Pink Floyd put their foot down

I love Pink Floyd. My favourite album of all time is their masterpiece, Dark Side of the Moon. It is a stunning piece of work. And now, thanks to a legal victory by the band over their record company, EMI, I’m not going to be able to download individual tracks from it (or indeed any other Pink Floyd album).

Pink Floyd started this legal fight in order to “preserve the artistic integrity of the albums”. In their view, this artistic integrity would have been fundamentally undermined had listeners been able to listen to tracks out of context from the original albums by downloading them individually.

Now, I sort of understand this reasoning. The album format is a wonderful thing, and Pink Floyd have some wonderful albums, where each track is a component part of a whole; tells part of a story; segues ingeniously into another song; and so on. When it works, it works beautifully, and it makes for a great listening experience where the album, in its entirety, really is the piece of art and the songs are the component parts. So to a degree, I buy the argument that by allowing users to pick and choose tracks to download, the album gets lost or forgotten about. Which, when this happens, is of course a great shame.

However, I still think this is a bad move by the band, mainly because it will serve to significantly reduce the reach of their music – and the likelihood of people hearing their albums (and enjoying the aforementioned artistic integrity) in the first place. My bet is that a 16-year-old who is curious about and new to Pink Floyd might take a punt on a track or two if they were downloadable from iTunes – but is far less likely to take the plunge and buy a whole album without sampling their music first. Thinking back to the way I got into Pink Floyd as a youngster, it was entirely the result of hearing individual tracks out of context from the albums: I’d go round to mates’ houses where I’d hear mix tapes featuring Pink Floyd songs that were plonked alongside an eclectic mix of other stuff. I would never have bought a copy of Dark Side of the Moon at all had it not been for those random encounters with Money or Time sitting uneasily next to Kinky Afro on an old cassette.

But regardless of whether the band’s legal win reduces the reach of their music, it leaves Pink Floyd in a position where they are odds with reality: legally they can control how people listen to their music, but in a practical sense, they can’t. This isn’t just about the MP3 era: since the cassette came along and home-taping took off in the 70s, listeners have had lot of control over how to listen to songs – in context, out of context, legally, illegally, whatever. Then the CD player arrived, and with it the ability to program song sequences or just hit ‘skip’ to rush past fillers on albums or hear good songs again. And if we’re honest about it, even the good old vinyl LP let you do that anyway, if you were prepared to physically look for the gaps in the grooves and slap the needle down on the song you wanted to hear. I certainly remember doing that when it came to some of the less-interesting Pink Floyd albums.

The download age has only reinforced this level of control: people may be forced to download Pink Floyd albums in their entirety now, but they will be downloading them onto technology which actively encourages out-of-context listening. Shuffle modes and playlist creation in my view, render the whole idea of artists prescribing how people should hear their music completely redundant. As an artist myself I’m not entirely comfortable with that, but it is a fact, and no amount of litigation can prevent this new-found listener control.

For me, however, the most persuasive argument against the ‘you-must-listen-to-our-albums-in-their-entirety stance’ comes from Pink Floyd themselves: if they are so insistent that every song must be heard in context, then why did they release no fewer than six compilation albums containing a mix of tracks taken from a whole bunch of different albums (some, like Money, even re-recorded especially for one compilation)?

If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have your pudding.