Listening to Music – from 78s to Spotify

October 16th, 2016 by Martin Hester

Our time is rich in change, and the way we obtain music for listening has gone through some major transformations over the last 80 years or so. Although many of us may feel reluctant to give up LPs or CDs which gave us so much pleasure, in favour of unsubstantial digital files on the computer, the latest major player in music delivery – Spotify – offers a service which is very interesting.

 

The major transformations

My first recollection of hearing a recording of music goes back to putting a 78rpm disc on a smallish box with an acoustic horn, winding it up by a handle on the side, and placing a needle in the groove. I remember listening to a Chopin Nocturne – scratchy (you had to replace the needle every two playings), poor quality – but absolute magic. You were limited to 3 and a bit minutes each side. (I discovered later that before this there were recording cylinders and piano rolls – long rolls of paper with holes, which when put into a “player piano” programmed which keys would play as the mechanism was cranked – but the 78 was the first player to become widely popular).

Electric-powered turntables and diamond needles were an improvement, but the 78rpm records were breakable and easily scratched. So then came the smaller plastic discs rotating at 45rpm, but still keeping to the pattern of songs lasting about 3 minutes – on an A side and a B side. Very convenient for ranking popularity for each piece of music – top of the pops – something which continues until now. And then came the 12-inch long-play records rotating at 33rpm; 5 or 6 songs each side playing for about 20 minutes, and the concept of albums. You had to buy the record to be able to listen to it over and over again, and so this was a time when the music industry could make fortunes from recordings – more the record companies than the artists, and more the pop artists than classical.

There were also tape recorders, but I used one more for personal recordings than for reproducing music – because although you could get more time, it was inconvenient for picking one piece out of a sequence, and much-played recordings eventually lost quality.

Thus for decades – from the 50s to the 80s – singles and LPs were the major way of obtaining music to listen to repeatedly – though radio stations continued in the vital role of disseminating music and artists. The Sony Walkman began the mode of portable music, providing a small and convenient gadget to play cassette tapes while travelling, using earphones.

Then came the CD, supposedly advantageous because of sound quality (without surface noise, because they are digital recordings) and because you can get more time on a one-sided disc – 70 minutes or a bit more. However, CDs were a latent threat to the recording companies, because they are essentially masters, whereas with LPs the master is a metal engraved disc used for pressing the vinyl plastic. When copying CDs became common in the computer industry, recording companies lost sales to private copying.

 

Impact of the Internet

But this was not the major threat brought by the revolution of personal computers and the Internet to the music industry. Sites such as Napster, Gnutella and Kazaa offered free downloads of songs to which they had no rights – and the music companies were unable to agree a common standard for copy-protection, and were seeing their business undermined. The situation was saved by the vision of Steve Jobs and Apple: in 2001 they launched the iPod, which enabled you to transfer from your computer to the device up to 1000 songs which you already owned. They also managed to persuade the record labels and major artists to put their music into the iTunes Store, from which individual songs could be downloaded for 99cents of a dollar each. Together with strong action against piracy, this was sufficient to bring legitimacy back to the ownership of music. The executives involved imagined selling a million songs in the six months after the iPod was launched; instead the iTunes Store sold a million songs in six days. And Apple became a music company as well as a computer company.

Today the iTunes Store remains a major purveyor of music, together with Amazon, where you can buy online the physical CD or capture songs by download. And there are a host of other independent music stores.

For listening to music for free, You Tube has an amazing range of music available, although it is primarily a site for streaming video.

 

Spotify

The latest major player in the music delivery business is Spotify, a Swedish company which is a music and video streaming service, providing protected content from record labels and media companies. The idea is to listen to the music, not own it – although under the Premium service, songs can be downloaded and listened to offline, up to a limit. Spotify has grown astonishingly fast since it started in 2008, and in August 2016 is thought to have 40 million paying subscribers worldwide, with 100 million active users. In Brazil the paid service costs R$14.90 per month (on your credit card). Their library of songs is now up to 30 million, with more content added every day. The company is privately held (headquartered in London) and is thought still to be making a loss, while it develops its service and expands – it is presently available in the Americas, in Europe, and Australasia.

 

For listeners

It is easy to download and install the Spotify software – on your desktop, or on your smartphone, iPad, or whatever. Then if you type into the Search box some keywords to describe the music you want to hear (or the artist) up comes a listing of songs for you to choose: click to start and the music in great quality starts playing, moving automatically from one piece to another – according to the Spotify listing or according to your own playlist. Naturally the quality depends on your Internet connection, but I have not experienced interrupted or delayed streaming. I found it quite fascinating to try out songs which I loved and hadn’t heard for years! The search mechanism is remarkably effective, and when I have tried it in Classical, Jazz, Pop, Latin music and MPB it has so far come up with everything I have asked for (though in classical not necessarily from a particular artist). Amazing!

You can use Spotify for free – the sound is interrupted for advertisements every few songs, and some of the choice is restricted. If you pay R$14,90 a month for the Premium service, there are no ads, you have total access to their library, have a higher quality of streaming (although I couldn’t detect the difference) and can download and play offline. You also help to keep them in business!

Although I have used Spotify on the desktop, I am told it is very effective on the smartphone, on a variety of platforms, and retains its ease of access and sound quality. Being able to download and listen offline means that you don’t always have to use up a metered Internet connection (although the download is erased after a time if you don’t keep up your subscription).

 

Playlists

A playlist is a sequence of songs or pieces of music which will play one after the other. Spotify itself has many already made up, classified by type of music, or mood. I tried out the one classified in Mood as “As músicas mais lindas do mundo”, which started with Hey Jude, then Aguas de Março, Imagine, My Way – can’t quarrel with that!

An interesting feature is that it easy to make your own playlist, which is then available for you to run through whenever you want – and you can make it available to your Facebook friends also if they have their Spotify account linked to Facebook. Or you can form a group of friends on Spotify itself…

You can find more about the artist who is playing (and composer) by right-clicking on the record cover (bottom left of your screen) and choosing Go to Artist> About, or Go to Album>About. Anything with a link will bring your more information – pictures, biography… pretty remarkable!

 

For performers

Spotify pays royalties to copyright holders and apparently 70% of its revenues are used for this purpose. There is not a fixed rate per streaming, it depends on the artist and location, but the rights owner is said to receive from US$ 0.006 to $ 0.008 per streaming – that’s 1000 streamings to earn just $6 … hmm. As a result, some leading artists refuse to release their music to Spotify. But Spotify say they take a great deal of trouble to help artists develop their careers.

For lesser-known artists, the principal advantage may be in making their work available – to a potentially enormous audience. They must record with a record label which guarantees the author’s rights, before Spotify will accept their music for dissemination, thus ensuring legitimacy. Apparently there are a huge number of Brazilian artists placing MPB on Spotify.

Spotify is not the only music-streaming site, but due to its huge catalogue, ease of use and richness of information, it looks set to become a major force in the delivery of music. Whether it will rival technological revolutionaries like Google Search, Google Maps, AirBnb, and Uber in shaking up a whole sector remains to be seen.

 

In the meantime, why not register on the Spotify site, find your favourites… and Good Listening!