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Generally Recognized As True: January 2017

Sunday, January 29, 2017

HMV Canada bankruptcy and thinking about digital music and Spotify streaming

HMV Canada's bankruptcy

Even if you regularly visited their stores, I think you knew it was only a matter of time until they weren't there anymore. It's now been confirmed as HMV Canada prepares to shut down its remaining stores in the first half of 2017.

I'm quite disappointed about this, but I don't think that anyone could call it sudden. It's has been like awaiting the closing chapter of a terminal illness.

I visited the HMV at 333 Yonge in Toronto quite regularly until they recently removed its "find in store" feature that let you know if something was in stock before going there, which made a 40-min roundtrip walk a bit riskier than it would have been otherwise. I'd often use this feature in the past to see if what I was looking for was in stock at that store or at the nearby Eaton Centre store (which already closed its doors in December 2016). And if it was in stock, I'd pay a bit more than it cost to be delivered to my door from Amazon to walk over there and buy it.

It's nice to have memories of physical acquisition associated with some of your favourite music, and gifts somehow seemed a bit more personal if you took the time to go and hand-pick the album you thought they'd really like. It's been a long time, however, that I've used a music store for discovery. The few times over the past few years that I've taken a chance and bought music based on browsing in HMV without hearing it first, I have been disappointed.

And, more recently, it felt like HMV didn't really want to sell you music quite as much as they used to. They wanted to sell you pop culture references and fee-based loyalty programs - similar to how you get the sense that Best Buy doesn't much value you buying a TV from them because they don't make money these days until you buy the extended warranty.

Digital music

I listen to a lot of music - whether at home, in transit, or in the car, I often have something playing. And I've always bought the music I like. So much goes into the production of music that I can't imagine doing it any other way and feeling good about it.

And, I like looking at a wall of CDs, but they long ago exceeded my carrying capacity. And mainly for this reason, I started buying digital music a couple of years ago and saved the CD purchase for the times when it was a particularly special album.

More recently, I've also added Spotify to the mix as a discovery tool. It's an incredible platform but I'm not fully comfortable with what it represents.


There's a lot to like about Spotify:
  • Great for discovering new music through dynamic personalized playlists
  • Nice selection of curated playlists organized around genres or moods
  • Recommendations get better the more you use it
  • Very good for finding "that song you heard 15 years ago that you just remembered and want to listen to again".
  • Reasonable compromises for unconnected (offline) listening.
But also some significant downsides:
  • It seems to encourage and emphasize the new. There's only so much music I can listen to - especially if it's really good music that encourages repeat listening.
  • It's hard to argue that using Spotify compensates lesser-known artists well, though I'm sure record companies and some big names are quite well-compensated.
  • It seems that you get the best use of Spotify in terms of recommendations and discovery if you use the Spotify platform to listen to all of your music (rather than mixing it with music you've purchased off the platform).
And some disappointments:
  • If you believe the Spotify charts, the whole world is now listening to pretty much the same music. Which makes the multitude of international charts a bit redundant.
  • So much of the new is new only in name and not in sound, melody, production, or concept. Listening to the "new pop music" playlists is almost like listening to different remixes of a archetypal song that came out 2 years ago. It has always been this way to some extent, but these new remixes of 2-year-old music now happen weekly, and in large volumes!
  • It seems to more recently be encouraging the release of singles over albums. I'm a fan of the thoughtfully-constructed album. But this is somewhat compensated for by the return of vinyl, which has led to many albums being edited down to a 30-45 min length back from the 60-70 min that came in with the original migration from vinyl to CD. For one reason or another, I like the focus of many of these shorter albums.
Because of this cornucopia of "issues", I've developed the pattern of trying out new music on Spotify. If I really like the album, I buy it digitally or on CD depending on how great it is. Doing it this way, the artists gets compensated more fully, and I can still use the platform for its very valuable discovery angle.

The downside of doing this is that I don't listen to the music I like the most on Spotify in volumes  that lets Spotify know that I really like the music. All of those repeated listens after buying the elsewhere don't help the service understand what I like and thereby improve its recommendations.

And because of this mixed-use, it does make me wonder if I'm wasting my money. On the other hand, I've avoided buying albums that I might have bought and only listened to once or twice, so it's probably of net-benefit.

With all of that said, I've largely relegated Spotify to the role of "discovery platform". I can only listen to so much music. And the artist getting compensated fairly is more important than me being able to find even more music than I have time to listen to.

I will miss HMV, but as with many deceased musicians, I really lament the passing of the HMV that existed 15 years ago in the ecosystem that existed 15 years ago than the one whose elegy I am writing today.