Nicolas314

All my geeky stuff ends up here. Mostly Unix-related

Music in 2014

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Got to meet old-time friends this Christmas and I was amazed to discover that many of them are still die-hard fans buying all of their music on audio CDs. Guys: we are not living in 2014 and you are still buying physical objects to listen to music? Say again?

I must have given up on audio CDs about 15 years ago when mp3s starting flowing around. It first started with dedicated web sites distributing sound files (aiff or au format first, then mp3). The thing snowballed very quickly and then we had Napster and Kazaa to download all of our stuff through our glorious 33k US Robotics modems.

Truth be told, Internet sharing was not the biggest source. I owned about 300 audio CDs at that time, and most of my friends had between one hundred and one thousand music CDs at home. One day we started encoding all of them (using CDex) and circulated hard drives fully loaded with tons of music.  After a few months we had all gathered more music than we possibly could listen to in our awake moments for the next decades. Internet came as an extra source for very recent albums or stuff you could not find in brick-and-mortar stores: bootlegs, one-of-a-kind albums, and little-known artists.

I purchased some of the first portable MP3 players in 1998 and hooked one to my stereo. That was probably the last year I actually inserted a physical disc into a CD reader.

Is that deviant? I do not think so. Let me take an example based on reasonable assumptions:

– Apple’s iPod Classic offers 160GB of storage
– A song is 3-min long on average
– Albums contain 10 songs on average
– Songs encoded in 128k take up 1MB/min on average

Hence, an iPod Classic contains about 5,000 albums.

Assuming albums are priced 10 euros on average, this represents 50,000 euros worth of music on a device currently priced around 200 euros.  I cannot figure somebody who stores 5,000 CDs at home and would be willing to encode them one by one, or somebody who would be willing to spend 50k on a music collection. Seriously: has anyone ever filled up an iPod with only legally-acquired music? How many iPod Classic users have actually spent so much time or money on their content? If there ever was a business model based on the assumption that people would pay for the content they listened to, it is obviously unaware of those very basic facts.

Music is not a luxury or a commodity. It is part of our human culture and I would go as far as saying it is part of our daily needs. You can survive without music, like you could survive without speaking or bathing, but it is not going to be fun. The only government I ever heard about that decided to prohibit music were the Talibans between the Russian and the American occupations, and they did not end too well.

You can certainly control, tax, and rule the distribution of physical objects like audio CDs and stereos, but you cannot possibly have any effect on people singing in their showers, friends having a gig, or people who just want to dance to something else but deep silence. Music is a form of language, it is meant to be expressed and shared in order to be alive.

CDs are a convenient way to distribute and share music among humans, not the only possible one. We now all have high-bandwidth Internet connections from home and mobile devices, but we can also share huge collections of music face-to-face by just carrying a 500GB hard drive around. Since music wants to be shared, anything that goes into this direction is naturally favoured. You cannot prevent humans from sharing a form of language they take pleasure in hearing, no more than you can prevent them from telling stories or showing pictures of beautiful places they visited.

My kids have never bought a single CD or even inserted one in a CD player. When they want to listen to music they turn on their iPods and choose an album.  Each of their mini iPods contains between twenty and a hundred times more music than was available to me as a teenager in the 80s. They can try everything, build up their tastes, dance, sing, and experience the whole world of music for the price of a single device. Compare that to the tapes and vinyls we carried around thirty years ago: we were stuck into the same few artists and rarely experienced new stuff. If we did, it was through low-quality pirated tapes and few of us could afford spending money to purchase everything. We just shared.

Having literally thousands of albums on a hard drive is not a solution though. If you want to be able to play them on any MP3 player, you often need to transcode songs, sort them out, find the album covers and re-tag all the songs correctly if you do not want to end up with a million songs labeled “Unknown Song” by “Unknown Artist” in “Unknown Album” — unless you have an iPod Shuffle and enjoy it, of course.

Since about 5 years, Spotify and Deezer have changed the rules once more: instead of curating your own MP3 collection you can rely on other people doing it for you. They take the time to sort things out, put the right covers, search for the lyrics, find links to the band Wikipedia page, etc.  The really exciting part is that this kind of service holds a million more times what you could possibly store at home, and they keep storing new artists every day. If you want to discover new talents, there is no way you could reach that with your personal MP3 collection. Disclaimer: I have no part in those services, I am not even subscribed.

You have to admit that kind of thing goes into the right direction for the environment. When I hear that an artist has sold 2 millions copies of an album, I cannot help but think of how many tons of plastic have gone into making discs, to distribute the same amount of data to a large audience.  Instead of all having terabytes of MP3s at home, isn’t it be more sensible to store everything into the same unique pool and make it easy for everybody to access the pool remotely? This is exactly what Amazon and Google Music are doing.

We cannot remain blind to the main issue though: how do we fund artists?  It does not take much insight to see that a business based on scarcity of physical goods has no chance against electronic goods that have no cost to store and copy.

A famous post written by Courtney Love summarized the situation in the early 2000s: Courtney Love does the math
tl;dr: Out of the millions generated by her gigs, she and her band only succeed in making a modest revenue. The rest is eaten up by majors.

Tough time for CD vendors, but the fact that the current model of selling CDs is dead does not have to mean there is no other choice. Looking at recent stats, it seems more and more artists are getting most of their revenues from live performances and various merchandising items sold on the spot: T-shirts, mugs, and the inevitable band posters.

See this post dated Nov 2013 about shifting artist revenus over the past 15 years:  http://www.digitalmusicnews.com/permalink/2013/11/20/shiftingsources

I have absolutely no trouble with this model. Again: music wants to be expressed and shared! Live performances are the perfect incarnation of this fact.

Business is going to be tough for people who produce CD-only pieces, things you cannot easily share and enjoy in a live performance. It does not mean they have to cease their activities though. Other models based on free contributions have also been quite successful in many cases.

Music can be distributed under permissive file-sharing licenses (e.g.  Creative Commons). See sites like http://www.jamendo.com/ Other artists have decided to offer their songs for free download from their own web sites (e.g. Radiohead) and invite their fans to contribute whatever they want, aka the beggar model, or as Courtney Love put it: “I am a waiter”. Others are asking for funds
through Kickstarter equivalents for music. You name it. Compare that to the emergence of radio broadcasts: music was suddenly free and available to all without limits, and yet it survived and generated a huge music recording industry. Some variables have changed but the issue remains the same at heart: let us enjoy your music and we will find a way to fund your next album. You will probably not become as rich as Madonna or Michael Jackson in the 80s, but there should be enough for you to survive.

Another major shift happened recently: the price to pay to record an album is now so low that just anybody can do it with a consumer-class computer at home and get a fairly high-level quality. This certainly reduces the role of Music Majors even further. It used to cost a fortune to record a song, which is why you needed investors to create an album. Not anymore. The price of producing an album and distributing it through the Internet is so low that you do not need to involved bankers and contracts. Just do it over the weekend with the same computer you use to play Starcraft 2 and you are done. What do we still need those record companies for, then?

Lowering the barrier for entry has had consequences. As Moby put it: you have a lot more mediocrity on the market, and real talents are drowned in a flow of bad music. I take this point, but removing top-level executives from the chain of decision can only increase the diversity of what we are hearing, and that is a good thing. Between 1960 and 2000, everything you heard was carefully selected by a small bunch of old white people who made all the decisions about who had a right to be popular. Removing this bias opens the gates to mediocrity, but also to many more talents that would have remained silent.

If you are interested in the topic, you may enjoy this documentary: PressPausePlay dated from 2012.  A lot of the points I touched above are reviewed with a lot more data.

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Written by nicolas314

Monday 13 January 2014 at 12:53 am

Posted in music, network storage

Tagged with , , ,

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