Category Archives: digital media

A few lost folders

Amongst all the folders with ripped CDs, the podcasts, the netlabels and other downloaded music, there is one single folder which contains all of my digital purchases. It is relatively small, since my new music purchases are still just about evenly split between CDs and digital downloads. One reason for this is that, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s clearly labelled “purchased tracks”, all the purchased albums would be indistinguishable from the rest of my collection. This is clearly not particularly satisfying, and not a great incentive to buy more digital purchases.

It’s as if digital purchases are intentionally ugly, barren and limited, in a ploy to drive people back to a time when the only distribution was via physical artifacts carrying that information. That, as everybody but some top recording industry execs knows, is not going to happen.

So use the opportunities that digital offers. There are some simple ways in which the industry should think differently about digital purchases to change the abysmal experience that buying digital presently is:

  1. It’s not just about. Sure, MP3 and AAC are the current standards, but it really isn’t a standard for purchasing music. While e.g. 320kbit/s MP3s are good enough for the majority of my listening situations, they’re by no means perfect quality. All you need to do is to compare some more or less random sounds like the clapping and other audience noise on live recordings with the uncompressed original – it’s not even close there. For other situations, I might actually be willing to sacrifice some audio fidelity for file size – but I’m unwilling to take the extra loss of audio quality that transcoding brings with it.
    So give me FLAC or some other losless format – and then also allow me to download another compressed format of my choosing so that I don’t have to do the encoding myself for immediate use.
  2. It’s not just a single download. Let me re-download my purchased music. It’s a license, after all, and the individual files shouldn’t matter. Being afraid of the miniscule misuse that people might engage in by sharing access codes doesn’t make sense compared with the immense increase in comfort and value that purchasers would receive. Offer me these downloads in whatever format I choose – and don’t limit this to those at the time of purchase. Future-proof my purchase.
  3. It’s not just local storage. Let me stream my purchases whenever I want. Turn it into from a purchase into a service. Being able to listen to my music from wherever there is an internet connection, without me having to set up anything,  is a huge differentiator from all the other files on my hard-drive.
  4. It’s not just the music. There’s album art (not at 64×64 pixels or some such ridiculous size), liner notes, lyrics, credits, artist photos. Vinyl albums and, to a lesser degree, CDs were about visual beauty as well. This has gotten completely lost with digital downloads – even though the visual designs are still produced for the physical release. So pack these in with my purchase. Large, high-quality JPEGS within a zip file are all right – no need to go out and invent special formats that end up being incompatible with most of my playback devices. I can view JPEGs on pretty much any device I consume music on. Simple does it here. But make it so that I like to browse my purchases, that there are things there for me to discover. Put an end to the barren waste of faceless MP3s that is my music folder.
  5. It’s not just data. Sure, it’s an electronic purchase, and there’s really neither need nor use for CDs or other physical media anymore. This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t like something physical to connect with my music. I’d still like to be able to do physical browsing of at least my most important albums – and I’d love for visitors to be able to do so as well. I want things to touch, things outside of my computers to remind me of music I love.
    So upsell me to something physical: little booklets with the cover art that I can have in rows on my shelves, a poster, a T-Shirt, a die-cast figure, bedsheets, coffee mugs – there are countless possibilities, and with print-on-demand and modern manufacturing techniques for small series of objects, a wide variety of items is not that difficult to have on offer without great initial outlay. If I really like the artist, the piece of music, and want to spend to show this, then give me the possibility to do so.
  6. It’s not just the present piece of music.This release is a part of a net: other releases by the artist, by the label, within the genre, live performances, merchandise, of the past, present and future.
    So sign me up for a notification for future events:  when the artist has a concert near where I live, a new release by the artist or on the label comes out,  the  new video that I can watch on youtube.
    This one sale may be the only point of contact with me – so exploit it. If the offers aren’t shoved in my face, I’ll gladly give up my data in return for something I like. This can be the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Just make it something about the purchase I made. Make me want to come back by offering me the next release at a slight discount.
    And should a continuous relationship be established, do things to reward me here, to wow me. Offer me a bonus track after I’ve bought three releases. Or how about a subscription to the output of your label? The entire back catalog for a fantastic price? Backstage access at a concert? The chance to name a track on the next release? Turn me from a buyer into a fan.
  7. It’s not just me. Music is a highly social thing. You can offer me to tweet my purchase, announce it on facebook, or via other social channels. This is all well and good – but it would be killer if anybody who received my recommendation got the possibility to listen to the recommended music once. Full tracks, with full control, at full quality, without having to jump through any hoops. Can this be abused? Sure, but then guess what: anybody who really wants your music for free can already do so. Creating goodwill, spreading the word, and making people fall in love with your music is so much more important than preventing a few unauthorized listenings. Scrap that, the term “unauthorized listening” itself should be abandoned. People listening to your music is always good. You want to extract value from these people, not prevent them from listening in the first place. Offer them lots of incentives to enter into a relationship with you – and there will be opportunities to do so.

Now some of these points are already being addressed. I can buy FLACs – but at a premium, and by far not of everything. Some shops allow re-downloads, but it’s still very much the exception. Streaming of purchases is being pioneered against, as usual, the fierce resistance of the recording industry. There are attempts at digital albums – but as a premium offering with the mentioned proprietary formats, which is just doomed to fail. I had a look, and one of the stores I download from offers me artist and label alerts – at least my user page says so. Despite having purchased a dozen albums there, I never noticed during the purchase process.

So it’s all more than a bit bit at the moment. So come on, music industry, make an effort. Go all in with digital, and use the possibilities it offers. It’s the second decade of the 21st century. Spending money on music should be fun again,  a journey of discovery, something that surprises and delights me. Not just some MP3s in a folder on my hard drive, as boring and indistinctive as all their unpaid brethren.



Filed under content, digital media

The content industry – crying ‘Wolf!’

As William Patry in his excellent book “Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars” states, most of what the content industry has been doing for the past decade is a campaign of spreading moral panic. They have consistently claimed that the end is nigh, and that the internet, piracy, and modern times are about to annihilate them. There is certainly no denying that times are changing. They always have.

Vaudeville is a sideshow now, hardly anybody listens to radio plays, you don’t need a band anymore to listen to music, and breaking news no longer needs to be printed as a special issue. Technology creates markets, and the next technology takes some of it away. Trying to halt this development is foolish, anti-competitive, and most often, fortunately doomed.

Yet that is exactly what the content industry has been trying again and again. From campaigns against the player piano, which was going to destroy music in America, to statements to congressional committees that the VCR would be to the movie industry what the Boston strangler was to women, every new development signaled the end if it wasn’t stopped. None of them did when they weren’t.

So it’s always good to see reports, or read about them, that make clear that life goes on for the content industry as a whole, such as the one referenced in this ars technica article. As this, and lots of other studies and statistics make clear, there is change, there is redistribution, and the pie may shrink some or grow some, but its certain that not everybody has turned to piracy, people still have a budget for content, and there is still money to be made with the right content and business model.

So the next time the content industry demands that we break the internet to prevent piracy, to shut down people’s internet connections based on mere accusations of wrongdoing, or any of the other insanity they are in the habit of asking nowadays, let’s all remember that there is no real reason for their panic. We’ll still be able to enjoy content we pay for if we ignore their cries and don’t buy into the world behind the looking glass that they want us to create.

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Pioneer One Percent

Internet distribution has not only opened up possibilities for distribution outside of the established channels – it’s also opened up the possibility of zero-infrastructure distribution. Put something you’ve produced up on a filesharing service such as BitTorrent, and if it becomes popular the consumers themselves will provide the bandwidth for the distribution.

A project that is using this method of is the independently produced science fiction series “Pioneer One”.  The 720p version of the fifth episode has, at the time of writing, about 25,000 seeders. (For torrent size, that is on par with a popular torrent of a current episode of a major TV hit show.) The website claims over 250,000 downloads for the episode, and 3.5 million downloads total. All distributed at next to no cost for the makers.

Of course there still has to be a budget. Cameras are cheaper than ever, the cost for film material and development has vanished with digital production, and the technical means for post-production are there in the form of a standard PC and free software. Everything outside of the technology hasn’t joined the race to zero cost.  Even if all people involved in a project donate their time, there are still items like paying for props and locations, renting lights and other auxiliary equipment, catering and so on. Film production is amazingly complex and expensive.

There are quite a few ways of raising money on the internet for projects like this, and “Pioneer One” is employing a few of them. You can pay for online streaming access, with different price points that give you better quality and added digital incentives. Then there are the donations that give you things up to producer credits and mentions on the eventual Blu-Ray/DVD release. So far only 2100 tickets have been sold, and $ 33,000 collected.

This is a conversion rate in the range of 1%. I have no idea whether this is good or bad for an internet media project. If it is about average, then it might just be that you need viewer numbers on par or in excess of that of a conventional TV show to get equivalent budgets. Crowd-support is not an easy thing.

The packages on offer start out low enough at $ 5 that every fan of the series should be able to afford one.

The average payment/donation was around $ 16, with the last ten contributions listed showing only two $ 5 ones and one $ 50 one (and being relatively close to the average). So once somebody is willing to support the project financially, they are probably willing to spend more than the bare minimum contribution amount. How much more may then just be a question of clever incentivizing. “Pioneer One” is not doing too well on that. I spent $ 10 after watching the first episode, but that was a gesture of goodwill. The silver ticket I bought gives me nothing I want over the episode itself that I torrented (and I watched the torrent instead of streaming, which just doesn’t work while on a train). Even more importantly, the  $ 50 and $ 100 donations are hardly used. Credits may be appealing to some, and it’s possible somebody gifts a stream to a friend, but generally it might the web comics route of offering some physical goods such as T-shirts at a significant markup over cost seems like a better idea.  These are on offer, but not linked to in any obvious way from the streaming website that I first landed on. Clearly there’s room for improvement here.

The series itself? I’ve only just watched the first couple of episodes. The limited budget and production means generally are visible at every point. They’re keeping location shots to a minimum, going for lots of close-ups instead. The dialogue could have needed a more professional script doctor, the acting is often so-so, and even on no budget, the initial voice-over is really, really bad. But overall? There’s a story there, or at least enough hints at one, it’s got a heart, and it’s in the right place. It’s amazing how often this is lacking in modern series storytelling. The minimalist means  also lead to a style that is often refreshingly relaxed. There’s something to be said for a complete lack of Hollywood show-off and just telling what you have to tell. And, most importantly: it’s a SF series, and there aren’t too many of them around to watch. I’ll certainly watch the other episodes once I find the time. If that keeps up the standard, and they offer me a nice coffee mug, I’ll be happy to contribute more, to do my small part to keep the show alive.

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Technology giveth …

… and in the case of the transition from VHS to DVD it gave plenty. There is no respect in which DVDs are not vastly superior to VHS tape. Much better picture and sound quality, faster access times, extra soundtracks, optional subtitles,  and all in a smaller form factor. DVDs are not just a better, they are a really good physical storage medium. The transition was swift, and nobody looked back.

The transition from DVD to streaming and downloads is a much less clear-cut case – and not one of just more and better. There are birthing problems such as size of repertoire, DRM is a bother (but hey, you’re renting, not buying, so less bad than with music or books), and the pricing is often unrealistic. But there’s no denying some of the obvious advantages, such as the huge convenience of being able to instantly access the movie you want when you want it.

Except for the fact that I actually can’t. Germany is one of the countries with a large enough market that the atrocity if dubbing movies and TV programmes into German makes economic sense. We also have a deep tradition of doing so. What gets released on the German market if not the movie I want – it’s an adaptation, and almost universally a tarnished one. The DVD age brought with it multiple audio tracks – and usually one of these was the original audio. There were also subtitles that I could use for anything non-English.

Technically multi-track audio is not a problem with online video, and neither are subtitles. But where technology giveth, it also taketh away: Currently, there is virtually no inclusion of the original audio in the German market. There’s the very occasional “original version”, advertised separately, but this falls far short of making the overall selection a viable proposition. With the markets for online video strictly segregated along national borders, the only workaround would be a VPN tunneling provider and the uncertain possibility of paying for a British or Irish service with a German credit card. That’s a couple too many hoops for me for the time being. For now, for my legal consumption of video,  I’m stuck with the anachronism of rotating optical discs.

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Gaps in my diet

I don’t watch television or listen to radio as part of my media diet. Once upon a time that would have meant not consuming any content produced for either. There were no alternative release channels for broadcast content.  Today, with the close-to-zero overhead and the low costs of online streaming and downloads, abstaining from broadcast media is increasingly merely a decision against this particular form of distribution.

What made me take this decision is the end of the tyranny of place and time. You needed to be in front of a device with reception at the time the programme was aired. I enjoy the freedom of watching and listening when I want, where I want and on the device I have with me at the time. Air times are now as absurd to me as the notion of a book that you can only read at preset times.

What gets lost is, of course, the social focus that programmes provided. You knew that anybody who was into a certain programme would have watched it at the same time, and thus assume it as the basis for a conversation. Now such basis has to be established on a case-by-case basis. Maybe this is something that social networks are going to ameliorate or fix. I can only speculate – there is no way yet to work around the effects of me not being on Facebook.

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Extending the electronic dictionary

They are wonderful things – electronic dictionaries. No bulky lumps of paper to carry and much quicker look-up are a given in any implementation. Beyond that, features vary. Some implement more of the features of a paper version, e.g. underlining and highlighting within entries. Others expand over the paper version using on the fact that storage is cheap, e.g. the integration of a big corpus of examples of usage in the Collins Cobuild Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (a godsend to all of us non-native speakers who want to be really sure of actual usage). Then there’s, of course, the feature of playing back a recording of a word – which already goes beyond anything that’s possible with paper. What is unused in any dictionary that I’ve used so far is the ability to record user interaction with the program and transform this into extra value.

A simple yet very effective application here would be to support the user in actually learning the words he looks up. The program could easily keep track of the words the user searches for, and transforms these into flashcards for the user. More frequently looked up words could be presented with greater frequency as part of the review, and a user looking up a word again would mean that it’s back in the current deck for review. Since some dictionaries contain information about word frequency or word importance, these factors could be included in the weighing of which cards to present, and at which frequency.

Sure, I’ve seen an implementation that allows the user-initiated transformation of an entry into a flash card, but that’s not something you really do every time you quickly look up a word, just as you didn’t write a paper flash card of every word you looked up. It’s exactly the kind of easy-to-automate task that computers are there for – and a missed opportunity for the makers of electronic dictionaries.

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Digital Patina

With a digital music file you lose the extra experience that used to come with purchased music: the cover, lyrics, liner notes and photos. The pitifully small, single image of  embedded cover art is in no way a replacement for this. I’m actually amazed that the only real efforts at replicating the experience so far have been proprietary formats such as Apple’s ‘iAlbum’ (or whatever they call it – I refuse to use iTunes unless at the gunpoint of absolute necessity). Some standard JPEGs of the album art as part of the downloaded folder would be a start, and should be the standard.

But even that could not replicate the immediacy that having to actually take the vinyl or polycarbonate disc carrying the music data out of the cover and insert it into a playback device every time you want to listen to a record has. And there’s certainly no way to replicate the patina that these physical data carriers and their enclosures accrue over time. I own a second-hand copy of Neil Young’s “Harvest”, slightly yellowed with age, well-taken care of, not a scratch on the disc, but played so often by the first owner that the grooves are worn out and the sound has changed quite noticeably. It is a testament to the importance the album had for that person, and so to me gives it meaning beyond that which the industrially manufactured product initially had. CDs already don’t do anything comparable – but I at least have a couple with interesting stickers that attest to their provenance. Digital goods don’t age or otherwise change at all. The files on my hard drive are the same as those on all the other hard drives out there. A hard drive crash just means restoring from backup, or copying from somewhere else, without any loss or gain in what I have.

Maybe this contributes to why digital releases of forgotten tapes, lost treasures and obscure home recordings from past decades fascinate me so much when I come across them. They have the same non-surface as all the other music files on my hard drive, but the recordings themselves have a history. Their being lost and found imbues them with a personality that the common digital file lacks. The mere fact that I’m able to listen to the music, which is a given with ordinary recordings, is special already. While there is no less scarcity here than with any digital good, the backstory makes them appear scarce. That is the only patina that digital goods can have – more information, which changes how the user experiences them.



I almost wanted to write above that digital goods don’t age, but just become obsolete. Now almost nobody I know owns a functioning record player anymore, CD players are starting to become rare, and CD-ROM drives are also about to go the way of the dodo. I guess I’ll take the problem of finding an MP3, ogg, WAV or AAC codec in a decade or two to play back my current music collection over the challenge of finding a hardware player to read a physical format any day. After all, there are even players for something as obscure as C64 .SID music files, and there are orders of magnitudes more users for the current music files formats.

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