Friday, August 17, 2007

8.16.07 BACK IN BLANK

This article originally ran in the 8.16.07 issue of Metroland....

Back in the day, we all listened to the same music. Maybe we didn’t all like the same music, but there was a commonality, a culture. Everybody knew the No. 1 hit of the day, because it was ubiquitous. And this was so even at a time when media wasn’t bashing your brains in with always-on messaging. Music was on the radio, and radio was in the kitchen and in the car and under your pillow. And music was on Ed Sullivan, and we all watched together.

Of course this was a function of a profound lack of choices, and the fact that so much very good music made it to our collective consciousness was more because of the lack of consolidation of the music industry and dumb luck than anything else. And it’s hard to argue that the increased choices brought on by the technological innovations of the last thirty years, and particularly the last ten, are a bad thing.

Still, the fragmentation and individualization of music listening and acquisition has all but destroyed the collective listening experience. I look at the music charts in the newspaper and am often dumbfounded by what’s there. Groups and singers are going multiplatinum that I’ve never heard, or heard of. Not that top 40 is completely dead, mind you; I just got back from a vacation where I got a heavy dose of some kind of “hit radio” thanks to a rental car with Sirius and a 13 year-old dominating the knobs. It wasn’t all bad. Some was blatantly phony and manufactured, but then, we had the Monkees, right?

But through all the divisions, at least the music was accessible if you wanted to go get to it. Music superstores like Tower Records could be counted on to stock everything. The internet, at first, broadened this vista, and virtually every obscure import death-metal or electronica CD could be found at Amazon or GEMM, just a point and click away.

But the move away from CDs is changing this dramatically. The move to downloadable music has now made the simple act of acquiring music a sometimes complex, maddening, and ridiculous pursuit.

Two things recently highlighted the absurdity of all this. Two weeks ago it was announced the venerable Australian group AC/DC’s albums would be available for download for the first time ever. The catch? The albums would be available exclusively on Verizon’s V-Cast store. Which means that you must have a “V CAST Music enabled phone, Verizon Wireless Calling Plan, and to be within the V CAST coverage area.” The catch-within-the-catch? Since AC/DC is only allowing complete album downloads, and not single songs, the downloads are too big to go wireless into your phone, so you have to download them to your home computer, and then jack them into your phone. Somehow.

Now, I like AC/DC as much as the next person, but all this makes me feel like I’m on some highway to hell. V-Cast coverage area? Full albums? And, oh, the V-Cast system doesn’t work on Macs, so if you are one of those self-respecting individuals smart enough to buy an iBook or the like, then you are about to be SoL, and I salute you. Unless, of course, you go buy the damn AC/DC CD and rip it. Or just go to Limewire and steal it, which, as it turns out, is by far the easiest thing to do.

And then this week Universal, the biggest of the major labels, followed EMI and announced that it would start selling a big chunk of its catalog without any DRM, that is, without built-in restrictions on how many copies you can make, or where you can play the music. The catch? DRM-free music would be available pretty much everywhere but at the iTunes store!

I guess this is Universal’s way of punishing Steve Jobs, or something. Job’s has had a tempestuous relationship with all of the labels over things like DRM and the iTunes store’s straight-up 99-cent pricing. So Universal licenses DRM-free music (which Jobs wants) for 99-cent downloads (the industry standard that Jobs created) to everybody but Jobs.

Who really gets hurt here? You do, of course, and the artists as well. You’re not going to be bothered with multiple retail stores, some weird damn cell phone plan, and the use of music to herd customers from one place to another. You’ll listen to something else. Or if you really want the music, like I said, it’s infinitely easier just to steal the song or get it from a friend than to jump through the hoops that are part of some insane “strategic partnership” between distant media giants jockeying for position in “the new digital space.” Indeed, stealing is a dirty deed. But you must admit that, if you are careful, it can be done dirt cheap.

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