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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Tuesday September 09 2014

New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross writes about how he still loves his classical CDs.  Partly, he admits, it’s nostalgia.  CDs were such a huge leap forward when they first arrived that that moment of pure joy is very hard to turn your back on.  I can still remember what my first CDs were: Nielsen 3, Brahms Sextets, Barenboim complete Beethoven piano sonatas, Strauss Alpine Symphony … Then there was the realisation that classical CDs would just get cheaper and cheaper and abundanter and abundanter, and then very soon the reality of that happy circumstance.  Gramex Boss Hewland prices his stuff with more than half an eye to what Amazon charges, and it remains worthwhile to visit Gramex from time to time, even as all the other central London second hand CD emporia have faded away.  He piles them high and sells them cheap.

Yes, the physical space occupied by CDs is a problem.  Those piles can get very high.  (Visit my home to see that problem on an enormous scale.) But, for me, the internet remains an unenticing place to purchase and play classical music.  I have accumulated some virtual titles, as a result of buying them new on Amazon and having an additional “cloud” version of the same thing piped into my computer.  But I wouldn’t want to be without the CDs whose purchase provoked this additional twenty first century response.

I wrote recently about the value of keeping things separate, in my case my big home computer and my music making equipment.  Even as my big home computer continues not to materialise, I still have music as good as ever, with no messing with some new kind of system to make it work.

But the central problem with classical music on the internet is that it remains, I believe, a mess.  Pop music having overwhelmed classical music economically during the last hundred years or so, pop music is the big driver of internet music, and internet music is entirely organised for the benefit of pop fans, and their discreet tracks.  We classicists are liable, as Alex Ross explains, to get lumbered with such things as John Eliot Gardiner’s Beethoven Nine labelled as being the work of Lyuba Organosova, merely because she tops of the list of soloists for the final movement.  The labelling of classical tracks on Amazon, where they offer you little snippets to listen to, is routinely done by naming the pieces with such things as their tempo or loudness markings, while neglecting to tell you what the piece is or what number movement it is.  They just can’t be bothered to get it right.  Fair enough.  I understand why they can’t be bothered.  We classicists aren’t worth bothering with.  Buy the CD or don’t and consider yourself lucky, is the message.  Until someone really big and well organised does bother about it, classical music on the internet will remain an off-putting afterthought, piggybacking systems devised for something else, rather than an enticing attraction.

When things get reissued, the labelling is liable to go completely to buggery.  I, for instance, have that Barenboim set of Beethoven sonatas on EMI from way back, long before the internet, when it first came out as a set of CDs.  Since then it has been reissued.  So, when the internet tries to assist me in cataloguing recordings I myself have made of it onto my hard disc, it gets it all wrong.  Useless.

Classical music on the internet will eventually get sorted out.  And when it does, I will, if not dead, presumably hear about it from my classical music mags.  A consensus will be announced, saying things like “Classical CDs really are pointless nowadays”, and when you read such articles, it will, after about a decade of premature enthusiasm of the geek-bollocks sort ("all you have to do is blah blah dance on the head of twenty seven pins blah blah blah turn seventy three cartwheels blah blah blah what could be easier? … yes it might all crash but to solve that blah blah blah ..."), eventually become true.  A actual, real world majority of Classical freaks will be using this single, best arrangement, and it will work, all the time, like email.  Or not.

Even when such a new classical dispensation does emerge, I will probably not bother to switch.  It’s not just sunk costs; it will also be declining costs.  As internet classical music becomes ever more appealing, so the price of mere CDs will sink and sink, until all of them can be purchased by me from Amazon, for £0.01 plus postage.

Meanwhile, I like that my CD filing system (aka my CD collection) is always accurate.  When I dig up a CD that says it is so-and-so’s recording of Brahms 4, it is, and then when I play it, it will be played in the right order.  Notes will be to hand to read about this recording if I want to, conveniently stored right next to the CD.

I do have lots of virtual music, as an addendum to my CDs, like those files that Amazon spontaneously volunteers, and like stuff I have recorded from the radio.  But the latter starts out being called something like DAB002, and I have never sorted out how to file it conveniently, or even to edit it into individual performances.  Life is too short to be bothering.  Why edit, when CDs are already edited.  Virtual music is strictly an afterthought for me.  Plastic music remains the thing itself, for me.  And (see above) I don’t believe I’m just being sentimental, even if I am somewhat.