Missing the Material World

My first music player (of my own, rather than a family one) was a cassette player. It was old and second-hand, and only played well if the Play button was held down continuously. I managed that by balancing a skateboard on a cassette box that rested on the button. The first music album that I bought on cassette was “Go West” by “Go West”.

This has been on my mind as I tried to get hold of Taylor Swift’s new album. For various reasons, I don’t have a data account for my phone, so if I’m listening to music while I’m out and about, it’s music from files on my device. That’s not a problem most of the time, because ( like a lot of people my age) I have a large library of music that I had bought as cds and moved on to a computer for ease of storage.

Until very recently, buying a new album or individual track and downloading it was easy. Google Play Music had a large library, they had my payment details, so I could search up a title and click the button. When I wrote about Van Halen in a recent post, it took only ten minutes from thinking of the album “1984” to having it playing on my phone. But then, a couple of days ago, Mrs Dim asked me if we had “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” by Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLaughlin. We did at some point, but I couldn’t find it, so I went in search of a new copy. Google Play Music is no more, replaced by a streaming service that allows you to stream almost anything, but not download files. I tried all the recommended services, and all of them offered me the chance to pay a monthly fee for streaming only. At one point it DID look like I could buy the album in MP3 format and download it, but then the payment system said I wasn’t connected properly, To connect properly I would have to go to a different screen, which failed to load. I found that was the US version of the website (just a little company called Amazon, you won’t know them) so I went in through the Canadian site and found that A: There was no place that the album was available as MP3 and B: I couldn’t install the Windows specific Amazon Music app for my laptop because I was now “Signed in from another region and must sign in there.” I read that last sentence twenty times and it didn’t make sense. If I was signed in from another region, why would signing IN there again help? If I was signed in there, why didn’t it work? If I was signed in there, but physically HERE, why don’t Amazon know that? They’re pretty damn specific about not letting me watch shows on Amazon UK Prime, even as they let me pay the UK Prime fees.

Although it was late, and I was tired and angry, I went to the “Contact Us” page. Like most people who end up there, I just wanted an email address that I could drop all this into. I wasn’t expecting help, or resolution, just an outlet.

But no. Email was not an option. Or rather, there was an email button but it was greyed out, with the words “These issues are best resolved by phone or chat” superimposed. I opened the chat window, and under the “How can we help you” segment, I poured out all my irritation. When poor Priyanka logged into the chat to ask how she could help, I wished her a goodnight and logged out, leaving her to read the tangled mess in the box above. She didn’t, of course. She logged the chat as unexpectedly ended, sent me a record email and advising me to come back to the chat another time so they could resolve my issue.

They can’t, of course, because they have no incentive to. Amazon doesn’t want me buying files that I can keep and listen to over and over after paying just once. They, like Spotify and YouTube Music and all the others, want me to pay a monthly fee for music I have no ownership of, that is subject to their availability. People had paid to have a copy of George Orwell’s “1984” on their Kindles, but when there was a problem over rights, Amazon withdrew the book and it vanished from those devices overnight. You might have been watching “Friends” on Netflix, but last month, their rights to it went over to Crave tv. If you don’t pay Crave, you can’t watch that show. I can, because I have all ten seasons on DVD. Paid once, watch as often as I like.

Younger me liked the idea of a streaming service, because younger me thought it would be run for the betterment of people’s lives, for the best entertainment value. Want to watch a movie? Go to the library online, and just watch it! The reality is that we have four streaming services that we pay for each month. When we think of something we want to watch, it’s a fiddly job to search those four different services. Sometimes the thing is there and we can watch. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s there, but on a subset of one of the services that requires an additional payment to access. The job of the streaming services is to make money for the streaming services, not to provide the best entertainment options. If it were, then there would be a central location where you could search for the show you want, and your monthly fee would be split between services according to what you watched from each. Better for the consumer, worse for the service.

So, it looks like I’m going to end up buying a cd version of Taylor’s album, run it into my computer and send it over to my phone. Taylor gets her cut, I get the music, at least the two of us will be happy. And I’ll buy it at an actual shop, so sorry Amazon, you’re going to miss out this time.

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