Matt Potter 2:08 p.m., Nov. 16
Grading Spotify on Jazz Terms
Spotify the Swedish based music streaming service associated since Sept. 2011, with Facebook, has a pitch that sounds too good to be true.
The company boasts that its service eliminates the temptation for music lovers to illegally download their favorite tunes for free — because the basic, free account they provide allows you to listen to anything you want, legally. Of course, the "catch" is, that every two songs or so, you have to listen to one or two obnoxious, radio style advertisements in order to get your listening fix.
The silver lining to their approach, is that every time you listen through their service, royalties are paid to the artist.
That claim has generated considerable controversy, which is beyond the intent of this piece.
What I was concerned about is one question: how would jazz get shortchanged in this transaction?
Setting aside for the moment whether or not the artists actually receive any meaningful recompense, my curiosity got the better of me, and about a month ago, I signed up for my free account, eager to see how much jazz would be available.
I have joyful and disappointing experiences to report.
On the up side, there appears to be, at first glance, a ton of material, spanning wide arcs of style, genre and artists available. I'm a pretty skeptical "sell" in these matters, so I went headfirst into a search for artists I was sure to find under-represented, with varying results.
My most positive experience was an early one-- a virtual binge of free jazz trumpeter Don Cherry's work. It was fabulous to absorb three albums of his greatest material, Symphony For Improvisers, Complete Communion and Where Is Brooklyn, in one evening. I owned all of these albums back in the LP days, which helped mitigate any guilt I might have had about shortchanging the estate of the late Mr. Cherry. There were even a couple of European releases there that I have yet to listen to, so I'd have to give Spotify a grade of A+ on this one.
Next, I went on a Cecil Taylor marathon that lasted several days. Again, there was the giddy sensation of being able to listen to Taylor records that I had agonized over purchasing in the old Tower Records days. Plus there was the hindsight factor, on stuff I used to own 30 years ago, but never picked up in CD format. Thus, I was able to understand how wrong I was in the late '70s, when I dismissed such masterpieces as Dark To Themselves, a galvanic live session featuring Raphe Malik, William Parker, Jimmy Lyons, David S. Ware and Marc Edwards, and Air Above Mountains, a solo piano offering, as impenetrable gibberish back then. I listened to mucho Taylor in my marathon--but then, some of Spotify's weaknesses began to emerge. Missing were essential Cecil Taylor works, like It Is In The Brewing Luminous, Spring Of 2 Blue J's, and One Too Many Salty Swift And Not Goodbye. Frustrating. I give them a B+, for having a lot--but missing too much.
It went downhill from there.
I decided to check out their John Coltrane catalog, and, while it's huge, there is much to bitch about. For one thing, many of the original Coltrane albums have now been repackaged and given new titles, with completely misleading "dates" on them. Coltrane died in 1967, so it's a little disconcerting to see "2009" on some of the titles. Another important drawback to Spotify's organization of the material is they do not credit what record label was originally responsible for releasing the music. Coltrane's most important work, for the Atlantic and Impulse! labels, are often the repackaged and wrongly titled works. Thus, Coltrane Plays The Blues, and Giant Steps, both seminal recordings on Atlantic, become After Hours, and Invisible, with completely different covers.
That's a small gripe, though, compared to one of Spotify's most annoying, and nonsensical practices: they will list an album such as Concert In Japan, (originally a three record set that I could never afford)--only to have more than 90% of it "greyed-out", or unavailable. So Concert In Japan, (one of the few that retains its original title and cover), has 70 minutes of music unavailable. What is available? 1:58 of the spoken introduction. Why have it there at all? Grade: D.
So, I decided to check on artists who are commercially successful (in the jazz world, that is), to see if Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett would fare any better.
Metheny's Offramp, a huge seller on the ECM label, was missing it's most arresting tune, "Are You Going With Me?". Inexcusable. In addition, Metheny's biggest selling album on ECM wasn't even in the list--the Pat Metheny Group (often called the 'white-album'). Significant portions of 80-81 were unavailable--and his milestone collaboration with Lyle Mays, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls was minus the epic 20+ minute title track. Grade: C-
On the plus side, Jarrett's output was mainly available in terms of his early Atlantic and Impulse! stuff--which is a good thing, I am glad such masterpieces as El Jucio, Life Between The Exit Signs, and Birth were all there, in complete form. Kudos to Spotify for that.
On the down side, a recent ECM solo piano recording, Paris, London had more than 50% of it "greyed out" and Yesterdays, by the wonderful "Standards Trio" with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, had all but one tune unavailable. Grade: B-.
After a month or so of fairly heavy use, I'm on the fence about Spotify. I'm really happy to have heard some stuff I probably wouldn't have gotten the chance to, but all of the missing stuff, especially the "greyed-out" material, is very frustrating.
On balance, having so much stuff available to listen to, for "free" is a good thing. I guess I can always hope the service will get better.
As for the royalties to artists and record companies go, that's a whole 'nother discussion.
Pictured: Don Cherry