Shaun de Waal
Shaun de Waal

Look but you can’t listen

On several occasions in the recent past I’ve bitched and moaned at the poor staff of Look & Listen, complaining about the sheer hopelessness of their jazz selection: very few of the great classics, for instance, or very spotty representation of even very-well-known artists. Sometimes a staff member says “I’ll tell the buyer,” which seems to have no effect, or he or she says “I’ll look it up on the system” — and then tells me only semi-apologetically that “We don’t have stock of that right now, sorry.”

Occasionally I’m pointed in the direction of a series Look & Listen has in heaps, something tagged “Jazz for a Lazy Day”, which collects work by various famed jazz artists. These seem reasonably priced, as they should be in the light of the exceptionally hideous packaging (someone has badly photoshopped an ancient, fuzzy picture taken off the internet) and the paucity of track information. But, still, at the price, perhaps a good buy.

Except that when you get the album (I tried a Lester Young collection) you discover that the tracks are in very bad sound, as if bootlegged off someone’s old cassette, and the selection represented on the CD is hardly what you’d call the artist’s best-of or his or her most famous numbers. A “greatest hits” this is not; it’s barely even a case of “rarities” or “obscurities” rescued from the vaults of time. The selection appears entirely arbitrary.

And don’t go for a “Jazz for a Lazy Day” CD with two artists’ names on the front. This is not a previously unheralded collaboration between two greats. It’s just a few tracks by one jammed together with a few tracks by the other. That’s that.

This CD series should be called “Jazz for a Lazy Shop”. It’s so bad, and packaged with such ugliness and carelessness, that even at R30 it’s a rip-off. I’d feel more confident buying a ripped CD with no packaging from a street seller.

Imagine my joy, then, to discover a few weeks ago that Look & Listen was having a sale of Blue Note albums. The leading independent label of the 1950s and 1960s has since been bought by EMI, and a good number of their classics have been reissued; the Rudy van Gelder edition (he was Blue Note’s wonderful producer) is especially noteworthy.

I was thrilled to find these Blue Notes displayed next to the counter, and immediately spent a few hundred rand. I began to SMS fellow fans of great jazz, trumpeting the sudden availability, at excellent prices, of such classics – Andrew Hill’s Compulsion! Baby Face Willette’s Face to Face! Herbie Hancock’s The Prisoner! Oh joy!

For R49.99 apiece, this is money extremely well spent. But then …

Well, first I discovered that some of the items on display were not, in fact, priced at R49.99. Turn them over and you’ll find the sticker says R189.99 – hardly a sale price. Oh, well, maybe a bit of a mix-up. But I’m not buying McCoy Tyner’s The Real McCoy, say, for R189; I can get it cheaper on the internet.

Then I saw that a cute little booklet promoting the sale was packed into the shelves where the usual jazz CDs are to be found (filling the gaps, doubtless, where some decent jazz CDs should be). Flipping through it, I saw several more classic Blue Notes being offered, items not to be seen on the shelves or on the counter-side display. Worth a query: could I in fact get some of these other CDs listed and pictured in the booklet?

A helpful and charming assistant at the Hyde Park branch of Look & Listen asked me to mark those in the booklet I wanted but couldn’t find in the shop. She said she’d let me know. I seem to have missed the relevant call, a week or so later, but it would appear (from later contact with the shop) that the message was simply that the stock wasn’t in yet — pretty much what I’d been told before. Nothing new there.
I was also told, at the shop, that perhaps different shops in the Look & Listen chain would be rolling out different Blue Note sale stock in varying tranches and I should perhaps try another branch. The second-nearest branch to where I live and work, though it’s not in fact very near at all, is at Cresta. So, as soon as I could, I headed over to Cresta.

No Blue Note sale there, though some markers, branded with the Blue Note logo and so on, with the artists’ names, had been popped into the relevant slots on the shelves. But no sale CDs.

I asked a young man at the front of the shop, who was manning (if that’s the word) the security checkpoint, about this. When would the Blue Note sale start? He didn’t know. He’d never heard of it. He didn’t seem to care, either. He made no effort to find out from anyone else in the shop, and his sheer dofness and lack of interest irked me so that I declined to tramp about the shop trying to find anyone who did, in fact, know or care. (Later, and more charitably, I decided that he must simply have been very stoned.)

The severely denuded section with jazz and classical music (a glassed-off ghetto at the back, like the smoking section of a bad restaurant) was unattended, and no shop assistant showed any sign of wanting to help anyone wandering about the shop looking lost and puzzled. They paid the shopper no attention at all, in fact. I suppose they were all waiting patiently for the customer to come to them and ask, but then one’s queries hardly get useful answers — and one really shouldn’t have to chase assistants round the shop. The only worker there who seemed vaguely awake was the guy in the games section, but he would doubtless just have sent me searching for another assistant, so I stalked angrily out of the shop.

In the meantime, I checked out the Look & Listen website and was pleased to discover that it now sells MP3s, downloadable directly to your computer. This is great news: until now, people located in South Africa have been barred from buying MP3s online. Neither Amazon US or Amazon UK will allow it, and nor do any other sites I could find. “Licensing issues”, they say.

You would have thought that in a globalised world of instant communication and the electronic transmission of items such as MP3s, not to mention a world in which CD sales are plummeting and downloads growing exponentially, the vast transnational record companies would have made an effort to serve all corners of the globe. Supply and demand, it’s called.

But, no — nothing doing. It seems they are so concerned about making a fresh profit on items they have surely already made millions from, and so desperate to hang on to and to monetise their “intellectual property”, that they cannot resolve their “licensing issues” and would prefer music lovers to turn to the host of illegal offerings, though peer-to-peer file-sharing and the like, and get the stuff for free.

I, for one, would be happy to pay the necessary price (though the present prices are still too high) to get MP3s from a reliable, fast site, where I am provided with the requisite information about the track, the album or the artist.

The Look & Listen site goes some way to meeting such needs, but not far enough. Apart from the lack of any sensible information about particular tracks, albums or artists, it’s horribly inefficient and appears to be filled with glitches. The search engine is clunky and operates in a most irritating way: the categories such as “artist” and “album” appear to be mutually exclusive, not complementary, which makes a precise search impossible.

It certainly doesn’t help to follow the left-to-right order of the search boxes. Put in the name of the artist (first box) and then click on “MP3” (last box) and it clears the artist’s name and takes you to the front page of all the MP3s for sale. I typed in “Willie Nelson” and selected “MP3”, as seemed logical, only to find myself faced by a whole lot of pop albums I have zero interest in. Search again, and it clears whatever you searched for last time, instead of remembering your search and giving you options, as Amazon or Google does. Much though I love him, I’m getting very tired of typing the words “Willie Nelson” again and again.

Then there’s the payment process, which you would have thought a retailer would make the most efficient and easy-to-use part of the site. But when you’ve gone through the process of putting some money in your “wallet”, filling in all your details and so forth, clicking on what you want, and going to “checkout”, the site seems unable to store what you’ve clicked on from page to page. (Nor is there any way to mark items you may wish to return to and buy later.)

Go to a new page, click on another item or two, and it erases anything from the previous pages. This seems a bad sales strategy. Click on “continue shopping” and it won’t take you back to the last page you were looking at, or even the last list of whatever you looked for — no, it’s back to that front page with all the unwanted pop albums. As Ultravox put it, “This means nothing to me.” Is it always so hard to “continue shopping”?

Eventually, after a few hours of struggle, I managed to download three Willie Nelson tracks. Had I been able to I would have selected 10 or 15 and bought them all at once, but that wasn’t possible. When I have the time and the energy I’ll try again and hopefully get some more, but I’ll need patience and forbearance too. It’s really great to have, at last, a site that will sell downloadable MP3s to South Africa — but it needs some serious streamlining.

I could never get why the world’s huge record companies were so slow to get on to the download bandwagon, and when they did they clung to their overpriced ways, let alone why they took so long to make MP3s available outside the developed world. As I always say when it comes to the various ridiculous incompatibilities of computer systems, software, cables and the like, “Do they want global domination or don’t they?”

I want to get the music I want. I want to be able to search for it, find it, get it quickly. I’m happy to pay for it if it’s quicker and easier than doing it illegally, and the record companies and merchants should be moving heaven and earth to make that possible. Their tardiness and greed has already cost them billions, and they are losing millions more by the day. Isn’t that sufficient incentive to get their act together?

I certainly don’t want to hear them whining about how illegal downloads and copying are killing music and so forth, because, first of all, it’s not true, and, second, it’s their own fault. When they pout and get all self-pitying, and make it ever harder for me to spend my money at their outlets, I can only quote Willie Nelson: “Do you mind too much if I don’t understand?”

***

I sent this blog to Look & Listen for comment. Group buyer Marc Latilla told me that not all the Blue Note stock was in shops; about half of it was still to arrive. He said he would withdraw the booklets until all the stock was in. He added: “On a whole and despite the out of stocks, the promo is working really well in these early stages. Once the stock issues are taken care of, I’m sure it will do even better.”

On the subject of the site, online manager Anne-Marie Green replied that “we are aware of the issues with the online website and have kicked off a project to overhaul the site. These kinds of developments can take some time to plan correctly and to develop so please be patient as we are sure our new platform will result in a far better experience. We’re pleased that all the major labels have come on board and we are continually trying to get more of the indies to join up as this will widen our range for those looking for something specific.

“We’ll be adding some useful modules such as recommendations and the search will be more intelligent resulting in a more accurate response …

“The current MP3 section on our site went live in October last year [2010] and we’ve produced some small campaigns to see how the public feels about it. We have been using this feedback in our current planning so that the usability of the new platform is enhanced and certainly glitch free. Together with a slick design and integration with our social media platforms, we hope it will result in a website where the public can buy legal MP3s on an easy and trusted platform. Phase 1 of this project should be launching November 2011 and the rest of the advanced website modules in February 2012. We are really excited about this and appreciate everyone’s support thus far.”