The first time I heard an MP3 I was completely unimpressed. I had received a CD of tracks from a new, hopeful digital music web site (now long gone) at a music conference tradeshow. Hillary Johnson and I sat down and listened to some of the tracks, presumably converted from original 44.1 CDs to MP3 encoding and then back to CD. The songs sounded grainy, flat and worse than cassettes to us.
Recently I was visiting New Orleans and hanging with John Fischbach of Piety Street Studios when John told me how he had hooked up the new Apple iTunes service and was buying songs over the Internet for 99 cents each. In my mind I had relegated the world of music downloading to college kids and bored slackers, so this revelation from a man a few years my senior made me feel like I was possibly writing something off that I should be paying attention to.
I bought an Apple iBook soon after, to help me with editing Tape Op, and while preparing to go on a short business trip wondered if I could load CDs into the MP3 player and avoid carrying a bunch of albums with me. I skeptically opened up iTunes and loaded in the new Radiohead album and some Pink Floyd. Upon playback, I was surprised. The songs didn't sound totally ruined, and how convenient to have tunes loaded in my computer for travel. I burned another bunch of CDs in for the trip (Dead Can Dance, Floyd, Eno, Guided By Voices, Joy Division, King Tubby, The Beatles, etc.) and got excited about being able to listen to all of this stuff. I even bought a $19 speaker set with baby subwoofer that I could carry in my luggage (didn't sound half bad either) and threw in a pair of Ultrasone Trackmaster headphones (which I can't recommend highly enough).
Somehow this technology got me excited about listening to music again. What songs would I put in the computer? What mix of tunes would make a good shuffle selection? Then I decided to investigate the iTunes web site. I downloaded iTunes 4, as the program that came with the computer wouldn't allow access to the "music store". What I found was an easy-to-use web site that allowed 99-cent downloads of songs, with a discount for purchasing full albums. Not necessarily cheap, but simple and straight-ahead. No joining any stupid service and fairly unlimited use once you bought the music. I loaded a few tracks out of the mostly mainstream catalog and went on my trip.
Upon returning home I decided to hook the audio output of my laptop to my home stereo. At first it seemed really weird to be selecting songs off of my computer, but I started making playlists with various themes to them and putting the iTunes in shuffle. It was like a radio station without ads and bum tracks. Pretty cool. My wife even got into it, despite her initial horror at what I called "The Future of Music Listening", loading CDs in and making her own playlists. It's sometimes all wrong when you hear What's Going On or The Dark Side of the Moon out of sequence, but the changing of context can also bring previously "hidden" tracks to the fore, turning me on to music I already had but never noticed. It's especially revealing with compilation records, where you can delete the duds and dig the great songs you may have passed by — plus it's easy to see who the artist or song is on screen.
Not much later I decided to investigate the world of "peer-to-peer" file-sharing, or stealing, as the RIAA likes to call it. After much frustration in finding a Mac-orientated file- sharing program (Limewire), I searched around for tracks on there. What I found was a wealth of b-sides, live tracks, pirated albums and more. Who cared about the albums that I could purchase in a store? I was looking for rarities. Well, after a number of unsuccessful downloads (I'm on a modem, dammit!) I only had a few tracks to show for it.
So what I'm asking for is a "legal" site where all those b-sides, compilation tracks, bonus songs, fan-only releases, ummm -"underground" bands and such would be available for download. I would happily pay for 15 hard-to-find Kate Bush b-sides if I knew that after downloading they would sound okay and not be cut off at the end. It would be like the ultimate cool record store, full of things you couldn't find elsewhere. Maybe even some "bootleg" stuff would see official release when the artists realized they could make some download dough off of them. I understand that iTunes is young, but it's sad that I can't even find anything I've recorded in it, let alone anything other than the normal album fare from the artists they carry, besides a few "exclusive" tracks. It's like digging through the racks of the most unhip record store you've ever seen! I've heard iTunes is branching into PC world soon, and that they are open to "indie" labels working with them. We'll see.
I've gone from scoffing at this world to watching it with keen interest. And it's even changing the way I listen to music. A new world awaits us around the corner once again.
Postscript 1: I recently received a "Cactus Encoded" promo CD, which led me on a search of what Cactus is. Cactus Data Shield is a technology developed by Israel's Midbar Tech (now owned by Macrovision). It prevents the music from being played in a computer drive (I had to push a paper clip in the CD drawer to get this CD out). Apparently portions of the audio blocks are replaced with control data blocks, causing CD players to ignore the control data and error correct the audio. Computer CD drives get confused and can't read them, and Midbar claims that copies of the CDs will just be pure noise. Supposedly this will keep the music from entering the dreaded realm of peer-to-peer file sharing. I tried making a copy in a standalone home CD-R burner — when I attempted to play it in my computer I got bits of staccato guitar noise but the copy did play fine in my standard home CD player. There was a story a few years back about BMG receiving so many complaints over the fact that the new Natalie Imbruglia CD wasn't playable in computer CD players that they re- issued the album without the Cactus encoding. Great idea — sell products with built in imperfections that don't deliver what the consumers want using a technology several years old that people have been complaining about the whole time. Genius. -LC
Postscript 2: I wanna make a quick plug for the folks at Weed. <www.weedshare.com> These guys came out to this years TapeOpCon and it seems like they could be onto a good thing. They have a file sharng systems that goes something like this: Three free listens to a song, after that if you like it , which is a good assumption since you've listened to it three times, you need to buy it. 50% of the purchase goes to the artist, 30% to the person who forwarded the file to you, 10% to whoever sent it them and 5% to the person who sent it to them. The idea is legit file sharing and distribution that seems fair so the incentive to steal is gone. It's peer to peer that's profitable for all parties: Artist and listener, while the third party, akathe Major Labels, are taken out of the picture. -JB