Sunday, April 13, 2008

My love affair with downloading

Who knows, perhaps one day we'll look at the romantic times when we were spending hours amassing MP3 files into a music library. And Nick Hornby will write a book about a couple of nerdy file-sharers called Dick and Barry.

I'm never the sharpest when it comes to technology and gadgets. Remember when CDs first came out and brought along a whole new world of features? A swishing noise, to start off, and within seconds the display would tell you track number and total running time. That was the end of any stylo-based surgical manoeuvring and pizza-like twirling of a-side and b-side: with CDs, a simple one-finger movement would be enough to skip tracks. Not to mention the shuffle option, as well as a louder, crispier sound. And, most importantly, the added bonus of a music format that, as the catchphrase went, "will last for years". In spite of all that, my conservative inner self didn't bow down to CD domination until 1993. Reluctant to the idea that my few LPs and cassettes could soon fade into obsolescence, I talked myself into the cliché that "vinyl has a warmer sound", whatever that means. Soon I was the last one out of my group of friends to give in. However, when the last LP I bought (Suede's debut album) got dreadfully scratched within days of its purchase, I realised time to concede defeat was knocking at my door.

Yet it took me months to recover. Those puny plastic boxes were no match for the romantic sight of LPs and their laminated cardboard. In those pre-internet days when you couldn’t dispense of trips to your record shop, an album sleeve was the only available preview of a band and their artwork a key insight into their world. It was the equivalent of nightclub 'pulling' politics. For all talks that it's personality that matters, looks and style are the first things you notice the other side of the dancefloor. I could list every single detail of The Cure "Disintegration" sleeve, Pink Floyd "Animals", or "Manifesto" by Roxy Music. I may have had my maths test the following day but my eyes could gaze at the front sleeve of "Wish" by The Cure and the world would just slip away. Not to mention that every new 7" or LP was like Christmas. In the days of pocket money, it was up to your mates' legendary compilation tapes - whose ritual is exceptionally portrayed by Nick Hornby in "High Fidelity" - to provide the bulk of your music collection.

But humans are creatures of habit and, whatever the change, they get used to it. As I got older, my CD collection gradually grew in number, and it was soon apparent that in no way had artwork been sacrificed to the advance in technology. And if it had, then it had been a good compromise. In fact, as PCs started popping up in every household, it even became possible to "burn" CDs, waving goodbye to nagging hours of rewinding and fast-forwarding that cassettes entailed. Soon, even the sight of CDs (though generally of the Mariah Carey type) on display at Sainsburys or Tesco became routine.

And then the word "downloading" came along. It took me years to get my head round it: is it true you can get hold of a song from 'outer space' with a simple, single mouse click? And what about all those scary stories of "Napster", Metallica's court battle and the notion of piracy and copyright? To me, the idea that you could lay hands on music without knowing what the artwork or the band look like felt quite dubious. One-dimensional. Shallow, in fact. Music as a throwaway product that you can acquire and then ditch at a finger click. I kept reading of record sales going down and stuck to my regular trips to Plastic Factory, Tower Records, HMV or the record stool at the Rag Market in the Bull Ring. I read of dodgy Russian websites to be avoided like the plague and Trojan horses that would stick to your computers like a fat man to a double burger. Horror stories of infested PCs that would make a clap clinic pale by comparison. In my imagination, the notion that "download is bad" became the equivalent of not letting off in public. Something that you don’t do.

Until the day came when bands themselves started releasing official downloads, free downloads, legal file-sharing and the rest. It suddenly dawned on me that it'd be absolutely pointless to fork out £12-99 for a single track you think you may like that is hidden on an obscure Matt Bianco release circa-1984. The fortune you'd have to spend if you simply fancied a peek into the Rolling Stones back catalogue suddenly no longer seemed an insurmountable obstacle. A whole new world opened up. Old albums from your school days that you were never able to afford and then faded into oblivion? A one-off single released back in '81 that you'd have to order from god-knows-where? A personal culture-induced journey into the sound of the 1960s? Records that if added to a shopping basket in HMV would eat into half your monthly wages? Well, they now come for free and are with you in minutes.

Thanks to downloading I've been able to make up for lost ground and broaden my musical knowledge. Northern soul, rockabilly, 70s glam rock and the worst of late 70s disco music. I've been able to revive dormant memories of early 80s Italian summers with the sound of "Vamos A La Playa" by Righeira. Not to mention the fun side of it. Do you remember that crap entry (which one…) from the Eurovision song contest? All you need to do is look it up on Wikipedia, download it and then scramble for the nearest bucket. Or that toe-curling single released by that Scouser who won Big Brother 1? You can resurrect it from the dead and make it haunt you again from the deepest depths of forlorn bargain bins. Or you can cringe at the sound of lost classics like "Yes Sir I Can Boogie", "Who Let The Dogs Out" and other junk the walls in my house never thought were gonna be subjected to.

And that's not to say that I won't buy CDs ever again. When it comes to my favourite artists, I'm afraid owning their records and monging out in front of the artwork is still integral part of my sad, sad life. Yes, it may be a shame that songs can be given the relevance of a notepad document or a discarded Excel folder. But for every track that ends up in the recycling bin or the land of hard drive oblivion there's another one I cherish and am proud to own.

The record industry are crying foul at the current outlook of dwindling sales. But I'm afraid with the thousands of pounds I gave them since the age of 13 I can now say it's time to get even. Who knows, perhaps one day we'll look at the romantic times when we were spending hours amassing MP3 files into a music library. And then Nick Hornby will write a book about a couple of nerdy file-sharers called Dick and Barry.

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