Thursday, June 28, 2007

Miscellaneous Music Musings

A couple of years ago, a singer-songwriter friend of mine attracted the attention of one of the Big Labels. They offered her a whack of money upfront, plus a contract she could drive a truck through (her lawyer confirmed this). She signed on the dotted line. A few weeks later a big shot from New York graced our village with his presence.

He'd been in the scene since the 60s and had a million stories. I caught a few of them second-hand, the most amusing of which involved Paul McCartney. This was in the 80s, and Sir Paul was in NYC laying down some music for his yearly album. Things mustn't have been going as smoothly as he wanted, because he abruptly announced, "I think what this session requires is a large bottle of Jack Daniels." He signalled for the gopher, who trotted over. McCartney opened his wallet and fished out ... a five-dollar bill. "The largest bottle of Jack Daniels," he emphasized.

The gopher looked helplessly at the producer, who gently pulled the gopher aside and discretely told him to use the company credit card. Then off he went. Mr. New York's theory behind this episode was simply that it had been so very many years since McCartney had purchased anything with cash that he simply had no clue what a bottle of Jack Dans actually cost.

ANYWAY. It's been a couple of years since that contract was signed, and odds are the Big Label didn't quite manage to make my friend a spoken name in your household. I recently asked her what she thought of the industry. "The industry?!" She snorted. "The industry doesn't have a clue. It's in a complete free-fall."

Indeed. This is the record industry's worst year of sales to date. According to this Rolling Stone article: "The record companies have created this situation themselves," says Simon Wright, CEO of Virgin Entertainment Group, which operates Virgin Megastores. While there are factors outside of the labels' control -- from the rise of the Internet to the popularity of video games and DVDs -- many in the industry see the last seven years as a series of botched opportunities. And among the biggest, they say, was the labels' failure to address online piracy at the beginning by making peace with the first file-sharing service, Napster. "They left billions and billions of dollars on the table by suing Napster -- that was the moment that the labels killed themselves," says Jeff Kwatinetz, CEO of management company the Firm. "The record business had an unbelievable opportunity there. They were all using the same service. It was as if everybody was listening to the same radio station. Then Napster shut down, and all those 30 or 40 million people went to other [file-sharing services]."

I'd love to put the blame solely at the feet of record companies, but let's not forget that Metallica deserves some credit, too. Here's the notorious Napster Bad video (language warning). Non-metal-heads might require a little context: the metal scene of the 80s and 90s grew in large part from kids joining pen-pal lists and mailing each other mixed tapes of their favourite bands. There was a day when Metallica's Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield not only endorsed the practise, but did it themselves. Then Napster came along and performed this function with a vengeance. Ulrich and crew were clearly displeased with the way this cut into their still-considerable profit margin. They may have won in court and by some miracle retained their fanbase, but they loaded (pun intended) the torpedo which sank the industry.

I agree with the article's premise that suing Napster was a fatal tactical error. I also regard iTunes copy-protection as invasive and malign. But I make it a point to avoid file-sharing, choosing instead to pay for my music in the hope that the musicians will get a little coin for their product.

I'll bang the drum for eMusic, one more time. $10 a month gets you 30 downloads with no copy-protection or any other computer-fouling nonsense. And the sound quality of their mp3s is surprisingly fine.

True, I once lamented the "thin" sound of the mp3. I'd downloaded Beneath This Gruff Exterior by John Hiatt & The Goners. When I burned it to CD and played it back, I thought there was some sort of "space" missing in the overall sound. Could the bass have been richer? Was there some mid-range layering I was missing?

I loved the music, so I finally bought the CD and gave it a spin in the car stereo as I drove home. For the next 20 minutes I courted death by reckless driving as I fished out the official CD and plugged in the eMusic disc, then swapped them again, and again and again. There was no discernible difference in sound. At home I put them on the master stereo and did the same exercise. No difference. I put on the Sennheisers. Same as it ever was.

I performed another experiment: I extracted the first track from the CD and compared its file size as an OGG to the file size of eMusic's mp3: 4.4 MB to 5.6, respectively. I ripped the OGG to mp3, and the file size of that was 4.6 MB. I don't know what any of that means, except that I now discard the notion that studio CDs somehow possess a sound quality lacking in eMusic's mp3 files.

Lately I've been taking the greatest pleasure in rediscovering jazz music. Those jazz musicians -- particularly in the 50s and 60s, God love 'em -- sure didn't mind putting out albums with only four or five (very long) songs. For a subscriber, that's an incredible value. Take something like Miles Davis's Blue Moods. All Music says the disc set the standard for its day, but that at 26 minutes and 51 seconds, the CD isn't much of a value. So far as I'm concerned, that's just four downloads out of a monthly 30. That's less than $.60 a track. Consider me sold.

Alright, time to wrap this up. My aforementioned friend is Brooke Miller, and she's coming out with new music on Canada Day.


DarkoV said...

I don't want to be a wise-ass with this question. I trust, implicitly, that the dangerous-to-your-fellow-drivers CD/MP# test successfully proved that it was safe to "now discard the notion that studio CDs somehow possess a sound quality lacking in eMusic's mp3 files."

All these music files you're downloading? They're all on your hard drive, right? Are they backed up anywhere? And, if not, is it worth backing up? I'm not trying to suggest anything here...just wondering how different folks handle this downloading stuff. I know my son burns a ton of the downloaded stuff but then, probbaly due to the smae sloppy Sharpie penned description on the CD-R's, loses their individuality in the floating piles of plastic shiny things.

Yahmdallah said...

I'm glad to read that you can't really tell the difference between well-ripped MP3s and the CDs, because 99% of the time, I can't either. Particularly, I have a DVD player that plays MP3 discs, which we love to put on on the weekends, because it plays all day without intervention, other than skipping a song you're not in the mood for.

Anyway, once I put in the CDs that I had ripped from and hopped back and forth between the MP3 and the CD, and if I noticed a difference (which was hardly ever), it was never enough to grouse about.

Further, if you don't like the equalization of the MP3, there are some great programs out there that can spiff them up (audacity is a nice freebie:, make them not so hollow, as you put it. Just always always preserve the original file, because sometimes you find your sweetened version doesn't sound that great on some systems.

darkov: Yes, back them up to CDs (not DVDs - they degrade faster and more dramatically than CDs). Further, don't write on anything but the hub, because the marker can cause the surface to degrade faster. Cross-index whatever you write on a hub to a list of what's on the CD for convenience if you want to. I usually use the name of one of the bands and the date. Make sure you store them vertically, because horizontal storage causes the CD to warp after time. Store them in a case and not a sleeve, which can rub the surface off or adhere. Finally, one of the guys at work whose job is to ensure the preservation of data suggested to me once that I "freshen" my burned CDs every five years - meaning copy the old one onto new ones. When they're a quarter apiece, that's not much of a financial setback.

Yahmdallah said...

The clear hub in the center, I mean.

trentreimer said...

My disappointment in learning that burned disc media has a finite shelf life left me a bitter man for a number of years. But "when you have lemons make lemonade" they say and indeed I was able to come up with a satisfactory solution, which while not nearly as practical as yahmdallah's method, it does ensure reliable storage for the new few centuries.

The is simply to print the binary output to paper, (double-sided since I am an environmentalist) and then store each song in its own binder in a fireproof safe.

After a while of reading all those ones and zeros you get a sense for the sounds they produce. Once I used Notepad to add a Kenyan gospel choir to a Leonard Skynard song. It's fairly trivial once you get the hang of it.

Whisky Prajer said...

TR - all those ones and zeros ... your solution sounds like an invitation to repetitive strain! I think I'll take Yahmdallah's route, thank you.

DV - until Yahmdallah spoke up, I was in the habit of burning the mp3s to DVD, and using the marker on the disc card, not the disc. Back-up is the issue with these things, of course. I've been flirting with Flash-cards, but even they have their limitations. I figure Y-man's method is the best we've got for the moment.

DarkoV said...

Thanks very much for all of your information. Indirectly, at least for me, it helps answer a major question for me. Seems downloading and burning and backing up (every 5 years, as your co-worker stated) is a major PITA, unless all that activity is something one really enjoys. Having been the victim (or stooge) of a few PC meltdowns, I'm a panic about backing up stuff and therefore not such a fan about the sheer amount of maintenance that a conscientious PC user has to put in.
As I'm thoroughly enjoying the sounds of one of the first CD's I bought over 12 years ago and not having to worry about backing it up, copying it, or even thinking I'd have to copy it 5 years from now, I think I'll stick with the ever-dwindling amount of folks who still buy CD's, while occasionally downloading and burning ephemeral music. You know, those songs that have a half-life of one summer.
Call me old-fashioned or just plain lazy, but just the idea that I'd have to re-burn CD's every 5 years makes me feel tired....
I don't know. It's not the cost of the burnable CD's, which, as you pointed out, is minimal. But the amount of time involved? There's a cost for that that I would not want to consider.

Really appreciate the detail of your explanation! I'm in the same possible self-delusional state as WP. When I buy a CD, I do think at least some of that money is going to the artist or even to the label, as I tend not to buy CD's released from major labels (not on purpose, just seems the musicians I like are on smaller labels).

Yahmdallah said...

I'd like to clarify that I buy CDs all the time. (Besides the artist getting paid, I like the liner notes, the physical presence of the CD, the CD art if it's cool - like NIN's latest that's heat sensitive and shows the label once it's been heated up in a player.)

I just rip them to make them mobile. I got a $25 "ipod shuffle" ( that runs 8 hours on one AAA battery (btw, you can download a couple CDs full of chillout music on the bottom of that page). And, as mentioned, I burn MP3 "mix tapes" for my MP3/DVD player hooked to my stereo (180 songs at one swoop in niiiiice).

Also, many artists are releasing editions with DVD versions of the album that are either 5.1 surround or uncompressed PCM tracks, or both. The difference in sound between those and CDs is equivalent to the difference in sound between a recording of a live concert and a live concert itself. It has to be heard to be believed, and those are worth the samolians.

I pretty much restrict my (redundant) backups to things I can't re-rip, such as songs I have a digital-only copy of. So, my back up effort isn't that huge.

Also, the type of burning software you use can make a huge difference. I use Nero, which has created only one "Christmas ornament" in 3 years, where Roxio and its Adaptec precursors would make 1 out of every 10 tries. And Nero's so fast, it copies an MP3 disc in about 5 minutes.

So, if you restrict your backups to stuff you can't re-rip, and have a good CD burning app, it can be mostly painless.

Btw, commercial CDs you buy can and do degrade. Especially ones that were made during the first 7 to 10 years of CD production. One of my Robert Plant CDs did something shocking - the print on the CD shrunk and pulled the sound layer apart. If you've got really old, non-replaceable (they don't make them anymore, it was a one-off, etc.) CDs, it's worth the time to back those up - at the very least as MP3 files.

DarkoV said...

Again, Mr. Y, I thank you for the well-pointed information.

I've got to tell you, though, I'm rueing the day I "donated" my thousands of vinyl LP's a decade ago. Pops and Scratches? Yep. But the shelf life was definitely over 20 years on this stuff.

DarkoV said...

I'm wonderng if I should be looking into acquiring a wine-fridge type contraption to store my current stock of CD's. I'm sure there's someone out there insane enough to build and sell something like that to nitwits like me.

Whisky Prajer said...

I'm trying to get a patent on a "CD wine-fridge" even as I type this....

yahmdallah said...

What's even cooler about LPs, is they now make turntables with a USB connection so you can hook them directly to your PC for nearly perfect sound.

I've replaced most of my faves, but if I hadn't, I'd be buying of those bad boys.

DarkoV said...

Yeah, I saw one of those and trying to convince a buddy to go halviesies with me because once you've done the'll be one of those relics in the house that'll give your ever-loving spouse some serious mental and house-space anguish ammunition.

Reporting from the trenches of marital bliss,

Darko V

Whisky Prajer said...

Yeah, there is absolutely no way you can make one of those babies look aesthetically pleasing in your home office (so far as any reasonable wife is concerned). Although part of the problem may be the introduction of milk crates full of LPs. "I thought we were done with those!" No no. Not by a long shot.