Firstly I should say that I always fully embraced music in a digital format. I downloaded my first track in 2002, and bought Serato in 2008. Unlike a lot of DJs I kept my vinyl, but if you were playing out it seemed insane that would prevent yourself from being able to access certain tunes that were only available on mp3. I don’t want to get into the pros and cons of vinyl vs digital as it’s a well worn discussion that - unbelievably - still gets bought up now.
My beef is with the current situation music consumers find themselves in, where there are so many platforms to acquire music from that it’s becoming impossible to keep up with what’s out there, and even if you have the time and motivation to do that, actually being able to buy what you want is a considerable mission.
Taking it back 20-25 years or so, we had shops. You heard a song you liked and you went and bought it. It might have been harder to find some releases than others, but essentially you could either buy something or you couldn’t. There were the promo only joints and demos passed on to DJs that you’d have to be a bit more savvy and connected to get hold of, but there was a hierarchy and people knew where they stood. If something was only on a mixtape you lived with it, treasuring the tape itself.
Skip forward to the early 00s and the mixtape game became dependant on those exclusives, providing an outlet for material that was never intended for a full retail release. Some songs only existed in the wider world with DJ drops and shout outs on them and again, we learnt to live with it.
Around 2006-2007 things really started to change. Shops were closing. YouTube was up and running and some rappers looked at this as the best outlet for their music. Artists trying to get signed saw the potential of social media and made songs available through their Myspace page. Blogs began to become tastemakers and started to take the place of the mixtape and radio DJs, often making new music available for free. In addition, the illegal downloading thing was in full swing and the music industry couldn't seem to figure out how to deal with it. The music buying public was split between those who buy everything from iTunes or Amazon, due to either enjoying a sense of moral superiority or not being clued up enough to find it for free, and those who would doggedly trawled through every torrent site and Rapidshare link rather than pay 99p for a track.
We now find ourselves in a situation where everything has got a bit out of hand and there’s no obvious first port of call to get your musical fix anymore. The lack of any quality control by way of a "gatekeeper" has often been cited as problem (usually by people no longer being paid for the role) but for those of us comfortable enough to discover music of our own volition, that isn't too much of an issue. It's that there were too many places to look.
Streaming brought a new dimension to the game, and definitely suits a certain type of listener, but as with everything that’s popular, the moneymen got involved and decided simply being functional wasn’t enough so we’ve ended up with releases that are only available on certain platforms, with Spotify and Tidal and their ilk fighting it out for your business.
Some labels don’t seem to realise that not everyone uses Apple products and only have their releases on iTunes. Amazon, for some bizarre reason still sell their MP3s on a variable bit rate rather than offering 320 kbps or WAVs.
Soundcloud might have alienated a lot of users with its take down notices and unnecessarily shutting down accounts for breaching copyright but still seems to a be reasonably popular for showcasing new releases. Audiomack is like Soundcloud’s dodgy cousin. It’s considerably less fussy and is a lot more flexible with what can be posted. Both are something of a lottery in that the song may or not be available to download. You could bookmark it but if you're being honest with yourself 50 other songs will have come along by the time it's available for purchase and you'll never go back to it.
The vinyl revival isn’t something I’ve got caught up in, but with people discovering or rediscovering their love for actual proper records it was inevitable that some artists have seen fit to make some songs vinyl only releases. 7”s (or 45s as they seem to referred to these days) are often the format of choice and at some point everyone seems to have decided that it’s perfectly fine to charge the same price for single that would’ve got you a whole album not too long ago. Don’t even get me started on re-issues.
There’s also Bandcamp, which can throw up some real gems if you know where to look. There’s the plus of more money going direct to the artists and them having more control over what they can sell. It’s mostly the preserve of the independent artist but in an ideal world, everyone would just have a Bandcamp page and we wouldn’t need anything else. Sign in, pay the money (if they’re charging) and bounce.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Heard a new song you like? Quite fancy buying it? You can only stream it. OK, maybe it will be out soon. For now it’s only on Tidal and you don’t have an account with them. You saw on Twitter that there’s a new tune out that seems to have people excited. It’s only a video on Youtube though. You could use that download converter thing but the sound quality is always terrible and there’s a cutaway to some “acting” in the chorus which doesn’t work without the visuals. You check the rapper’s Instagram for more info only to come across an old video of him in the studio playing a track that still isn’t out 6 months after the fact. That group you liked back in the day have just dropped some previously unreleased songs from their album that got shelved in 1996. Too late, the pressing of 250 copies sold out on pre-order and it’s now being resold on Discogs for three times the price. The list of Record Store Day releases has come out but you quite rightly don’t want to pay £25 for a blue vinyl 10” featuring 2 tracks that weren’t considered good enough for the album. More than happy to cop your favourite indie rapper’s new album? They’ll need £20 upfront but you get a free t-shirt and action figure thrown in, assuming their “manager” can be bothered to ship the package 7 months after the promised release date.
There’s too many outlets, not enough consistency in what’s made available and the sheer volume of music getting released means it’s a full time job keeping on top of it all, and often it's not worth the effort. Maybe it’s time to give in, sign up for everything Apple throw at you, and just listen to Dr*ke and Ed Sh**ran for ever and ever.