The Problem with Digital Music

Is there a problem with digital music? Its so odd reading about the endless piracy & copyright problems, and how the music industry is apparently suffering & dieing when to me, contemporary music feels more vibrant than ever. Every week I discover new music & not just ‘new’ bands, but often highly evolved music that has existed for a number of years, but for whatever reason I just had never heard before. In many ways I think what I am enjoying is the new democracy where I am more likely to discover a new independent band or composer, than have a new act promoted and/or forced upon me by dinosaurs…
But for the moment lets ignore music of the past & consider contemporary music, music that has been created with no involvement or reliance on the old music industry. What are the problems associated with it?

1. Is quantity a problem? Is there too much music?

Quoting from a New Yorker article: “For a century or so, the life of a home listener was simple: you had your disks, whether in the form of cylinders, 78s, LPs, or CDs, and, no matter how many of them piled up, there was a clear demarcation between the music that you had and the music that you didn’t. The Internet has removed that distinction. Near-infinity awaits on the other side of the magic rectangle….
But these meandering journeys across the Internet soundscape can be taxing. The medium too easily generates anxiety in place of fulfillment, an addictive cycle of craving and malaise. No sooner has one experience begun than the thought of what else is out there intrudes. Putting on an old-fashioned disk and letting it play to the end restores a measure of sanity. This may explain why the archaic LP is enjoying an odd surge of popularity among younger listeners: it’s a modest rebellion against the tyranny of instant access.”

Do you feel swamped by the sheer quantity of music available to you ie both the amount of music available online to audition or stream, and/or the size of your own music collection? I guess its a sign of my age but I’ve been collecting music for well over 20 years, so personally I dont have a problem with engaging with a vast music library, be it physical (vinyl, CDs) or digital… For me 90% of my listening probably involves 10% of my library and I suspect this is true regardless of the medium. But that isn’t to disregard or devalue the other 90% of my collection that only gets listened to occasionally – its a resource that serves many purposes & some music only reveals its unique character over time, as my own moods, context, experience & life evolve…


2. Is quality an issue?
I’m interested to discuss this with people who maintain their digital libraries in lossless formats – do you really hear the difference? Now that sounds like its a binary question: Yes or No? But of course life isnt binary and the best analogy I have ever read with regards to music compression is as applied to JPEGs. A compressed image looks fine at 72dpi on your computer screen, but project that image on to a cinema size screen and the pixel blocks are as big as your entire computer screen. Moral of the story: context is key. Listening to your ipod on a noisy train is different to playing the same song at volume in your lounge…

Quoting from a Johnny Greenwood interview in one of a series of articles that cover both these first two problems:

SFJ: ‘What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of the MP3 age?’

JG: ‘The downside is that people are encouraged to own far more music than they can ever give their full attention to. People will have MP3s of every Miles Davis’ record but never think of hearing any of them twice in a row—there’s just too much to get through. You’re thinking, “I’ve got ‘Sketches of Spain and ‘Bitches Brew’—let’s zip through those while I’m finishing that e-mail.” That abundance can push any music into background music, furniture music.’

SFJ: ‘Is the MP3 a satisfactory medium for your music?’

JONNY GREENWOOD: ‘They sound fine to me. They can even put a helpful crunchiness onto some recordings. We listened to a lot of nineties hip-hop during our last album, all as MP3s, all via AirTunes. They sounded great, even with all that technology in the way. MP3s might not compare that well to a CD recording of, say, string quartets, but then, that’s not really their point.’

SFJ: ‘Do you ever hear from your fans about audio fidelity?’

JG: ‘We had a few complaints that the MP3s of our last record wasn’t encoded at a high enough rate. Some even suggested we should have used FLACs, but if you even know what one of those is, and have strong opinions on them, you’re already lost to the world of high fidelity and have probably spent far too much money on your speaker-stands.’

SFJ: ‘Do you think any of the MP3 generation—ten- to twenty-five-year-olds—want a higher quality experience?’

JG: ‘No. That comes later. It’s those thirty-something men who lurk in hi-fi shops, discussing signal purity and oxygen-free cables and FLACs. I should know—I was very nearly one of them.’

SFJ: ‘What are your feelings about the various audio formats?’

JG: ‘Sonic quality is important. I’d feel frustrated if we couldn’t release CDs as a band, but then, it only costs us a slight shaving of sound quality to get to the convenience of the MP3. It’s like putting up with tape hiss on a cassette. I was happy using cassettes when I was fifteen, but I’m sure they were sneered at in their day by audiophiles. If I’m on a train, with headphones, MP3s are great. At home, I prefer CD or vinyl, partly because they sound a little better in a quiet room and partly because they’re finite in length and separate things, unlike the endless days and days of music stored on my laptop.’

So pragmatism is probably a good summation of his attitude and I can relate to that. But my only concern is a creeping anxiety that with music data compression the algorithms are based on removing what the average person probably won’t notice… and it seems its a one way road. Considering that both broadband & drive space are so much cheaper now than when MP3 were developed, there doesn’t appear to be much motivation to revert back to higher quality music formats.
While its easy to write off the desire for a high quality listening experience as elitist, the odd thing is that we all have high quality listening experiences all the time ie when we hear sound directly. Of course this debate occurs all over the interwebs (eg here or here or here or here) but in a way its kind of sad to think of it from the direction of how much ‘lossiness’ can you stand?
And its that lossiness that irks me, and its hinted at in this description: “Before moving away from the topic of perceptual codecs, there’s an important point to be made about the category as a whole: They all make baseline assumptions about the limitations of human perception, and about how closely the end result will be listened to. The fact of the matter is that all that stuff being stripped out adds up to something.”
There is a good discussion here in response to someone asking how to make a ‘good MP3’ – heres a few excerpts:

“You notice most MP3s contain nothing above 15KHz or so? Sometimes it’s as low as 10KHz.” – damn! There goes some of the character of those beautiful harmonics of acoustic instruments & reverbs, real or generated….

“The material that suffers WORST under MP3 encoding (in my opinion) is classical music because of its high degree of ambience and multiple redundant instruments that confuse the encoder.” – double damn! I love ambience & I don’t appreciate the ‘smearing’ of frequencies being implied where multiple instruments occupy similar frequency ranges….

The catch 22 of the quality debate is that there are no absolutes – it IS perceptual. For every person who begrudges the degradation of fidelity & quality, there will another 99 who simply shrug their shoulders & say “whats your problem? it sounds fine to me”

3. Is there an equitable basis to the ‘new’ music industry?

It seems to me that for new artists there is only one business model that really works and thats Freemium. I’m not so interested in what works for Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails because they established themselves in the old music industry. Nowadays I think people don’t want to pay for music unless they already know they like it & are committed to both enjoying & helping support that bands development. Finding viable means for people to hear your music when & how it suits them, without any obligation to pay for it in a way brings a new honesty to music. No more buying an album because you heard one song & then discover everything else that band does is dreadful. No more being sucked in by a big marketing push. So thats where the free part comes in. But life is long & so ideally are musicians careers so I think it works for everyone to have a range of ‘products’ available – some are free, but you get what you pay for & if you are seriously interested in a band of course you are going to feel fine about paying for a full album or remixes or whatever… But thats just my take on it…

I had thought of setting up a poll to ask a few questions, but they arent yes/no/choose one answers… So if you feel like a rant, answer as many of these as you feel like:

Do you have too much music?

How do you (sucessfully) find new music?

What formats do you listen to?

Is audio quality a problem?

If you know you like a band, how much would you want to pay for a digital album?
(eg you go the first album free, how much would you instinctively pay for the second?)

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