Monday, July 16, 2007

Sound Off

I keep hearing more and more how people are getting their music from download services and not buying cds anymore. I am not one of this crowd. Even though I can admit to the amount of clutter in my life due to cds and albums (yes I'm that old) stacked up in multiple places throughout the house. I just can't seem to let go of the feeling of the "get". Bringing the record home like when I was 14 and bought Zep's In Through The Out Door (see, told you I was old) or wouldn't allow myself to listen to the New York Phil's recording of The Planets (Bernstein, 73) until I had read the liner notes.

Somehow the experience seems inauthentic to me if not accompanied by something I can hold. Am I alone in this feeling? There is a pride of ownership not to mention a question of fidelity of sound. The mp3's that I download-primarily from emusic-are a thumbnail to me and live happily on my mp3 player. I do find myself hooking the mp3 player up to my stereo when I want someone to hear a track I haven't gone out to buy yet.

I know as a performer that having music on your website or myspace page is helpful for people to check out what you do but I wouldn't dream of putting entire tracks online given all of the blood sweat and tears that went into the production of a quality recording, not to mention the cost.

I know that artists today are still spending time putting together track lists for flow etc. to make the listening experience the best that they can. I remember being a bit miffed at Prince's decision to make the entirety of Lovesexy one track until I heard it. I for one am completely content with the old paradigm of hearing singles on the radio or my own mix tape, cd, mp3, etc. However most mix tapes I make come about after having listened to all of the music on that particular offering. I will admit that the radio is on at home far less than when I was a boy and part of me misses that. I can see the internet possibly replacing radio but sometimes it's still nice to have someone program the listening experience for you rather than just randomly poking around listening to lower quality sound bytes.

1 comment:

Peter said...

As someone who does get (and buy) music online, and is somewhere in between in this largely generational schism, I think there are a few points in favor of the online experience. Pulling concerns out of your post, I see fidelity, context, and revenue model as three that I think I understand.

The quality (or lack of quality) in an mp3 is a technology question that will be moot at some point. Originally mp3’s were optimized for the size and bandwidth constraints of 64 meg players and dial-up. As mp3 players have moved to the several gig size and many American households have several megs per second of bandwidth the default codec will become AAC, or FLAC, or ever higher bitrate forms of compression that will become indistinguishable from the source material – itself in digital format.

The desire to read liner notes, or background material, on music prior to listening to it speaks to a wish to understand the context and cues to understand the music and artist. Printed media is under assault, for reasons of convenience, cost, accessibility, and capabilities. I love newspapers, but I read news online because I have instant access to all of the world’s news, anywhere I have internet access or a mobile phone, with links to related stories. Liner notes provided by the artist on their web page can expand beyond the 5”x5” format and link to sites or ideas that were their source material. Critics and fans are only a click away. The whole search for context becomes a conversation that you can participate in, or just listen to, on a global scale.

The tough question here is revenue model. Obviously, stealing music is wrong regardless of the format – physical or digital. The wishes of the artist in how they want to distribute their music, in what format, and in what form should be respected. But if an artist chooses to post their tracks on the web, what are they giving up? What is the average royalty payment for an artist who isn’t in the top 1% for radio play? I would suspect pennies, and have read anecdotal accounts of artists who I recognized (so, pretty mainstream) getting checks for tens of dollars. It’s a perfectly valid business model to decide to forgo the occasional beer money from the label and go straight to your listeners and fans – cut out the middle man so to speak. But the only way to develop those fans is to let them know what you are up to, involve them in process, and make them feel like more of a friend and less of an anonymous consumer. The best case scenario would be a shift of power from the label and distributor to the creator of the work.

I see the main difference is if I get to hold something that I bought, or if what I bought lives only in digital storage. That’s a tough one, but something that will become ever more common. Digital paper displays, eBook readers, and always connected portable devices will change the way we consume news, magazines, even the classics. Will I enjoy reading books as much with out the feel and smell of paper? Hard to say. It means fewer trees cut down, less oil used to transport heavy books, less waste – all good things. When I buy a book I am really buying ideas and content. But it would be a lie to say that I don’t appreciate the physical form, and I suspect that the market will embrace a hybrid mode – digital for transitory content (the latest fluff best-seller), and high quality bound editions for more ‘meaningful’ content. Perhaps it is easier for me to move away from CDs because there is nothing that I find aesthetically pleasing about the little silver chunks of plastic, and they lack the centuries of presence that the book format has enjoyed.