Wednesday, August 12, 2009

8.13.09 The Next Mini-Disk

This article originally appeared in the 8.12.09 issue of Metroland

Word has it the big record companies are working on some sort of “bundled package” so they can sell you complete albums via digital download. Of course, they already can do this, except most people, acting rationally, only buy single songs online. The labels want to change this. The “system”, reportedly named “CMX” will include digitized copies of the album covers, liner notes, lyrics, and videos. It’s also reported that the “system” may not be compatible with the iTunes store, so that Apple is also working on it’s own bundled album package.

Ever since the late 60’s, when albums rather quickly replaced singles as the music format of choice, there’s been an uncomfortable market and practical balance between the album and its component parts. Great bands can fill an album with great songs that in sequence tell a narrative or just plain sound great together. Most artists, though, can’t match the transcendence of those one or two hit songs, and wind up loading albums with banal, second-rate filler. In the days of milk and vinyl, we all bought the albums anyway.

It got worse in the 80’s with the transition to CDs. Now, instead of the 40 minutes of sound on an LP, artists had 75 minutes to fill up, leading to the release of mountains of filler tracks that would have been righteously scrapped in the age of vinyl. And the record companies colluded to keep the price of these mysterious, shiny little disks way too high, but we bought them anyway, often buying a CD with 12 songs we didn’t want to replace the vinyl record with 7 songs we didn’t want. And the record companies made a fortune selling us, sometimes twice, music we didn’t want.

[Obviously I’m making some broad generalizations here. Sure there have been wonderfully remastered CDs, CDs with previously unreleased bonus tracks, all sorts of things that have come out that are great. And of course, what’s filler and what’s not is subjective: stuff I might like you might find vile, and I’ll hold my opinion on that crap you listen to. Moving on.]

The market pushed back the best it could in this CD-based world, with the chart dominance of the “Now! That’s What I call Music” singles compilation series, greatest hit packages, and hit-centric movie soundtracks. But it wasn’t nearly enough.

And then along came MP3s, Napster, iTunes, and the rest, and suddenly singles were back. It became a singles world again. Consumers demanded it. And got it, legally or otherwise.

The genie got out, and now they’re trying to put it back in again with these “bundled systems.” And it won’t work. The “packages,” the “systems,” whatever these things are that purport to repackage full digital albums, will make a little money for a handful of artists, but will work on the same principle that the old CDs did: people will pay for a few songs they want, and a bunch more they don’t. Most people will likely ignore the “bundle” and grab the song they want. And if the song isn’t extractable from the “bundle”? Then the whole shebang is DOA. People won’t be told what they can and can’t do with their music any longer. New rules, babe.

As for the graphics, the lyrics, etc.? All those great “extras”? Maybe good for the 15-20 year-old demo, but that’s about it. Dunno about you, but I stopped looking at liner notes when CDs hit. There’s such little pleasure to be had from looking at those dinky little booklets, and there’s even less from looking at something on my computer screen, or god forbid, my telephone.

Who knows what the CMX and Apple’s digital albums are going to look like or be compatible with, or if or how they’ll restrict consumers’ ability to consume music. The thing is, there’s already a fine workable bundling “system” out there. It’s the ubiquitous zip file, and it’s used by the exploding number of music bloggers out there who are posting full albums online for download for free. The best of them post super high-quality MP3s of the best versions of an album available (new remastered versions, rips of Japanese vinyl audiophile versions, etc.), along with hi-rez scans of all the album art, all in one downloadable file.

I guess the problem with zip files is that the consumer can easily cherry pick favorite songs (oh, mercy!) and even rearrange the sequence of the songs (utter sacrilege!).

And the graphics? Well your preferences may vary, but I haven’t looked at, much less saved, a single liner note or album cover on my computer. Why waste the space? If I wanna know something about an artist or see what he/she looks like, I hit the Web.

So, expect the CMX, whatever the hell it is, to go the way of the mini-disk. Nice try folks, but the train left the station a long, long time ago.


At 3:09 PM, Blogger jamesl1960 said...

The last column of yours I read was a veiled hagiograhy/suckup of the "free" author/wired editor guy. 'Wired'? It really pissed me off when you used terms like 'tone deaf' and 'intellectually dishonest' to describe the books detractors. Dude, you played in Blotto. And I am guessing you knew that the most publicized critique was from Cuban, an internet billionaire, and not the 'cult of the amateur', 'internet failure' guy. "cult.." was a visionary book by the way.. And Gladwell, who in my book is a bad joke, was just continuing his monumental project of raising the failure to make the is/ought distinction to the status of cognitive imperative. Your entire column output can be read as a failure to make this distinction also, in my respectful opinion. Technophilia is really creepy.

Anyway, i just read this latest column and once again you break out with the 'rational people of course prefer buying singles to albums because most artists suck' formulation. I submit that in order for you to believe this, you must be listening to the wrong sub-genres of music. I submit that once one reachs about 25 one developes a personal heuristic model for identifying artists, composers, producers and labels or(sub)genres, the soundscape/concepts of which are aligned with your own enough, that you know BEFORE you hear the record that there is a very good chance you will LOVE all the music on the disc. I will randomly try to list the last 20 cd's I have purchased. I really, truly love every track on all these cd's. This should give you a path around the is/ought fallacy your column continually buttresses.

Berta Rojas - Intimate Barrios
Ceu - Vagorosa and Ceu
Lucia Pulida - luna menguante
Rokia Traore - TCHAMANTCHE
Dave Douglass - Moonshine and Keystone
Concha Buika - Mi Nina Lola
Luciana Souza - Duos 2
Alas No Axis - Houseplant and Dogs of Indifference and Alas NO Axis
Frisell - Floratone, Trio with Carter and Motian, Unspeakable, the Intercontinentals
Cuong Vu - It's Mostly Residual and Vu-tet
Nik Bartsch - Holon
Oumou Sangare - Seya
Nils Petter Molvaer - Hamada
Arve Henriksen - Cartograhy (holy fuck)
Supersilent - 8
Rosa Passos - Romance and the 'Rosa' solo cd (my personal numero uno), and the one with ron carter 'Entre Amigos'
Zap Mama - Recreation
Keith Jarrett - Yesterdays and The Carnegie Hall Concert ('06)
Cibelle - The shine of dried eletric leaves
Adam Rudolph - Dream Garden
Burial - Burial
All Fennesz, All Bjork, The whole of 'the agriculture' label's output especially the barbecue beets comps and Olive's Bodega and live discs
3 Na Massa - 3 Na Massa
Sonantes - sonantes
Kassin + 2 - Futurismo
Potato and Totico (must be included on any cd list, of any kind)
The Radian records.. it just goes on and on all miles all coltrane all weather report all sade all arthur blythe all wayne shorter.

Damn bro, just dump the juvenalia and shit is much easier.

At 4:46 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Gotta be Keepnews!
Hot damn!
Point 1: If everybody bought your playlist (and if the record companies promoted your playlist), everything wouldn't be so AFU.
Point 2: Cult of Amateur was a total PoS, it was like listening to neocons
Points 3-6: give me a little time, like I need to look up "heuristic" and shit


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