Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Downloader's Manifesto

I'm not getting lazy, honestly.  But I really thought that you all would enjoy the latest rant from my fellow blogger Uncle Elvis -- raise your hands if you've been in this boat!


BAMAJOHN said...

Thanks for the link Holly! I never joined the download revolution in the first place in that that I've never listened to an ipod one time; much less loaded one. I've downloaded tracks from time to time to round out my cd collection; it's usually just a track or two. I do have most of my most important stuff backed up on my computer; sometimes if I don't want to search up the cd, I'll play the mp3s on the computer. I would never want to have my primary source of any album or anything from a significant artist be only in mp3 format. Fact is, .99 for a cheap download file was never a 'deal' and probably explains why downloading hasn't come close to filling the 'hole' in sales of cds over the last few years. The whole pie is shrinking except for an uptick in vinyl sales (I saw where digital album sales have dropped all this year)!

Oh, and by the way, the industry itself is it's biggest enemy. One thing the blogger mentioned was for all the cds they'd traded in, they still had the files. Guess what, the RIAA says you are supposed to destroy those cheapo files or any cdrs you've made. I've argued with some ardent supporters of this thinking on how far can it go. For instance, if you have a cd compilation made from multiple cds and you sell one of the cds that has a track on the comp, are you supposed to destroy the cdr comp. I've never had anyone answer that one!

One last thing is that the rapper/producer Dr. Dre is a big naysayer for the loss of quality audio that you get with files; and the corresponding modern techniques of recording cds which are mastered in a way that makes them most adaptable to be ripped and listened to in mp3 format. He started a business that sells high end headphones meant to listen to high end cds and vinyl and he's trying to encourage the industry and the public as a whole to get away from cheap and low quality listening formats.

As I've mentioned to you, budget willing, I hope to procure a vinyl/multi format player by Christmas so I can play some of my old 33s/45s and a few I've picked up in recent years to assuage a collectible urge.


NickS said...

What a fun, and fraught topic.

I most appreciate the observation, "Because I realize that I still love, and need, that physical product. Music is more than just 'music'. It’s something more, and the actual packaging, the real-ness of a cd or vinyl record, is part of the enjoyment. The art, the liner notes, the photos, the smell, all of it." Reading that I realize that I feel the same way, but haven't been willing to admit it that openly. I like being able to glance at liner notes and look at the cover while I'm putting a CD on for the first time.

Speaking of which, I'm in the interesting position (for being a music blogger) of having never made the switch to listening to music on a computer. I do almost all of my listening to CDs (and have a portable CD player at work), and I find myself defending CDs to my co-workers who have all switched to iTunes/iPods.

The first thing I've realized is that iTunes/mp3s do provide a lot of benefit for some people. I've talked to my coworkers about how and when they listen and I'm convinced that, for them, CDs *are* more trouble than they're worth.

The second thing is that economics do matter. One reason that I've stuck with CDs is because I feel somewhat uncomfortable with the while idea of file sharing. On the other hand, part of what's made it easy for me to stick with CDs is that the cost of used CDs is pretty reasonable these days -- there are a lot of new CDs available for $9 and used ones in the $3-5 range. I remember when new CDs were $15-18, and the typical price point for a used CD was $10. I would buy a lot fewer CDs at those prices and, I have to admit, that the increased number of people buying CDs to burn them has helped lower the cost of used CDs.

But mostly I feel like the whole CD vs .mp3 tension is just a symptom of the fact that, as an audiophile, I am not the consumer that the music industry is targeting and that makes it likely that whatever the industry is pushing is unlikely to feel like an ideal solution to me.

Some previous posts on the general subject of the music industry: -- some thoughts drawn from reading the book Appetite For Self-Destruction.
Two posts (with some interesting discussion) about my frustration that the music industry does so poorly, in my opinion, at providing useful options for a casual consumer who would potentially be interested in higher fidelity.

NickS said...

BTW, I didn't make those URLs into links because I'm never sure when blog software will mark a comment as spam if it has too many links, but here are the three posts:

More Record Insustry Notes

Spitting Into The Wind
Follow Up

Holly A Hughes said...

You both make some very, VERY good points -- despite the fact that you're probably the only two weirdos out there who buy CDs and don't use iTunes/iPods at all.

I must confess to a weakness for physical CDs as well. There are so many pluses to owning a CD -- besides a slightly better audio quality and the physical heft of the thing, you get cover art and liner notes. Even if the deathless prose of true liner notes is a thing of the past, I can't tell you how often I've been frustrated after downloading an album when I can't tell you who the other musicians were, or who wrote the songs (downloads do not always register composer names into iTunes). And yeah, I know I can usually find that stuff somewhere on line. Like it'd be worth that effort every time I get curious...

The real value of downloading is, as Nick suggests, that you can get just one track. Now, I did use to be a singles buyer, back in the day, and sometimes -- let's be honest -- there is only one tune worth buying off an album. Downloading allows me to get that one track, in this non-singles era, without having to buy the whole album. And I probably wouldn't have bought the whole album, y'know, so I'm happy with the compromise. I have a rule of thumb -- if it looks like I'm going to want at least 4 tracks off any particular album, then I buy the whole thing as a CD. I figure that once I listen to it over and over, I'll end up liking other tracks as well, so I might as well get the whole package to start with.

After having a computer crash and having to restore my iTunes, I'm even more prone to buying CDs than I used to be (after that first flush of downloading mania). I also meticulously back up every downloaded track onto CD, which is a pain in the arse. I happen to know that Uncle Elvis went through a similar thing recently, which is probably what inspired that rant.

And here's another oddball factor -- I'm more likely to buy CDs now that I do more weekend road trips. Even with the cable to feed my iPod directly into the sound system, I think the sound is so much more satisfying -- deeper, more complex -- from a CD. But it also makes me listen to an album all the way through, instead of shuffling. The iPod is really built to encourage shuffling and playlists. They have their virtues (and I make up some really killer playlists, doncha know?) but there are times when I'd rather submit to flow of an entire album. I fear that the rise of downloading has made album flow less of a priority for some artists. Back in the vinyl days, I rarely skipped tracks; even with cassettes it wasn't much of an option. CDs make skipping way too easy, and I think this has made some artists tremendously lazy about throwing a track or two of crap onto an album. Of course even in the old days, there were always crap tracks to suffer through...

BAMAJOHN said...

It's funny you mention this 'non singles era' Holly because I had someone inform me that there is a parallel between today and the 1950s which was a definite 'singles era'. Of course, I know you meant a lack of physical single releases. But as a whole, the industry seemed to throw their lot in with downloaded tracks as the 'answer' which can be seen as today's 'singles'. I mentioned a hole in sales and what I meant is that even if you factor in downloaded singles as 10 songs equals an album, the amount of retail album sales has been dropping like a rock since about 2005; a slow decline began around 2002.

I'm probably a problem for the 'industry' because I have bought a lot of used cds. Sometimes these are out of prints items which I've managed to drum up on the cheap, but there are also common titles I've gotten cheap used instead of at full retail. I think used sales initially hurt retails sales in the early to mid 00s as much as anything; but the amount of 'music' being 'purchased' was still high. I myself would much rather pay $4 or $5 for a used cd than spend $5 on 5 downloaded tracks even if I only really want 2 or 3 tracks from the cd! I've read that 'used sales' are plummeting; new retail cds; and downloaded albums this year are off 7% or so too. The only thing increasing are single track downloads and vinyl sales. The total amount of music being purchased is going down, down, down. Illegally downloading has been around for awhile and I suspect that has actually leveled off.

So I guess my question is why have music sales overall dropped so much? I know the usual suspect is multiple entertainment options and the state of the music industry itself. I suspect music is losing it's standing in the culture, for whatever reason. But, I'm encouraged by the retro vinyl craze that is slowly growing.

As the person who pointed out to me about the 50s singles era/today parallel, the album format exploded in the mid sixties with the likes of the Kinks, Beatles, and Beach Boys ushering in the era of albums as a piece or art (ie concept albums). Could the album in whatever format make a comeback in the 10s? I hope so!

Uncle E said...

Well, how cool is this discussion! I love it!

NickS said...

I mentioned a hole in sales and what I meant is that even if you factor in downloaded singles as 10 songs equals an album, the amount of retail album sales has been dropping like a rock since about 2005; a slow decline began around 2002.

One of the interesting things that I learned from Appetite For Self-Destruction was that, while music sales have been dropping the level from which they are falling was historically high. He describes the early 90's as being a time when record companies had literally more money than they knew what to do with because the introduction of the CD (and the higher price point) was so profitable for them.

Knowing that changes how I think about the news about falling sales a little bit. My first impulse is the same as yours -- to feel like it's a bad sign for something that I care about that they industry is so clearly struggling. But I've come to think that it is also true that recorded music sales could fall quite a bit and still be enough to sustain an industry doing good work.

The big questions for me are, essentially, (1) who is going to be responsible for distributing and promoting recorded music and (2) who is buying recorded music. I don't think either of those questions are close to being settled at this point, but I'm more open than I was five years ago to thinking that the internet may be good for the music industry even if it reduces income and profits.

BAMAJOHN said...

Nick, you are absolutely right that record sales spiraled throughout the 90s and into the 00s. It's been awhile, but I saw a chart which chronicled this. I think it was maybe 2002 that was the greatest year for record sales. I still worry that the decline has been too precipitous ever since. I don't know how much of this decline is a result of the economic downturn either; or how much people's habits will have changed permanantely once said downturn abates?

Alex said...

It's also the way modern music is mastered (and then compressed) in the MP3 era.

When everything is fighting to always appear louder, music stops having the kind of intense emotional effect on listeners that it used to have in the vinyl era.

Ironically, in making music more portable, the music industry has been destroying the very components of music that make it memorable and make listeners passionate about it.

Robert Levine wrote a great article about this for Rolling Stone in late 2007, which you can read here:

sscottmandu said...

One reason sales of music in physical form appears to have dropped so precipitously is that the figures from the 90s represent a "spike" when the CD format became an acceptable and widespread option for many. Vinyl and cassette formats were still available, but many music lovers rushed to embrace the new technology, effectively duplicating their purchases in the older formats as they built their CD collections. Then came remastered versions of the same catalogs, box sets, and all the usual marketing attempts to repackage material the major labels already owned. Still, that spike represented something of an artificial benchmark.

Holly A Hughes said...

Besides the fluke of that 90s sales spike, I wonder if the more recent fall-off in music sales might not have something to do with the rise of YouTube. The same kids would have had their ears glued to a transistor radio 45 years ago -- or a stereo system 35 years ago -- or a Walkman 25 years ago -- now are trawling through YouTube on their smart phones, giggling at wacko homemade videos, or clips from TV shows, or even music videos, instead of listening to sheerly audio tracks. They just aren't developing the same kind of music addiction that earlier generations did. That could be a huge problem for the industry, going forward. You don't even have to download that stuff to have it available to you on demand.

BAMAJOHN said...

Sscottmandu, good point about the 90s being a period when people where converting over to cd. It was also a time when napster hadn't been born; much less the fact that cd burners weren't standard parts of pc's; pc's themselves hadn't saturated the majority of homes. Perhaps 2002 was the year the 'catalogue' market started losing ground and people had enough of the indstries' penchant to repackage product in remasters, SACD's etc?

Holly's point about kids using youtube and I think their other gadgets (entertainment options) is taking this generation's focus away from music and a big slice out the music industry as a result (imho).

Thanks Alex for bringing up the loudness war! This is another part of the problem of how cds are mastered with the intent being how they'll play on ipods etc instead of whether the loudness of the recording exceeds it's dynamic range. I see a lot of music fan reviews on amazon stating that 'the remaster' is just a 'louder' version of the original cd; a loud compressed assortment of 'tracks' in essence with the same loss of content associated with mp3s.

Sscottmandu, I must assuage my curiosity by asking if your handle has something to do with Bob Seger and Katmandu?!

NickS said...

They just aren't developing the same kind of music addiction that earlier generations did. That could be a huge problem for the industry, going forward.

A fried just mentioned that Billboard magazine had an article about how much it meant for the music industry that Taylor Swift's new release has been selling so well precisely because there had been worries about whether young people, her core audience, would still purchase CDs.

googling taylor swift sales industry turns up headlines like Five Lessons The Recording Industry Can Take From Taylor Swift's Massive Week or Taylor Swift's "Speak Now" Sales Give Big Hope to Music Industry which includes the figure, "thanks to Taylor Swift, the music industry has seen its biggest week in sales in five years, since 2005's release of 50 Cent's 'The Massacre.'"

he caveats are obvious. First I don't think any of us would select Taylor Swift as the model that we would help the record industry would emulate but, on the other hand, giant pop bestseller are often somewhat embarrassing either in retrospect or at the time.

Secondly Taylor Swift has become a bit of a phenomenon beyond music but, again, that describes many of the bands that were addicting earlier generations as well.

I think that the theory of "more distractions" sound reasonable, but I also think there are reasons to be optimistic about the role that the internet can play in, in fact, addicting people to music.

The biggest thing to consider is that your average teenager now has easy access to a much wider range of music than any of us did when we were teenagers. That has to be positive for at least some teenagers.

I mean we're living in an era when you might just happen across a collection of thai funk. You'd think that for at least some flavor of music-addicted teenager something like that would make the world of .mp3 blogs irresistible (a world that I, personally haven't spent much time with).

NickS said...

I should add, of course, that the fact that the industry believes that strong sales for Taylor Swift are an encouraging sign doesn't mean that it's true.

The music industry hasn't shown itself to be farsighted. But I did want to push back against the doom-and-gloom.

sscottmandu said...

Let's not forget that the record industry isn't just about pop and rock artists. I would never have learned about the great symphonies, instrumentalists and what we now call "world music" had there been no industry creating recordings. Not to mention spoken word, Broadway and film soundtracks (at one time the mainstay of the pop charts). New technology/ Internet sources have translated the access process beyond what that industry was tooled for.

"Sscottmandu, I must assuage my curiosity by asking if your handle has something to do with Bob Seger and Katmandu?"

@BAMAJOHN, Only partly true, though I love Bob Seger, it has more to do with the real city of Katmandu. After I'd made a few trips to the far east, a colleague started using Scottmandu as a sobriquet for my given name (Scott), which I duly appropriated as a nom de guerre for online and artistic identities.

And are you really in Alabama?

Anonymous said...

Sscottmandu, it's great that as a byproduct of traveling the far east you also acquired a great nickname! It's a solid point you make that one of the great achievements of the record industry has been funding and distributing music that is not the most commercially rewarding but perhaps the most culturally rewarding.

Yes, I'm in Alabama. I guess I make it hard to tell with the handle and all ha! I think my 'official' reason for that handle is that it does 'locate me' to the online world; but privately, in my own mind, I think I am identifying as a Univ. of Alabama fan.

BAMAJOHN said...

Oops, I'm outing the prior post by 'anonymous' as being by myself ha!

sscottmandu said...

Thank you Holly for providing the link that has set this comment board on fire.

wwolfe said...

That was a good read. I mean this in a non-gloating way: I never bought an iPod, and I've only downloaded about a hundred songs from iTunes to my home computer. The last few years, I'll download a song I've heard about on-line (often here!), and then sampled at iTunes, and then at the end of the year I'll make a compilation CD of the stuff I liked from that year. It's a handy way to collect a bunch of good songs in one place, and it serves as a good musical scrapbook of each year. But the huge job of transferring all my CDs to an iPod always struck me as an absolute nightmare. I know sloth is considered one of the seven deadly sins, but for not the first time it strikes me as a key to a happy life: it's the surest way to avoid profoundly annoying and dispiriting tasks like the one described in that post.