Fear the Reaper

Reaper A friend took his nine-month-old son to the local record store recently, muttering something like “I’ve got to teach him early about the importance of buying music, rather than downloading.” “For copyright reasons or tangibility reasons?,” I asked. “Neither,” he responded, “It’s about getting all the information.” He was talking audio aesthetics — preserving maximum data in the recordings you own, rather than paying for convenience with aesthetically diminished, massively compressed audio. I respect that, but wonder if there will be any CDs left to buy by the time our kids have their own allowances.

Sales of digital music through stores like iTunes are up (though slowing) – but not nearly as much as sales of CDs are down. Anyone who has thumbed through bins at their local LP/CD outlet recently has probably noticed the “no elbows required” phenomenon — there’s so little competition with other shoppers that you never have to share elbow space with GRateful Dead shoppers while plumbing the shelves for GRuppo Sportivo re-releases. I recently felt like I had the local Rasputin’s all to myself, which was a bittersweet sensation (sweet because I had a musical playground all to myself, bitter because of the writing on the wall — in-store music shopping has basically become passe). New York Times:

… very few albums have gained traction. And that is compounded by the industry’s core structural problem: Its main product is widely available free. More than half of all music acquired by fans last year came from unpaid sources including Internet file sharing and CD burning, according to the market research company NPD Group. The “social” ripping and burning of CDs among friends — which takes place offline and almost entirely out of reach of industry policing efforts — accounted for 37 percent of all music consumption, more than file-sharing, NPD said.

By some estimations, this Christmas could be the last hurrah for CD sales, “and then everything goes kaput.” I, for one, fear the reaper. And the reaper is us. But what exactly is it that we’re supposed to fear? Nostalgiac sadness at the death of a shopping and browsing experience with 100 years of tradition behind it? The trend toward owning singles rather than full albums? The death of cover art and liner notes? Lack of involvement in the album as a larger art form when we’re all stuck on perpetual random play? The role of the record store as an editorial conduit designed to tell us which music matters? Plummeting fidelity? All of the above?

Not all of these fears seem well-founded. Cover art has made a big comeback in digital music collections, and ID3v2 lets us store lyrics and liner notes inside our files. Meanwhile, the serendipity of the browsing experience hasn’t died — it just smells funny. Discovering rare finds by browsing has merely changed form — we now have discovery tools like Pandora and last.fm and eMusic at our disposal – arguably more effective and “intelligent” than the random “dusty bin surfing” record store experience.

If record stores do indeed go belly up in a few years’ time, loss of audio fidelity is probably the largest threat faced by music lovers. Online music stores typically sell tunes at well below CD quality — and few users notice or complain. Music swapping sites, where it’s often possible to find 192kbps or better versions of what you’re looking for, fare a little better, but it’s a crapshoot. If the only copy of that rare Japanese pressing of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Live in Butan* is available at 128kbps and you’re desperate, you’re going to grab it. But 128k just doesn’t deliver the punch necessary to draw out the full resonant potential of all that cowbell (YouTube’s insanely aggressive video compression doesn’t do much for it either).

There is a glimmer of hope for the children: EMI has agreed to release its tracks on iTunes both free of strangulating DRM technology and at 256kbps – double the fidelity of other iTunes music and free of copy restrictions. If there is justice in the universe, other labels and online music vendors will soon follow suit.** Though I personally can barely tell the difference between 256kbps AAC and uncompressed PCM audio, there are golden-eared folks who can — such as my friend’s nine-month-old son.

As for the role of labels and the distribution chain as editorial pre-filters, wading through the crap so we don’t have to, I call “bull.” In fact, the reverse is true – too much crap is a big part of the reason for the demise of the record store. Online music networks bring organic, Darwinian principles to the filtering process — a sort of trickle-up phenomenon (or “treacle-up,” if you prefer). By monitoring attention streams and counting downloads, music sites can let the wisdom of crowds do the pre-filtering for us. In theory, the good stuff will rise to the top like thick cream, without any help from studio execs in comfy chairs. In theory, anyway. Whether you trust collective “wisdom” is another matter. If the “wisdom of crowds” turns out to look more like the idiocy of crowds, we’re no better off than where we started.

But the greatest threat posed by the rise of bits over atoms may not be technological or aesthetic at all. If the end truly is nigh, we should fear for our children’s backs. After all, if they’re never required to cart heavy record crates from apartment to apartment on their journey through college, they could grow up with weak spines, unprepared to ward off the next wave of corporate spoon-feeding.

* Stuck Between Stations makes no claim that such a recording actually exists.

** Update: Apple began selling DRM-free tracks in iTunes on May 30, 2007.

About Scot Hacker

Scot Hacker is a web developer, teacher, and blogger living in Northern California. He is the author of Can You Get to That? The Cosmology of P-Funk and Understanding Liberace: Grooving With The Fey Heckler. He works by day as webmaster at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Knight Digital Media Center, and runs Birdhouse Web and Mail Hosting on the side. Hacker is the author of The BeOS Bible and MP3: The Definitive Guide, and posts near-daily on random stuff at Scot Hacker's foobar blog. He's ecstatic that we're sitting on 100 years of recorded music history. How I Got Stuck When was the last time you bought a record because of the cover? 25 years before MP3s, I used to make a weekly pilgrimage to Cheap Thrills in San Luis Obispo with friends, where we'd surf through dusty wooden bins, de-flowering ourselves in a mist of vinyl, grabbing piles of cut-outs about which we knew virtually nothing. Junior Samples, Temple City Kazoo Orchestra, The Buggles, Paul Desmond, Instant Chic, Smithsonian collections, Robert Moog, Dream Syndicate... didn't matter. If the cover was cool, we assumed there was a good chance the music would turn us on. And we were often right. In that humongous wooden warehouse, between around 1977 and 1984, my musical universe bloomed. There were also duds - dumptruck loads of duds. The lesson that a great cover doesn't tell you jack about the music inside was a long time coming (the inverse correlation - that great music was often hidden behind terrible artwork - came much later). But it didn't matter, because cut-outs never cost more than a couple-three bucks, and all the good shit we uncovered made it worthwhile. In high school, I (for the most part) ignored the music going on around me. The jocks and aggies could keep their Rick Springfield and their Jefferson Starship - we were folding papers after school to The Roches and Zappa and Talking Heads and PiL. But inevitably, some of the spirit of that time stuck with me. ELO and McCartney wormed their way (perhaps undeservedly) into my heart. No one escapes high school without an indelible tattoo on their soul describing the music of that time. When I went away to college, the alt/grunge scene was being born, and getting chicks required familiarity with The Pixies and Porno for Pyros. I couldn't quite figure how these bands were supposed to be as interesting as Meat Puppets or Cecil Taylor or Syd Barrett, but I went along for the ride for a while, best I could. But I never quite "got" alt-rock. Never understood why The Pixies were elevated in the public imagination over a thousand bands I thought were so much more inventive / rocking / interesting. What exactly was Frank Black offering the world that Lou Reed had not? In general, I like music carved in bold strokes - extremely rockin', or extremely beautiful, or extremely weird... I like artists that have a unique sound, something I can hang my hat on. I love Mission of Burma and The Slits and The American Anthology of Folk Music and Devendra Banhart and Bowie and Nick Drake and Eric Dolphy and Ali Farka Toure and Marvin Pontiac. If you were to ask me who was the last great rock and roll band, I'd be likely to answer "The Minutemen." I know it's not true, but I'd say it anyway. And yet, in a weird way, I totally believe it. Today while jogging, I listened to a long interpretation by the Unknown Instructors: "Punk Is Whatever We Made It To Be" - half-spoken / half-sung sonic collage of some of D. Boon's best stanzas. Boon's powerful words rained like hammers and I felt like I was back in 1980, careening down the highway in a green VW bug with The Stooges blasting. It was that spirit of amazement that I used to live for - the one I never got from the 90s indie scene. And then, just as quickly, I thought "God, I'm living in the past. I suck." I'm stuck. I have vast collections of LPs, CDs, and MP3s. I listen to music for hours each day, and yet I'm completely out of it, musically speaking. I confess -- I've never listened to Guns-n-Roses or Pearl Jam or Prince, and I've only recently heard "Nevermind" in its entirety. If it weren't for Twitter, I wouldn't even know Lady Gaga existed. I'm oblivious to the stuff that supposedly matters to "music people." It's not like I'm totally unaware of pop music. I just have a finely tuned ability to tune out whatever doesn't interest me. I don't quite know how to explain it. I can only say that my friends register shock when they learn that I've never heard of Elliot Smith. And yet I do not feel thirsty. I'm always open to being turned on. But I learned long ago that, unfortunately, you can't trust beautiful cover art to promise great music, and you can't always trust your friends to push your music buttons. I'm happy to listen to damn near anything. And every now and then, that "anything" will turn into something that will become important to me over time. Something that will last. I like music with staying power. Belle and Sebastien have a certain appeal, but I don't think they're going to occupy even the tiniest slot in my consciousness in 20 years. But the power and inventiveness of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Fahey, Robert Wyatt, Can, The Carter Family, The Clash, will never dissipate. I have little interest in the "new" factor. I could not care less whether this year's model is the baddest thing going on in Atlanta or a rare gem rescued from 78 rpm oblivion by Robert Crumb. It's all the same to me. Just squeeze my lemon / 'till the juice runs down my leg. Please. A friend once said that he felt lucky to have been born so late in history, because the later you're born, the more history you have to work with. I don't think I really understood what he was saying until I was about 40. It's not about being born late, it's about this massive archive we're sitting on - the entire history of recorded music under our butts, which we can either choose to ignore or to mine for all it's worth. Every hour I spend checking out the flavor of the month is an hour I haven't spent with David Thomas or Richard Hell or Shuggie Otis. Life's too short. I'm going to use this site to drift back and forth through musical history, modernity be damned. You turn me on, I'm a radio. Let me know what I'm missing. shacker's station at last.fm