“Someone is here to see you,” the nurse said, in a voice that was more or less indistinguishable from the battle cry of a bull elephant. It was March 26, 1988, and I was lying in a hospital bed near the top of what was then Riverside Methodist Hospital’s only tower. Four days previously, I’d been smacked by a 10-wheel Mack lumber truck during a brief street ride on my Free Agent Limo. The right fender had broken my neck then I’d been tangled in the back wheels of the trailer before being gored in the back by the recurve of the rear bumper which then dragged me a hundred feet, face-down, along the gravel shoulder. No, that’s not the reason I’m ugly. I was born this way.
At some point my right femur had shattered into four pieces, allowing me to kick myself in the face with my blue-and-white “Big Nike” high-top during my merry trip. When I came to a halt, I had a brief chat with my pal Woody, who was riding with me, as to the state of my bike. After they loaded me in the ambulance I had the good luck to pass out and stay that way for a while.
It hadn’t been certain that I would survive the thing but I was helped both by my cockroach-like nature and the willingness of a hotshot 31-year-old orthopedic specialist to cut open my right leg, scoop out the garbage, and install a shiny new titanium femur nail in its place. Top billing, however, has to go to Dr. Janet Bay, who happened to be walking by as they were bringing me in, diagnosed the spinal injury from looking at my pupils, and immediately stabilized my neck. Otherwise I’d be a “quad” with a breathing machine today. Then, as now, Dr. Bay wore a crew cut; I repeatedly called her “sir” during our initial interactions, mostly because I’d had my head dragged along the road. What can I say. In her place I’d have let me die.
Anyway. Four days later I was sitting in the hospital with a mind-numbing amount of pain but some not inconsiderable satisfaction from the brand-new Sony D-2 Discman sitting in my lap. My father had arrived with it shortly after the femur surgery. Something about his time in Vietnam must have told him that my biggest enemy in the weeks to come would be boredom. He’d also brought Eric B. and Rakin’s “Paid In Full” so I would have something to play in said Discman.
When the nurse announced that visitor in a voice to vibrate my deeply-injured head like a struck bell, I was surprised but not shocked to see my Honors English III teacher, Scott Weber. If any of my teachers would have bothered to see me, it would be him; after all, his class was the only one I didn’t spend either talking back or sleeping through. In truth, he was more than a little bit overqualified to be a high school teacher and he would go on to be a significant landholder and gun dealer in Cody, Wyoming, where he has made plenty of enemies. His debut novel, Plain People, is a joy to read.
But I digress. Mr. Weber brought me his condolences, and he also brought me two brand-new CDs. One of them was the fourth Led Zep album, the other was Now and Zen, Robert Plant’s oft-panned Eighties electronica record complete with a DJ merrily scratching his way through tracks like “Tall Cool One” and “Walking Towards Paradise”. It was a nontrivial gift, $32 spent on an injured kid in an era where a high school teacher was lucky to earn $300 a week after tax. Mr. Weber recently told me that he’d bought himself a loaded Audi A8 with the money he made selling guns; as far as I’m concerned he deserves a Phantom EWB.
Needless to say, both of those CDs are etched in my head from the hundreds of times I listened to them in the weeks that followed. About a decade ago, I “ripped” them into my iTunes; six years ago, I uploaded those MP3s to Amazon Music. It has been a long time since I actually played either disc. But I still own them, I have unlimited license to use them as I like, and at any time I like I can pull them out and listen to them, even though it has been thirty years since Mr. Weber bought them for me.
I’m telling this rather long story because of a notification that Amazon Music just served me regarding my Amazon Music Player and the “250,000 song service” for which I currently pay. There’s a difference between ownership of an item and the use of a service, and Amazon has decided to forcibly remind me of that difference.
I’ve always owned a lot of music, although as a kid it was mostly as a result of proto-pirating LPs from the local library onto Maxwell XLII-S high-bias tapes. By 2011, when Apple introduced the 160GB iPod Classic, I was virtually forced to buy it by the fact that I had more than 120GB worth of digitized music in my iTunes Library. I ended up owning two of them that had different music collections. You might laugh at this “problem” but at that point I was really starting to worry that I would wind up running out of space to store music.
So when Amazon introduced a multi-platform Music Player that would store all my uploaded files plus let me buy “DRM-free” files from Amazon, I jumped on it and spent a tough week suffering through the creaky, cranky upload process. Turns out I got lucky because my primary music storage hard drive quit just a month after I got my uploads done. As I recall, Amazon initially offered to store all your music for free if you were a Prime member but then they added a limit — 250,000 songs — and an annual subscription fee. So I went along with both.
As software goes, the Amazon Music Player is a great example of how not to write it. The interface is garbage. It is absurdly poor at figuring out what an album is, often making three or four smaller albums out of one. It crashes all the time both on desktop and mobile. Most infuriatingly, it will substitute one track for another if they have the same artist name, even if the album is not the same. For example, if you upload an album by your favorite band then upload a live album with the same track names, Amazon Music will randomly substitute the live album tracks while you are listening to the studio album. This is annoying in all circumstances but it’s worst of all when you are listening to a nice hi-fidelity recording by Steely Dan or Pat Metheny only to have the next track replaced by a grimy soundboard bootleg from 1972 or 1981.
The desktop Cloud Player is worse than useless, bringing quad-core Intel i7 laptops to their knees through misappropriation of resources and requiring an update about once every other week, at which point it spends two hours “syncing” my music before I can use it. The Android version will frequently get “stuck” and find itself unable to play a track it’s already downloaded. Only restarting the phone fixes the issue.
Now Amazon is adding injury to insult, so to speak. They’ve discontinued the music upload service. From now on you can only listen to the tracks you’ve already uploaded or the music you buy new from Amazon.
You have to admire the gall of it. Having made it easy for people to transition to Amazon services, they’re now squeezing them for every last bit of profit. No more buying a used record on eBay then uploading it to Amazon. If I somehow lose my copy of “Now and Zen”, I’ll have to pay $12.99 for it on Amazon, even though a perfect-condition used disc is 99 cents on eBay.
Yet there’s more than just money at stake. Amazon may claim to have everything, but they don’t. They don’t have an “AutoRip” of Sinatra’s greatest single studio record. They don’t have the MoFi gold CDs or virtually any SACDs. And there are plenty of CDs and vinyl on their virtual shelves that don’t have the “AutoRip” feature, meaning that you need to buy their MP3 version to have it in the Cloud Player.
The obvious motive here is to force users into their $9.99/month “Unlimited” service, which is a Spotify-esque subscription. If you don’t want to do that, you can just buy the MP3 variant of whatever album catches your fancy. Yet there is no reason to think that Amazon will not, in the words of everybody’s favorite youngling-killer, alter the deal further in the future.
So what should I do? Amazon is forcibly expiring my extended-storage subscription in October of 2018. In the meantime I’ll probably buy something like an A&K Kann and create a dedicated audio-ripping desktop system. Then I will go through and painstakingly re-rip every CD I have in my collection both to WAV and to 320Kbps MP3. Last but not least, I’ll download my entire Amazon Music collection just so I have copies of tracks that came from sources I can’t replicate — as an example, I used to upload music I’d written and recorded to Amazon without worrying about backing-up the original source files.
All of this will cost most than just paying Amazon their $120/year for “unlimited” music, but I’ve learned the hard way that a “service” is not a “product”. I understand why corporations are moving heaven and earth to force their customers into subscription models. There’s not much money to be made in selling products that are eternal or close to it. My Waterfield tax bag is seven and a half years old now and it shows ZERO signs of wearing out. How can you have a business where you sell each person one bag and then you never heard from them again?
Similarly, Amazon would rather make money on you every month in perpetuity instead of collecting the profits from the sale of a CD that will then belong to you and your successors until the heat death of the universe. The future is nothing but service turtles all the way down. Whether it’s Microsoft Office or Amazon Music or the “mobility company” that replaces the privately owned automobile. Your grandchildren won’t own anything. They will live their lives at the intersection of government regulation and corporate whim.
There’s no silver lining to this that I can see, except one: A shadow economy of non-service items will probably come to exists. Old machines that still work, old computers that can play obsolete formats, products that were paid for in the previous century but still circulate among a clued-in community of people who want to be owners instead of renters. It will be a backwards-looking culture, obviously. Maybe that’s a good thing. If you can’t afford your Amazon Prime Approved Content Service that contains mostly Post-style pap and doubleplusgoodthink, you might end up reading Kipling or Hemingway. When you don’t have enough Primedollars to pay your Prime Music subscription, you’ll go looking for free music from before the content-management singularity. Who knows what you’ll find, on that journey? You might even wind up listening to Now and Zen. It’s not as bad as they say it was. You don’t even need a traumatic concussion to enjoy it — although, and you can trust me on this, it helps.