(Straight From Nashville is a weekly column written by CMT.com managing editor Calvin Gilbert.)
What’s your preferred method to listen to country music? I mean, aside from the car radio. That’s where most listening is done.
But do you still buy CDs, do you purchase downloads or have you made the switch to streaming?
I’m curious about your response because, frankly, I’m a little dazed, confused and overwhelmed about all of this.
Whether songwriters and artists like it or not, music streaming is a reality that will have to be dealt with. If you’re a multiplatinum act like Taylor Swift, it’s a lot easier to withhold your new album from streaming services than it is for a struggling act who’s anxious for any attention they can receive. Swift knows her fans are willing to pay for a CD or a download.
But what’s a music fan to do in this ever-changing world in which we’re living? (My apologies to Paul McCartney for lifting his phrase.)
I thought I had a pretty good grasp of the move toward music streaming until I started searching for a single-disc CD player during the holidays. Guess what? There aren’t many options anymore, and I’m pretty much convinced the only choices in the years to come will be expensive audiophile equipment that most of us won’t be able to afford. Or at least justify buying. (Yeah, I know you can listen to CDs on a DVD or Blu-Ray player, but I wanted a headphone jack with a volume control. Is that too much to ask?)
Country music fans, in general, aren’t categorized as “early adopters” of technology. Record labels love us because we’re still buying CDs in quantities that far exceed most other music genres. And the fact that we’re not early adopters doesn’t mean we’re stupid or inferior. It only means we’re less likely to get excited when some new gadget or service is introduced. We’ll eventually move to those products and services, but we won’t necessarily be standing in line outside the Apple store to be the first on our block with bragging rights.
In a year-end music report issued by Nielsen, the industry’s leading data information provider, country music accounted for 11.2 percent of total music consumption in the U.S. Country music streams accounted for only 6.4 percent of total streams.
Rock comprised 29 percent of total consumption with a 24.7-percent share of streams. Pop had 14.9 percent of the total share with 21.1 percent of the streams. R&B/hip-hop grabbed 14.9 percent of total consumption with 21.1 percent of the streams.
So that’s where things are going. But what about those of us who already own several hundred CDs? We’ve already imported our favorite music to iTunes, but it’s nice to slip a disc into a CD player, grab a set of decent headphones and immerse ourselves in a track that’s not presented in a compressed audio file.
For that matter, I was also taken by surprise in September when Apple discontinued its iPod Classic. For the past couple of years, I had intended to buy one of the 160GB models. I’d always enjoyed my old one, but the idea of loading the big one with 40,000 songs would have solved all my problems by keeping my entire iTunes library on one device. I’ve got everything stored in the cloud, but there’s something I like about knowing the files are in my possession. Unfortunately, those iPod Classic models which once sold every day for $249 are now going for $500-$1,000 on various websites.
A lot about our listening habits depend on our expectations. Purists will tell you vinyl is the only way to go. And a pristine piece of vinyl played on a good turntable with a quality cartridge and stylus (aka “needle”) is a truly wonderful experience. It does seem to have a warmth that’s missing from CDs and downloads.
But it’s easy to scratch a vinyl album, and it’s certainly not a portable medium. While vinyl sales have increased somewhat in recent years, Jack White’s Lazaretto was the top-selling vinyl album of 2014, and it only sold 86,700 copies.
Apple’s iTunes store experienced a sizable decrease in paid downloads last year, yet Neil Young has been behind the introduction of Pono, a high-resolution player. I haven’t heard one yet, but depending on who you believe, it’s one of the greatest audio innovations in history, or it’s just more snake oil.
All I know is that the player, which looks really cool, costs $399, and a high-resolution download of Young’s After the Gold Rush album costs $21.79 to download. And how many times have I already bought After the Gold Rush in other formats?
Whether it’s worth that price is a personal decision and perhaps an indication of how serious you are about music and audio quality.
One of my friends has bought new copies of Bob Dylan’s Blond on Blond each time a newly-remastered CD version was released. Technology does change, and it’s hard to deny when a new version actually does sound better, but a lot of us are looking for the Holy Grail. I’ve certainly done it a few times myself, and it often seems like the updated versions only seem a little louder.
As for music streaming services, the biggest opportunity for fans is the possibility of discovering new music. Or old music. I’ve personally enjoyed going back to hear historic recordings I never got around to purchasing. Some of it turned out to be an academic venture for me, but it’s important to know where the music came from. When it comes to new music, though, streaming also gives us a chance to find out where it’s going.
Let’s keep in mind that the music itself is more important than the technology. When I was a teenager, I remember visiting a high-end audiophile stereo shop that sold extremely expensive equipment such as McIntosh tube-powered amplifiers. For some reason, the salesman didn’t run me out of the store even though he knew I couldn’t afford to buy anything there.
However, in discussing the shop’s clientele and the prices for the audio equipment, he said, “Most of the people who can afford to shop here are too old to hear the difference anyway.”