD recording of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto from Daniil Trifonov last week because I’d got a brand new pressing of it on LP. It felt like March 1949 all over again. What really angered Compton Mackenzie back then wasn’t so much the change, as the consumer’s lack of choice in the matter. For the time being, this brave new world still offers us plenty of choices – choices that are often a pleasure to make.