Tag Archives: digital music

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.

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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.

 

PS:

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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