Crotchet quavers

A decade is a long time in digital. Surviving one revolution is not enough any more.

There’s a small online music retailer called Crotchet. Its website offers a huge and eclectic range, intelligently curated. I have been buying CDs there on and off for 15 years or more.

Today I got an email confirming that a disc from my latest order is in the post. At the bottom was a terse announcement that the business is closing. The website has vanished, leaving only a longer version of the same announcement. The owners are apparently retiring. They haven’t sold, perhaps couldn’t sell, the business as a going concern.

I don’t know the story behind that, but I can make some guesses. Having eaten many of the physical locations where people used to buy music, the web is now consuming businesses, such as Crotchet, which had dematerialised the shop but still sold the product in physical form.

I don’t really want to buy CDs any more. They used to be an efficient way of moving data, but now they’re not. Buying the data not the disc is increasingly common and increasingly attractive. But even that is becoming old fashioned in a works of instant availability streaming.

The design of Crotchet’s website never really changed. What they were selling last month is fundamentally what they were selling a decade ago. That used to be enough for businesses to cascade through the generations. It’s not any more.

Perhaps this is my last CD.

Sur Incises

11 thoughts on “Crotchet quavers”

  1. Great, if sad, post but you are missing something. Or merely not mentioning it, so for clarity…

    I still buy CDs because, whilst neither analogue like vinyl nor extremely high bit rate (SACD is the audio equivalent of HD TV or Blu-Ray), CDs are much higher resolution than most downloadable music: MP3 is typically 128kbps whereas your average CD is in the 700-1100kbps range. Yes there is Tidal, yes there are label-specific websites where one can download CD or higher quality sounds, but iTunes and Apple Music and Spotify (even the slightl better 320kbps version) continue to peddle only a diluted decaf version of CD quality music. The physical medium will only become truly redundant, rather than merely quaint-but-advantageous, when it is as easy to purchase CD quality music without the CD as it is with it.
    I buy CDs, upload them in Lossless (ALAC for those happy to be residents of Appleworld, FLAC is available for those who are not) format to iTunes, replay their contents via Squeezebox into my HiFi system, and either store the discs in my loft or take them to a charity shop according to how much I’d miss them if the NAS blew up.

    Crotchet is not merely the victim of channel shift, it is the result of convenience of procurement experience (one-off, lasting seconds) being attributed higher value than quality of listening experience (lasting perhaps tens of minutes and repeatedly). I find that rather sad.

    1. Up to a point.

      I recognise that argument but didn’t pursue it here for two reasons, one general and one specific.

      The general point is that one of the many interesting features of technology shift is that quality is not the overriding criterion that inhabitants of the old world thought it was or should be. Books are clearly inferior to illuminated manuscripts. Ryanair isn’t a patch on Concorde. Phones have worse lenses than SLRs. That’s all the ‘very different sense of what counted as a better outcome’ I was referring to in a post just a couple of days ago – it turns out that good-enough quality coupled with low prices and high availability is the attractive offer for most people most of the time.

      It’s easy to be judgemental about that but, I would argue, profoundly wrong (wrong that is to make the judgement, not wrong to have a different set of preferences). And that’s specifically true for music, where 320kbps certainly isn’t CD quality but falls very little short of it in practice for many people in many circumstances, which means that they won’t perceive the trade off in the first place.

      The specific point is that I already live in the future you dream of. My direct replacement for Crotchet is Presto which will certainly sell me CDs but for much (though not all) their stock will also sell me the data, with the option of receiving it as FLAC. I have largely moved away from Spotify to Qobuz for streaming for reasons which include the fact that they offer FLAC comprehensively. The only thing I miss about CDs is the booklets – and even they are increasingly included in what can be downloaded.

      But my Squeezeboxes remain my favourite bits of technology (to the extent of recently buying another one on eBay, just to act as a backup if one of the others should fail).

      1. Thank you; as ever, an eloquent and informative riposte. I did not intend to be judgemental when I expressed personal sadness, though your referenced post about what constitutes “better” for many people helps me to recognise the intersection.

        I must investigate Presto. For newer or less popular music that sounds like a service worthy of consideration; for much of the stuff I’ve been seeking more recently, the lower price of a secondhand CD combined with the convenience of eBay/PayPal means this has been my own procurement route of choice. Or, reluctantly, Amazon for availability reasons, though I find so many aspects of its service offering and business model disappointing to say the least. Spotify remains a great place to explore before buying the real thing!

        1. And of course the real thing is what’s elusive here. The experience of streaming FLAC from Qobuz through a Squeezebox plugin is pretty much identical to that of listening to music ripped from a CD also through Squeezebox.

          I also buy music to keep permanently having listened to it on Spotify or Qobuz, but I sometimes wonder whether that’s a sign that I am old and woolly minded. Clearly I attach value – and value I am willing to and do pay for – to having data on my server rather than theirs, but I would be hard pressed to explain that entirely rationally.

          1. So here we are then, sounding nostalgic for the old days of CD. Who would have guessed, in the heady excitement of the silver spinner’s launch, that this day would arrive quite so soon? I too have a spare Squeezebox tucked away, and there is already a whiff of nostalgia about these – and, thank goodness, an enthusiastic open source community keeping the interest and the plug-ins alive. The mainstream doesn’t generally bother with much more than an iPhone docking station and the next gen enthusiasm is for multifunctional boxes with integrated streamers from the likes of Linn, Naim and Arcam.

            I’m challenging myself to think a paradigm ahead, to when people are getting misty-eyed about the good old days of streaming… I’m drawing a blank, but surely the day will come and sooner than we can imagine.

            1. Not quite nostalgia, more a long association between possessing and owning, reinforced by the knowledge that cloud services are inherently transitory.* I spend more money (and much more time) on music than I did when I used CDs directly to produce sound and I have no wish to go back to that level of inconvenience.**

              *Though even to the extent they are, that still isn’t as strongly rational a justification as it might first appear.

              ** Which is why I am always puzzled by the bleatings of the music industry about their lost income – I give them far more money now than I ever used to.

  2. I believe those bleatings do relate to the decline of the physical medium. Few people would quietly slip a CD into their pockets and sneak past the tills, but millions are apparently in the habit of stealing music without thinking of it as stealing. Ditto movies. Unintended consequences of the shift.

    1. Stealing is the act of depriving someone of something (that they already have, so unrealised or potential income doesn’t count) permanently. For replicable works we need to use the term infringement (of copyrights).

      The bleatings are the ones the emperor makes when his new clothes are revealed as absent, and when competition arrives in a market of previously fat margins. Around the start of the download revolution Tesco and Asda started selling CDs for £7.99 instead of £14.99 and the bleating began in earnest – that, like the cost of an album downloaded from iTunes, is a truer reflection of the cost and value of the music. I don’t think it’s as much to do with infringement as people would like us to think. In 1997 I wrote a submission to my then Sec of State about the Napster problem, suggesting that the reason people were downloading music illegally was because there wasn’t a legal way for them to do it. Four years later the market corrected itself (with a service launched by a tech company not a record company).

  3. Good point. I do think the competition has reset CD prices at a more realistic level, both new (often under £10) and used (Poundland and some charity shops selling CDs at a what-the-hell-worth-a-punt £1). Chuck in Spotify as a great resource for auditioning, and ECM as an incredible source of top quality but top price products. As a result I have spent far more on music in the past 12 months than in any other year. Not all great, mind-blowing stuff and some if it gets recycled into the charity system pretty sharpish, but an engaging ecosystem nonetheless. My only regret is that those who were weaned on free illegal music are unlikely to move back to paying any time soon.

    1. Which is, I think, the point Chris is making – when the music companies thought they were protecting their revenue by refusing to engage with online delivery, they were in fact massively undermining it. And on the other side of the equation, the costs of production have plummeted too, so the banker role the record companies once played is much less important as well.

      Another interesting dimension of this is that those who do pay for streaming, probably end up paying the wrong people – see this very interesting analysis –

  4. That’s quite an eye-opening analysis – a good diagnosis, less sure about the prescription, but what else is a consumer (who values music and wishes to reward the composers and musicians who create it) to do?

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