Perfect Sound Forever

We Want Our MP3's

I-Pod, friend of foe?

Some digital music musings by Jason Gross
(March 2003)

Before we dance and piss on the grave of the music industry, we better realize that they're not the only ones that are screwed by the digital music revolution. In essence, we're ALL fucked, whether we know it or not. As deadly as the question of copyrights and payments are, it's a smokescreen compared to the bigger issues that we're not prepared to grapple with yet about the new ways that we're gobbling up music now.

At first blush, it looks heartening that the public itself actually dictated a format change like MP3 rather than the industry itself, which once tried to K.O. the vinyl album, and is now pathetically pushing the SACD and DVD-A formats so we can buy up our favorite music yet again in a new, 'improved' format. These plans were scuttled when people turned their computer's CD burners into music manufacturing plants and peer-to-peer (P2P) services like Napster and Kazaa sprang up. The result was that music become available in the most transferable, portable former ever seen so far.

But if we have the power now, what exactly did we win? Even though we have more shelf space without CD's, what we're left with are musical specters, ghosts in our machines. Never before did we have such an impersonal way to get to our music. No album covers, labels, credits, photos, shout-outs or anything are left in digie format- music is stripped down to its bare essence of information with coding coldly showing tags telling us the basics (artist, title, song length). Are these details alone the only things that fascinate us about the whole music experience or are we missing out on the things that we've lost and helped to connect us to the music in the first place? Let's not kid ourselves- the physical package and details aren't irrelevant, otherwise we would have been hording white label promos back when. Since the tiny digital letters all look alike on the MP3 players, all songs seem to have some commonality and are deprived of their unique qualities without their visual wrappings.

And sure, let's all rejoice at the seemingly endless choices for music that we now have at the low, low price of zero dollars at many P2P sites. But even if the process stays as egalitarian as it is now (which it definitely won't), the fact that there won't be any Celestial Jukebox out there offering every song in creation is starting to sink in as we're finding out that even the best equipped legal download sites are still missing many of our favorite songs and have knotty little rights issues attached to them. For the P2P services not blessed by the RIAA, there's also the problem of virus and hoax files planted and spread there- a recent study claims that about half the files in Kazaa have this problem.

Even with what's available to us through downloads functioning as they should, we stand to choke to death at the choices now at our disposal. Let's average a song at 3 minutes and then a decent MP3 version of that song comes out to about 3 megabytes. So, on a top end machine with a 100 gigabyte hard drive for space, you can cram in about 33,000 songs or about 3,000 albums. Even forgetting the amount of time taken from your life that you'd spend accumulating even a fraction of that, when are you going to listen to all of that, even once? If consumers can now bypass critics as gatekeepers of new releases, they're stuck then with the same problem of figuring out what's good, what's crapola and how much listening time to devote to each little acquisition. An insightful article in the New Yorker by Christopher Caldwell (Select All, March 1, 2004) explained how we get overwhelmed by choices- his example is the few dozens choices that scramble our minds in a restaurant menu but how do we react to thousands of times that choice? What we'll likely be left with is some kind of fatigue for sure.

Online communities spring up constantly to help sort out these matters among fellow music nuts but if these exist only through the Net, does that mean that we're only connected with fellow music nuts when our modem's functioning? Is that also going to mean that record shops will go the way of the 78 RPM record or player-piano because they've been overtaken by technology? And what else do we loose out on when we'd been accidentally stumbling across music that we didn't even know we wanted at record shops and found these places to be social hubs? Dr. Michael Bull in an interview with Wired Magazine (February 25, 2004) explains that we also use our portable MP3 players to control our own social environment as we travel or wait, thus creating our own soundtrack but also suggesting that we don't like to be alone with our thoughts otherwise (having music cram in the mental gaps). Stories of people briefly plugging into each others' MP3 players (sometimes with total strangers) to sample other folks' favorites is an encouraging social trend but also suggests that we're cutting down our interactions literally to sound bytes. Even more funny and sad are reports from Wired that some folks feel obliged to add classy artists/tracks (i.e. jazz) to their MP3 players just so that they look good when other people snoop around them. Has it really come to this for music fans?

That doesn't mean the critics out there should crap their pants in fear since people will still be inclined to hear about possible music choices rather than stupidly trying to hear everything (which you couldn't anyway). Still, we're going to have our own problems. If all the doomsayers prove right and the idea of the album is becoming yesterday's news since people can pick and chose which particular song they want, what and how are we going to review anymore? Though we usually like to think that we take the lead in matters of style and taste, the fact is that we're going to have to toe the line and adapt to whatever consensus comes together for music formats.

Which leads to another nice little quandary that's going to perplex audiences and artists alike: if any or every song is accessible now, are labels and radio stations really going to be able to tell us what's a hit song anymore? Again, power-to-the-people sounds like a neat idea as we pick whichever song we want to hear again but then we're left with any consensus about the best songs out there that brings us together or divide us. For better and worse, that's what charts and pop radio were able to do for generations of fans and we may stand to lose this.

Among the music makers themselves, the more ambitious ones who want to create a seamless piece of work as an album are going to find more challenges if the format becomes toast. It might also mean that since time and space limits have been warped and stretched enough to give Einstein a migraine, a 'release' might be anything from 10 minutes to a couple of hours or more- this can be daunting for an artist to figure out when they're really 'done' with a recording of some type if there's no more time/space limits left. Then they have the added bonus of getting pulled and pushed by record companies as they try to figure out if they should strong-arm artists to cut down on production (and cut costs) or to include more extra goodies to entice consumers. Right now, some artists (i.e. Led Zeppelin, Madonna, Red Hot Chili Peppers) are even against downloads because they think their albums should be heard whole as a piece and not have their songs picked out for individual downloads. But the majority of artists who don't have one or more decent songs will have a much easier time figuring out how to deal with the format wars and changes- they don't have to worry about trying to pad out albums with filler though that means that they also won't have a ready lock on as much dough from fans who'll scarf up anything they pump out.

Fans themselves don't always go along meekly with trends like the digie revolution, even when the majority of their peers start it up. There's still a sizable (but not huge) market for vinyl out there which fogies, collectors and DJ's still and will prize. Other than arguments over sound quality and Luddite impulses, the whole idea of having and possessing that object, be it vinyl or CD, is something that's still might appealing to many: chart toppers still find millions of buyers despite legit and il-legit downloads. Also, one basic fact about people is that we always need some kind of organization and order in our lives- having a totally open ended format means that shitloads of people are going to go running back to the albums or CD's so they don't have to organize and re-organize all of their music.

That might be heartening news for the labels but when they have to deal with the many more millions who're embracing their computer chips, the problem of what's going to get marketed starts getting interesting. If the idea of a 40-70 minute 'release' is old hat, what do you push instead? Do labels make their roster into singles artists or do you try to find a new way to push and sell the artists themselves above and beyond any particular product?

If all these little scenarios don't sound rosy for everyone on all sides of the industry, watch how this pans out in the next few years. It's a no-brainer that song files and formats are going to have to get smaller, quicker to download and 'higher' quality. Now that we've stripped down songs and their physical manifestations, will we somehow dress them down even more to the bare essence of short melodies ala phone ringtones? MP3 players themselves look like the piddly crap that the original Atari game machines were whey all they offered were black-and-white one-dimension tennis games. Newer players are going to have to stay tiny but be much more appealing to the eye, likely bringing back virtual replicas of some things that were stripped away in music packaging and some other form of eye candy.

Apple had the vision not just to let you play music on it but also add games, an alarm feature and other goodies for your benefit. This is only the beginning of a trend that we're seeing with household entertainment items: convergence. TV's, stereo's, computers are going to be all consumed and massed into one meta-entertainment unit that we can control in our homes. Even now, our phones, players, laptops, PDA's and cameras are getting bundled together so that one thing is inseparable from the other. As cool and sexy a status symbol as an I-Pod might be, if it can't take your photo or call your friends, what good is it going to be in a year even if it has all of the top 40 hits of the year waiting for you?

And what is a 'hit' going to be anyway? While the trade magazines, radio stations (especially the ones that Clear Channel own) and major labels will convulse over what the hell a 'hit' is anymore, a new order will emerge. Led by Billboard, I-Tunes, Kazaa, Microsoft or Real Media or some back alley deal between some of them, a consensus will come together about what's getting downloaded, streamed and purchased in any form into any format. Some of this is already happening but no doubt that each of these players are going to try to set up their own system to compete against the others, using fans/listeners as leverage.

As daunting and scary as this brave new world looks for everyone, there still might be great promise and hope out there nevertheless. This is still a very young, very new process that's constantly changing so its rules are still being written and broken- remember that Napster came about only as recently as 1999 and the MP3 format itself is only 10 years old (which is about the same age as the World Wide Web). There are other Shawn Fanning's and Steve Jobs' out there that we don't know about yet and who will upend the whole system and rewrite all the playbooks. Because this is such an exciting and volatile time, people need to take advantage of it to innovate before the process ossifies again and we're herded into a type of format that we're forced to buy into if we want to keep experiencing music.

Like never before, music is now tied to a bunch of technologies that doesn't even settle for one single day. Ten years on, all our fancy little electronic devices will be low-bid E-bay nostalgia items and we'll be scrambling to get the hottest player device for whichever music medium temporarily becomes the standard for the time being. Some of us will lose our minds at the pace and path of these changes. Some of us are drooling in insatiable anticipation over this. Either way, it would do us a world of good to pause now and then and wonder how Marshall McLuhan (who understood that HOW we get our information trumps the info itself) would have sussed out each new wave of music devices and what these contraptions say about us and how we devour our favorite songs. Sad to say, more likely, we'll keep plunging into the future, chasing technology and never really keeping up, always chasing its tail and never wondering about how it's changing us and our whole musical world and continuum.

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