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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 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.

From → Cut-Out Bin

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