Friday, April 22, 2016

Betting on Music: Why I Don't Try Before I Buy

According to a recent BBC article, "half of consumers" listen to albums online before purchasing the physical versions. For artists and record stores, that statistic is probably very welcome indeed: for years, we've worried that fans are streaming music on Spotify instead of purchasing it for keeps, but that BBC report suggests that a surprising number of people actually do both. Loads of record shops have listening posts and/or a 'try before you buy' option that lets the customer hear a couple of songs before parting with any cash, and if that's how people are using streaming services then that's brilliant.

Personally, though, I can't see myself ever using Spotify to make purchasing decisions. Why? Well, just as some people enjoy gambling on horses or football, I love taking a chance on music. I can't deny that I get a glow from staking £10 on a CD that could, for all I know, be a complete dud; it's one thing to purchase music that you already know you love, but I find it even more rewarding to take a leap of faith and see what I end up with.

But the thrill of gambling isn't my only reason for doing things this way. Sometimes, you need a good few listens to really 'get' what an artist is trying to convey, and I worry that if I start using Spotify or Apple Music or whatever to screen every album I'm interested in, I'll wind up dismissing a lot of music that I could have really enjoyed had I only spent a little more time with it.

Here's one recent example. Last week I had some time off work, so I wandered into town to pick up a couple of new CDs from Spillers. The albums I took to the counter were Amen & Goodbye by Yeasayer and Impuros Fanáticos by Fumaça Preta, but I left with a third album - Konono Nº1 Meets Batida - after Ashli, the store's co-owner, recommended it to me.

"It's a load of clangy noise," she said, "but in a really uplifting way."
"You had me at 'clangy noise'", I replied.

I think Ashli kind of expected me to write down the band's name and go away and investigate them before I considered whether or not I'd want to buy their CD, but I bought it right then and there and I'm glad I did. If you haven't heard of Konono Nº1 (and don't worry, neither had I until last week), they're a band from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who play electric likembés and a bunch of other percussion instruments that they found in a junkyard. Their music sounds like this:

Konono's sound lies many, many miles from the sort of stuff I usually buy, and in all honesty, I probably wouldn't have gone back for their CD if I'd sampled it on Spotify ahead of time. But I don't regret my purchase: having spent some time with ...Meets Batida, I'm now really enjoying it, both for its rhythmic elements and for the wonderfully clangy, disorted sound that Ash promised. It's an infectious set of compositions, and I feel like I've had my horizons broadened a little which is always nice.

I think the best thing about my 'don't try, just buy' approach to music consumption is the way it forces me to invest in an album before I finally decide how I feel about it. A lot of my all-time favourite albums didn't really grab me on the first listen; many didn't grab me until the sixth, seventh, or eighth. Had I been window-shopping on Spotify, those sixth, seventh and eighth listens would never have happened, but because I'd already sunk some money into those songs, I felt compelled to press on and make absolutely sure that I was hearing all there was to hear.

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