By Mukul Kesavan
Sometimes the digital world stuns you with its superabundance. Just before the new year, I signed up for a music streaming service which asked me for a hundred and twenty rupees a month and promised, in return, to deliver the world till my subscription ran out. A week into my contract, it seems to have kept its word. From M.S. Subbulakshmi's " Shri Ramachandra Kripalu Bhaju Mana" to Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down", I found everything I was looking for, even obscure, cheesy hits from my childhood like "In The Year 2525" sung by a band called the Versionarys who, on the evidence of this song (which I once knew by heart), shouldn't have been allowed near a recording studio.
What astonishes me about this all-you-can-eat offer is that the banquet isn't confined to a genre or a language. So, if I feel an unlikely yen for Chinese traditional music, I could be listening to "Parting at Yang Guan" or "Dancing Song of the Yao Tribe" in the same time as it takes me to dial up Kishore Kumar or Kishori Amonkar. It's the musical equivalent of having a subscription to the Library of Congress and the right to immediately call up every item in its holdings. All right, so maybe that's an exaggeration, but it's closer to that state of complete, comprehensive access than anything I have ever known.
Earlier I'd search on YouTube for the song I wanted and most often find a version of it but the quality was variable and the bigger the band, the harder it was to find an original studio recording. There were live versions and cover versions but original recordings weren't reliably available because recording companies did their best to protect their assets. YouTube remains invaluable, especially as a source of private recordings uploaded by archivists and enthusiasts, but as a legitimate source of decent quality recordings, music streaming services have made every other form of paid-for music obsolete.
When Steve Jobs revolutionized the music industry by introducing the iPod digital player and the iTunes music store, he changed the technology for buying and playing music, but the transaction remained conventional. You paid 99 cents for downloading a song and some multiple of that for an album, but once you had paid for a song you owned it. Jobs famously rubbished the offerings of early music streaming services that he saw as iTunes' competitors, by arguing that music lovers wanted to own their music, they didn't want to 'rent' it.
At the time I thought Jobs was right. All my experience of listening to music pointed to ownership, whether it was buying vinyl recordings (not that anyone called records vinyl, then), or cassettes or CDs. When you didn't buy published recordings, you copied them laboriously so you could keep them.
The non-transactional part of listening to music was, of course, the radio. All India Radio or the BBC were, in a sense, free-to-air archives curated by music presenters whom we learnt to call disc jockeys. There is a novelty, a freshness, a sense of expectation about radio-listening, about surrendering yourself to someone else's sensibilities that will never go out of style regardless of how many songs you can call up at will. There was also, in AIR's request or farmaishi programmes, a sense of belonging. Songs dedicated to those lists of names from Jhumri Telaiya and Dadra and Nagar Haveli, created imagined communities of desis in a way that patriotic lessons in Hindi textbooks never did.
But seriously listening to music meant owning the music you wanted to listen to. Jobs seemed to understand that. iTunes was intended to replace shelves full of tape and vinyl with neat lists of songs on hard drives that could be organized by album, singer and song. As a middle-aged hipster, Jobs understood how much cover art meant to his cohort and iTunes found clever ways of matching songs with miniature versions of album sleeves. Your collection of music on iTunes may not have been as satisfying as shelves of neatly stacked and only slightly warped albums, but it was a whole lot more convenient and it was still yours.
The shortcomings of streamed music were obvious. You had to be online and if you stopped paying, you had no music left to play. That was the insecurity that Jobs was playing on when he disparaged the idea of 'rented' music. But this scepticism contained within itself the conditions under which it would become obsolete. In a world where Wi-Fi connectivity is the norm and where mobile phones with cheap 3G connections are being widely used to stream videos, subscribing to Spotify begins to seem less like renting books from your tacky neighbourhood lending library and more like subscribing to some giant online service built on a scale that you could never hope to replicate in your home. If you had reliable access to the internet on your phone and in your home, why would you buy and store the complete works of Rashid Khan when you could listen to every published recording for next to nothing via a monthly subscription? There is an inflection point where the tackiness of 'renting' songs turns into the respectability of becoming a 'member' of a gigantic archive or library. In the rich world and in parts of metropolitan India, we are at that point.
Apple turned on the proverbial dime on this issue. It acquired a music streaming service, re-branded it and rolled it out. For the rupee equivalent of $2 a month, it offers its Indian subscribers unlimited access to an ocean of music. The reason this is possible is that the reality of illegal online access to their music has forced giant music companies to license their catalogues to services like Spotify and Apple Music at rates which allows these services to offer affordable subscriptions. So instead of paying iTunes 99 cents for a song, you can stream everything under the sun for twice that sum. You can even store music offline for those rainy days when you don't have connectivity.
Music streaming services are, fundamentally, great online libraries that offer you memberships. Which makes me wonder why access to printed books is so differently structured. Why can't I pay a monthly subscription to read all the books I want? The two great companies that have digitized books, Google and Amazon, don't offer anything close to the kind of access Spotify or Apple Music does. There are two ways of legitimately reading books online. One, you can, for free, laboriously read the books that Google puts online, except that they all have pages or chapters missing to make sure you have an incentive to buy the real thing. I've actually done this with academic books not available in my university library. It's better than nothing but it isn't much fun. Secondly, you can buy a Kindle or something like it and pay for downloading books from Amazon or some other online vendor.
But Amazon today is where Apple was before it was converted to streaming music. You pay to download and own individual books. Why doesn't Amazon offer me a monthly subscription that lets me 'stream' all the novels I want to read? I don't know the answer to that. It could be that the book business is different from the music business in some arcane way. On the other hand, the kind of consolidation that has occurred in the world of book publishing in recent years seems, on the face of it, to resemble the evolution of the giant music corporations. In theory, it should be possible for clever companies like Apple or Spotify to persuade publishing conglomerates to pool their catalogues in a giant online library open to subscription.
I suspect the reason this hasn't happened with books is that unlike digital music, which is delivered to our ears in the same way as analogue music was, through speakers, digital books have to be read on electronic devices like the Kindle, which are useful but unlovely. The Kindle is a wonderfully clever device but its greyness is not attractive. The weirdness of making your way through a book via simulated pages, the fiddliness of making sure your finger doesn't slip off the bezel to do something unintended on the 'page', the discomfort of holding in one hand a 'book' that feels like a giant phone, makes reading a self-conscious, utilitarian business. Had someone found a way of making digital reading intuitive and sensuous and fun, we might have had a Spotify for print by now. Perhaps reading and listening are so different that it can't be done. Still, as I explore the seemingly bottomless reservoir of music that my subscription gives me access to, I can't help hoping that some Jobs-like genius will find a way to build us a great print library in the Cloud.
The Telegraph, January 4, 2016