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…


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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?)

12 Responses to The Problem with Digital Music

  1. Edward says:

    I think it’s all relative to the person, and as you said, the situation. I watch standard def DVDs full-screen on my 1366×768 notebook, to an HD video geek, it looks like crap, but I’m not a video guy. I don’t really care, I see what’s going on, and it sounds all right through my very modest speaker set up (the good speaker set up was sold to make money for school, FROWN).

    My point in all this is; I’m not an HD video guy. An HD guy will come into my flat, see my video set up, and probably ask “How can you do this?”. I know the quality is bad, but it’s not my field, I just want to have the image look presentable, I want to be able to tell what’s going on, and I think that a lot of people are the same with audio. They want it to be presentable, and since they’re not looking for, as you pointed out the missing frequencies above 10-15khz, they’re not going to miss them.

    On the topic of good sound quality; It will always be there, it will always be a niche, but it will always be there. Right now, in the video market, blu-ray is a niche, and I think it’s going to take it a very long time to phase out DVDs, because people like myself aren’t HD video geeks, and I think there are a lot of people like me. Though in audio, it’s interesting how the contrary affect is happening. Rather than like with video formats, which have been getting better with time, audio formats have gotten more lossy with time. Despite this, there’s still a market for LPs, and hi-fidelity audio, and I think that market will always be there. Us audio geeks, we’re a niche. Our numbers might be thinning, but we’re always going to be around.

    I didn’t touch on sound quality being relative to situation, because this comment is really convoluted, but it’s not like it’s going to be published in a paper, so I’m sure my being lackadaisical in my writing is forgivable (I hope). Anyway, I may be an audio geek who prefers on listening to things on my SR325is, only after the sound has been run through my Ray Samuels amp, and my DAC, but sometimes, I need to take my headphones off, and when I do that, I’m able to step out of myself, and forgive the sound quality of online radio. I guess it’s comparable to eating; Can’t have steak all the time, sometimes a Baconator from Wendy’s is all right.

    As for the questions:

    Do you have too much music?
    I could never have too much music. I listen to about eight hours of music a day, and that’s just at my computer. This doesn’t count what I listen to at work. I will never have too much music. It’d be easy to get lost in my collection, skip around tracks, and listen to one band over and over again (Which I am guilty of), but I have a self imposed rule of mine: I only listen to the same album once a month, and don’t listen to an album by the same artist twice in one week. A few bands I can’t get enough of are exceptions to this (Brian Eno, The Cardigans, and Kaizer’s Orchestra), but generally speaking, it keeps what I listen to fresh.

    I also don’t fall victim to the whole not listening to an entire album thing, and I really prefer not to. I think tracks are listed in a specific order for a reason, and listening to them out of order, or picking and choosing will take something away from the record. If I have a song stuck in my head, I’ll listen to that first, then I’ll start the album from track one, and listen to it all the way through. It’s rare that I’ll queue up (or skip through an album to listen to) a few tracks, and omit the rest of the record.

    How do you (sucessfully) find new music?
    Word of mouth, online radio, Pandora, Last.FM, asking friends. I’m always looking for new music. But for me, the way I’ve found the most new music is online radio. Online radio is worldwide, and there’s all sorts of genres and subgenres to dig into and sample from.

    What formats do you listen to?
    On my computer, I listen to MP3s, and if it’s something I own, I rip it into FLAC. I DO notice a difference between a 192kbs MP3 and a FLAC through my Grados, though to be honest, the difference is only noticeable when I’m listening to something I’ve listened to dozens of times. I also have one of those record players, with those big spinny disc type music mediums.

    Is audio quality a problem?
    For me, it can be. If I’m listening to an online radio station at 160kbs, one of my favourite bands is aired, and it’s something I’ve heard oodles of times either in FLACs or on vinyl through my SR325is, I will go “ew”, but for the most part, no, it’s not. I do listen to a lot of online radio, and I get that it’s going to be a 128 or 160kbs stream, I get that. In that situation, I’m not expecting a masterpiece, so I don’t get upset if I don’t have it.

    But on a bigger scale, is audio quality a problem? I don’t think so. A good producer and a good studio will always produce a good recording. If we have that, if we can get a good recording out of the studio, we can get that on CDs, listen to the album on CD, rip it to FLAC, or listen to it on Vinyl, and we’ll be fine.

    To bottom line it; No.

    To bottom line my entire comment: Was this post written as like, audio geek bait, to get people like me to write a freakin’ tome of a response in comments? If so, it worked. I enjoyed reading it, the blog post. I like reading and talking audio and music.

  2. tim says:

    heh heh… no i wasn’t trolling, honest!

  3. leyton says:

    i few anecdotes:

    ive just been up in AK at an electro-acoustic music symposium and you could not move for genelec speakers ( the peak being 24 in the same room creating some amazing/some naff “music”) but the genelecs being used were all near-fields ( 1032s) and as my friend pointed out wer exactly the wrong sort of speaker for the rooms and the context ( middle size lecture rooms and 50 people.. thus even though there were some high quality music there were also clipping amplifiers because they were the wrong speaker for the room.. im not complaining just pointing out another contextual issue of quality at the other end of the transcription from sound to listener..
    ( please note i use genelecs all day in my studio as nearfields and i love them very much.. others think they are rubbish)

    i also visited a friend who owns a funktion-one system and he was relating how there were only 3 DJ mixers they( the funktion-one company) would LET YOU USE! .. none of them were pioneers.. and they also stated that if you play mp3s you are wasting your time.. on friday me and my friends went to a bar in AK which had f-one system and we universally agreed it sounded like shit, and that it came from the dj end not the speaker end.. thats a lot of money to spend on a system that sounds like shit because someone doesn’t understand sound and codecs.

    i also have done mp3 compresion rate tests with my classes and they universally agree they can hear the difference at different rates( usually at about 256kbps) but they also universally dont have a preference…( they also have a tendency to listen to music too loud in there headphones).. i blame FM radio station compressors.

    also while smearing occurs with mp3s.. it also occurs with rooms that havent been acoustically treated ( read : everywhere) …and adding reverb.. so ….

    i heard “remain in light” a while ago in 5.1 and that was like visiting a whole new planet wearing mushroom goggles.. awesome.. thats the place i want to hang out..

    ::::
    1- no
    2- friend recommendations,blogs and boomkat
    3-wav and mp3
    4-sometimes, depending on an equation with the love,resonance,resolution axis
    5- for radiohead =zero, for major labels less than for independents..i also have paid retrospectively.my albums have a minimum price then buyers decided how much above that they value the music, and supporting moi. im on bandcamp.

    :::

    hey tim.. nice blog.

  4. Thought provoking article, Tim.

    It’s tough to have a broad discussion of this issue because I suspect you, and most of your readers, have deep respect for musicians, musicianship, and art, which predisposed to go the extra mile in audio quality, actually paying for music, and otherwise supporting the output of artists as they would have intended.

    Therefore, I can’t speak for the broader population, but for me, digital music distribution has massively deepened my love of, and respect for, music of all kinds. I get new music from friends (and their recommendations), and also those rare gems like aquariusrecords.org, who post samples and review almost anything they stock (also local to the SF Bay, REPRESENT!), and of course the blogosphere.

    My iTunes shows over a year’s worth of music, if one were to listen to it 24/7, and it doesn’t feel like too much. They’re all MP3′s, which despite its age feels still like the most portable and translatable format (that changes so frequently, though!_. I’ve been turned on to more music history this year than any other, and suddenly more contemporary acts I like are put into context like a flashlight shining on a missing clue. It also opens me up to artists I can try with little risk through sharing, and if I like them, I definitely want to support their efforts by buying the rest of their catalog.

    Too much for a comment, but how iTunes changed the playing field for emerging artists can’t be understated. I wish all self-publishing artists the best – we WILL buy your music if it touches us!

  5. Interesting article – it made test some of my MP3 with a spectrum analyser to see the problem : below 196/256, there’s a real drop in high frequencies. True. Then, most of my MP3 are in high quality preset so not so much a worry for me. Still MP3 are my main way of listening to music, so maybe it’s time to upgrade the MP3 where I can hear those high frequency problem (like my old collection of Metallica CD I’ve rip in 1999, even on crappy speaker I hear it).
    Still the main culprit in my installation is the speaker system that need desesperatly an upgrade.

    Do I have too much music is a good question, and ot be honest I don’t think so. I listen to a lot of music, and most of the times it can’t be in the background (I find myself listening to the music, not doing the thing I should). But I listen to more new things I would if I got to buy them all on CD. And I discard more easily what I don’t trully like after some times.

    I find new music by, well stumbling upon it with movie/television serie, friend recommandation, website, curiosity (this band like this ? I should try to hear of their album). I’d love to get pandora in Europe !

  6. Timothy says:

    Interesting and thought provoking.

    Is there a problem with digital music? – Yes. I think so. But some of that problem lies with the consumer and our general attitudes. Just because your ipod CAN store 10,000 tracks, does NOT mean you have to fill it up. And having instant access to everything via the internet is not always a good thing. People need to appreciate what they have at a pace that actually allows them to ‘expereince’ the joys of what they have.

    1.. Do you have too much music? -> No. But I am content with what I have and do not feel the need to actively seek out more. (see question #2)

    2.. How do you (sucessfully) find new music? -> I would say that I let music find me. Through my life travels I am exposed to music at every turn. ie.. someone with their IPOD to loud, street musicians, TV, radio, elevators, waiting rooms, movies… Music is all around us, almost to the point it has been a layer of background noise. But occasionally I hear something that ‘peaks’ my interest. When that happens, I endeavor to find out more about it.

    3.. What formats do you listen to? -> CD and wav files mostly. Some MP3 or AAC.

    4.. Is audio quality a problem? -> Yes. Why listen to a MP3 and not get the full experience the artist meant for you to have? Unless of course the artist actually manufactored their music with the limitations of MP3 compression in mind…. But I have never heard of anyone doing that. (has one done that?)

    5.. If you know you like a band, how much would you want to pay for a digital album? -> $0.00 – I would rather have a DRM free hard copy that I could with as I please.

  7. Ektopia says:

    A great article Tim.

    It’s something I’ve thought about many times over the last 5 years. After music being the most important aspect of my daily life since I was a chile, I recently turned off to the whole thing. Was it the music business’s bulls**t turning me off? Was it the fact that having a small child running around the house all the time meant that when it was quiet I would keep it that way?

    I now wondering if it’s the whole of the “clear demarcation between the music that you had and the music that you didn’t”. I hadn’t really thought about it like that before but I was a real collector and it was nice hearing new music and going out and buying it… and then everything else done by that artist normally. However, it’s not like that anymore; it’s just impossible. There are too many artists that I’m interested in hearing. I can’t afford to buy all of there CDs and I don’t really care for illegally downloading them… and even if I did, I don’t think there’s enough time in the day to give them the time that they deserve. I mean, I used to know every word of every album when I was younger. I haven’t given an album that kind of listen for 15 years or so I would guess.

    So, it seems that I’ve turned a corner on the whole music thing. Instead of enjoying less, I’ve subconsciously decided to leave it all behind instead.

    It’s all a bit pessimistic of me isn’t it.

    Anyways, great article. Very thought provoking.

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  9. britmic says:

    Interesting article (again), I’m liking the quote about FLAC and speaker stands :-)

    To answer your poll questions-

    Do you have too much music?
    Probably. I have kept around 50 albums on CD from my formative years which I literally never listen to. Perhaps one day. iTunes tells me I have 15 days worth of music in my MP3 library. For the last 5 years I have almost exclusively been listening to mash-ups. It’s called bastard pop, it’s very self aware. Most of that 15 days is mash-ups.

    How do you (sucessfully) find new music?
    Through the mash-ups and occasionally through music on adverts (even the OS X Leopard intro tune). I guess I’m showing my age here and my lack of passion for any one band. I have more passion for unsigned band, then I really can dazzle people with legitimate band music that they have never heard of :-)

    What formats do you listen to?
    MP3 (prefer well encoded 192Kbps and up)
    Unprotected AAC, all from the iTunes store. These are 256Kbps by default.
    Protected AAC (128Kbps) I would burn to CD and re-rip at 192Kbps VBR MP3.

    Is audio quality a problem?
    Sometimes when some mash-up artist uses low bit rate joint stereo. But what the heck, it’s free ;-)
    I have no real issues with AAC at 128Kpbs or 256Kbps unless it is infested with DRM which I immediately remove by burning to AudioCD and re-ripping into iTunes as MP3.

    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?)
    For an impulse buy then around £10 (I did buy an album from iTunes for £7.99 recently).

    I think the biggest fans of music prefer it live, anyway. Now that cannot be copied and you might just buy a T-shirt …

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  11. Great post as always.

    1. Do you have too much music?

    No, but I have too many new choices available to me. I think the risk with on-demand services like Spotify is that people decide they don’t like something too early in the listening process. Most of my real favourite music took a while to learn to love, and rewards more and more as time goes on.

    2. How do you (sucessfully) find new music?

    Twitter ! More new input from there than any other place recently, just seeing what people with similar tastes are listening to.

    3. What formats do you listen to?

    AAC via iPod. I still haven’t found an mp3 I liked – well OK, the downloadable version of “In Rainbows” was OK – but the codec just isn’t clever enough. AAC is good enough for casual listening, but I always sigh with pleasure when there’s actually time to listen to a CD.

    4. Is audio quality a problem?

    I’m a Jekyl and Hide about this. On the one hand it pisses me off when people claim that mp3 is good enough, or worse that it’s actually preferable. But the pragmatist in me agrees with Johnny – ultimately this is a blip, and soon uncompressed will be the norm again. AM radio sounded pretty shitty, and that didn’t kill music…

    4. If you know you like a band, how much would you want to pay for a digital album?

    I won’t pay more than £4 for lossy audio, full stop. FLAC I might pay a little more, but for me to pay £10 or more I want physical product and decent packaging. What’s interesting, is I’d assumed that’s because of my age, but apparently even the kids want to own their own stuff.

    Keep up the great work !

    Ian

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