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The unbearable weight of the massive music back catalogue

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Recently, after watching the Pistols TV series, I listened to the Sex Pistols “Never mind the bollocks, Here’s the Sex pistols” album for the first time. A 1977 release that I was well aware of and knew and liked some tracks from yet I’d never actually sat down and listened to the whole thing. Which got me to thinking why, I guess mainly I’d never really had access to it, it had never interested me enough to buy it and even pre streaming I’d have had no problem getting it from somewhere like Napster or Limewire, but even that barrier to entry was enough for me not to bother.

However today in the streaming era it’s all there on tap, on demand, instantly. No faffing around waiting for downloads, searching for the best source, possibly getting a virus instead. It’s just there and available. Which is in many ways great.

Another album that I re-visited recently (after watching a TV show) was Jagged Little Pill, the 1995 smash from Alanis Morissette. This is an album I know intimately well, I’ve had on repeat many many times and also sprang up some questions about listening habits and my relationship to music. I wondered if my relationship with music has been fundamentally changed by streaming. On the surface my conclusion was that I don’t spend time with albums like I used to, it’s too easy to skip a track, it’s too easy to load up something else, to not listen to an album from start to finish.

Happy in my conclusion I let it sit for a few days before realising it was complete bollocks. I’ve listened from start to finish of plenty of albums, repeatedly, in recent times – “Queensway tunnel” by Zuzu, “Raw Data Feel” by Everything Everything, “Wet Leg” by, erm, Wet Leg, “Reeling” by The Mysterines. It’s no harder to skip tracks than it was on a CD, I guess the only big difference is that I often find myself listening to start of an album more as I listen a lot in the car and with CD’s it used to pick up where I left off, where as with streaming it tends to start again.

So has streaming actually altered my listening habits? I’d say one thing, it’s given me less patience for stuff I’m not on board with. I maybe don’t persist with some stuff like I used to. A purchase of an album on CD or cassette meant more of an investment, you felt you have to listen to it more because of that investment. There’s also less patience because there’s so much out there and it brought me to a quote from “The Art of Longevity” podcast from Roland Orzabal :

we were competing with the whole history of rock & roll

https://www.songsommelier.com/playlist-blog/2022/7/15/surviving-the-biz-21-themes-for-creative-and-commercial-longevity-in-music

That’s a lot when you think about it, why listen to the latest new release when you can literally listen to anything? The best albums from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones from the 60s, it’s all there and you can put it on whenever you want. Maybe this has raised the bar for what makes it into people’s repeated listening, it’s a challenge artists take on, and always have.

Where it becomes an unbearable weight though is the shift in revenues. Back catalogue has always been a huge money spinner for labels – look at the dying days of EMI for a great example of the whole dynamic – however it always seemed to be used to fund new artists rather than making money for itself. The growth of things like Hipgnosis and the huge payouts to labels from the large streamers like Spotify have made back catalogue too valuable to the expense of new artists it would seem. Believe me I wouldn’t want to go back, the ability to trawl through so much of the history of recorded music is fabulous but there needs to be some balance reintroduced, whether through different payment models (Check out Tom Gray on twitter for some great stuff on that) or some other way. There needs to be some balance without snuffing out the freedom to listen that streaming brings.

[main image – Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash ]

This post was originally published on the Mumubl.com Newsletter. For updates and recommendations direct to your inbox don’t forget to subscribe.

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