I love listening to music. Sometimes I'd rather listen to a good album than record a good album. Less stress, more fun and you can pause it any time.
The problem I've been having lately is actually getting a chance to give a fair listen to a lot of the music that comes through Tape Op for review. This might seem odd, or plain stupid, but record labels are now in the practice of lessening the listening experience available to the music reviewer — the very same people who are trying to convey to the public why they should purchase and enjoy this very music in the first place.
Some of this whining about "lack of fidelity" from the standpoint of a studio professional might seem like an obvious complaint. I have meticulously recorded, mixed and followed though mastering many projects, only to hear CD-R burned versions of these records being sent out for press purposes where none of the stereo spread or bandwidth of the original masters is intact. I do think that the average person can perceive when digital audio playback isn't performing at its peak — when bits are getting mangled or when data is getting mercilessly compressed. And if they can perceive this horror, how in the world am I supposed to listen to these releases and comment upon the recording process?
In the wonderful world of Digital Rights Management (DRM), music "theft", album pre-release leakage and shrinking label budgets there are many obstacles for anyone attempting to "review" music. In the traditional model, the journalist (that's me) used to get a pre-release copy of the album to be reviewed on CD (early on in my writing career I used to get copies on LP, 7" and even cassette). These days I'm receiving music under conditions that would appall most artists, producers, engineers and mastering labs. I doubt that most artists even know how poor their new record sounds by the time it gets played on a journalist's stereo.
Lately some labels have been hooking journalists up with MP3 downloads. That's cool for my iPod — at least I can grab the music and listen to it for a while. But man, the audio quality of these MP3s is certainly nothing like what the mastering engineer was listening to. The sound is even far worse than the 256 kbps, AAC encoded tracks I burn from CDs to put in my iPod. I've found myself enjoying the music that's on these records, however I rarely review them especially since there's no physical presence to remind me to do the review. The lack of album credits makes it hard to say who produced, recorded, mastered or had anything to do with a release. Matador Records sends out most of their releases this way, hence I was unable to really listen to the new Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks CD (Real Emotional Trash) until the band gave me one while on tour. Thanks guys! It actually sounds pretty good, unlike the MP3 version.
At least an MP3 download is better than the streaming version of an album. Yup, reduced bandwith, compressed streaming audio. Grainy, nasty sound and usually worse than MP3s. I was asked to be the spokesperson for interviews with press after working on Elliott Smith's New Moon CD last year. The only way writers could hear the CD was by streaming the double album. Needless to say, most people couldn't remember what they'd heard, or which song was which. Oh well. At least it didn't leak before the release date.
How about the "partial songs". What's that? Where you get to hear only half the song before it cuts off rudely. The new Stereolab CD, Chemical Chords, was sent to us as a download with all the tracks cut in half like this. You can imagine, you're getting into the shimmery drone goodness and then, "WHAM", the song stops. I deleted it immediately. I'll be happy to go buy a proper version later.
One way to deter journalists from uploading their pre-release CDs for everyone to have for free (oh yeah, I really wanted to do that) is to overlay a big, booming voice that says, "For promotional use only." I'm not fucking kidding. In this case the CD audio is quieter than the actual release, and this announcement has been overdubbed on top of the stereo tracks all through the songs. Wow. The new "RZA as Bobby Digital" CD (Digi Snacks) came in this week. I wondered why it sounded pretty tinny for a rap CD until the big voice boomed, "For promotional use only." I thought about writing a review that took the viewpoint that this was an intentional part of the music. Ha ha, I'm so funny aren't I? No Digi Snacks for me I guess. I promptly broke the CD-R in half and threw it away since it was covered in warnings that I could get in trouble and the CD was watermarked with my Social Security Number or some shit. Like anyone really wants to hear an album with a guy going, "For promotional use only" over all the songs.
How about those fantastic CDs with the DRM encryption, which won't allow them to be played in a computer? "Hey look, these don't even meet the Red Book standard." The labels initially tried to do this with commercial CDs, and sold them in stores to unwary consumers. Some CDs even installed "rootkits", thus compromising the computer's security! How awesome, "I just bought a CD but I can't burn it into my computer for my iPod." Hell, sometimes it's even difficult to eject the damn CD. I've been left wondering if I'll be in the computer store asking, "Yeah, can I get you to replace my combo player so I can listen to real music?" Now this heinous encryption is reserved for promo copies, thus journalists are left with CDs that won't play in their computer, which is most likely where they're sitting when they attempt to write album reviews. The new Death Cab For Cutie CD, Tiny Steps (I think that's the title. It's hard to remember because it's sitting in my car), is unable to play in my computer because of this awesome invention. I took it out to my car and so far have heard it twice. Is it good? I dunno. I was too busy driving to really listen, and the stock speakers in my Toyota aren't all that great. So there it sits — if anyone needs a pre-release version of any CDs on Atlantic Records, just come over and break into my car — most likely it'll be there for the taking. I did think about hooking my Pro Tools Mbox to the S/PDIF output of the CD/DVD player in my living room, recording the output stream as AIFF files and then breaking it back into songs and dropping it into iTunes. Or maybe I'll just go buy a copy of the album when it comes out — and then I won't feel obligated to review it.
So there it is. Why the "CD Reviews" column gets smaller every issue, why record labels are stupid and why publicists have a thankless job. We put all our hard work into making the best records we can, and the end result is compromised to this degree. Great. I'm gonna pull out an old vinyl copy of Coltrane's A Love Supreme and enjoy some uncompromised music now.