20190913 I talked to a Millennial yesterday.

Nigel Morris-Cotterill

I had put a CD into a crappy player, through an ancient and slowly fading Sony amp and some cheap speakers. It didn’t sound good but it sounded a bit better than previous times I’d played it. The reason for the experiment was simple: it sounds absolutely awful on my good stuff. All my good stuff. It even sounds awful on my PC speakers. Why?

Apparently, it’s because it’s been mixed in such a way that it’s OK when streamed to people’s phones.

Talk about regression. In the 1960s, when we first got pocket radios (mine was a Purdy 2 which even Mr Google knows nothing about) the sound quality through a tiny speaker was horrible. We moved onto Grundig YachtBoy or Bush things that had handles but were not exactly conveniently portable. Gradually, stereo systems built into furniture reached the masses, followed by HiFi (a term often badly misused).

We got big speakers in big cabinets, manufacturers found ways of making transistor driven boards sound more like valve amps with circuits made of actual wires. And we used Long Playing Records and Singles.

Sony made earphones to deliver good sound from a pocket device (I still have mine and they still sound good) . Sony’s last good sound device was the Walkman DC2 – I still crave one but the only ones I see for sale are battle-scarred or insanely expensive. It was the swansong for the cassette era (which is slowly coming back so maybe Sony might reintroduce it – nah, they’ll mess about with it under the guise of “improvement”).

Then we started down the path of digital. The clarity (but not depth) from CDs was great and they were portable enough to use in the car and a lot less trouble than cassettes. But still we were using decent speakers. At least CDs have a decent bitrate and tech advances once more brought the sound quality up to close to LPs and turntables.

Then we got youtube, spotify and others with rubbish quality sound being pumped down creaky wires or cruddy mobile signals.

The Millennial said he “used to buy CDs” but now he finds whatever he wants on YouTube, Spotify or some other service. And he knows the quality is not good but it’s convenient. Sometimes he plugs in an external speaker (and to be fair, some of them are good – mine is, especially if I put it in a box replicating the old speaker cabinets).

But none of this matters if the source material is rubbish, I argued. He just shrugged. It’s free, he eventually said.

So, I pay for terrible mix quality that is made just so he can listen for free.

The artist gets close to nothing (often actually nothing) from streaming services or services that willingly build a catalogue of unlicensed copies or covers from which they themselves profit.

Something’s gone wrong somewhere. The thing about Pirate Bay, etc. was that it ripped off record companies but it wasn’t really accessible. YouTube and spotify (the latter now at least having all-but removed unlicensed material from its platform and having a policy that at least comes close to ensuring that all new material is authorised, albeit at a cost that increases the barriers to entry for new and small-time artists) and dozens of other services are everywhere and readily accessible to all as a result of which even the technologically-unaware can use them.

I hope (I know it’s an impossible hope) that he is not typical and that his generation and those that come after it realise that they only have music to listen to because someone devotes their lives to making it. Streaming is almost like joyriding: using a car without paying for it. YouTube should be prosecuted as a criminal enterprise (it would be if it were distributing copies of Windows, for example).

And people need to realise that the quality of the sound is important and start listening to good quality sources through good quality kit.

Why? Because if I pay for another CD that’s mixed so some twit can listen to extracts on his phone (where, despite the mix it still sounds horrible) I’m going to stop buying CDs.

Then the artists, and the record companies that order that mix, will get nothing unless they can mount a profitable tour (there’s the barriers to entry thing, again) and flog lots of merchandise (assuming that’s not already been copied and sold in street markets or via on-line shopping services for weeks before the concert date).



Nigel Morris-Cotterill (www.countermoneylaundering.com) is a cranky old man whose son is a musician (www.janesyangyongcong.com)