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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Some Thoughts On Music Media

Back in 1987 when I was a young skinny dark-haired graduate student, I took a job in the local Sam Goody Store in Nashville. Compact Discs were starting to take over the market and vinyl records were seemingly doomed. CDs provided a huge resurgence for record labels who by the end of the 80's were in quite a sales slump. Not only did the new technology offer what was then perceived as perfect sound, but it saved tons of shelf space and weight when moving to a new apartment too!

The market was booming because not only did everyone want the newest releases in the new format, but thousands of listeners spent millions of dollars replacing their old vinyl collections with CDS. I can't tell you how many stories I hear today of people who sold their records and have lived to regret it.

The huge debate amongst music aficionados centered around a handful of topics: 1. Do CDs really sound better than vinyl records? 2. Will all of the important titles from the LP era be issued on CD? and 3. Do CDS really last forever?

Thirty years later, some of those questions are still debated. As to sound quality, I will always contend that except for the pops and tics that come from a worn record, LPS have and always will sound better. But that's not proven and many blind tests have failed to definitively answer the question. I will say, however, that there is still nothing more amazing than pulling a new record out of its sleeve, checking out the amazing cover art and playing that baby for the first time. For a guy my age, vinyl will always be king.

As for the reissue question, for the most part that answer was yes, and it was the reissue business that kept the major labels afloa through most of the 90s. There were things here and there that never made it to the silver disc, but for the most part, the catalogue was saturated with every imaginable title, including thousands of recordings that had been out of print for years.

Question three is proving a mixed bag. Many CDS, particularly ones issued early on in Japan, and many a home burned disc did not last forever. Their information deteriorated and you are no longer able to play them. Add to the fact that CD players have a rather notoriously short lifespan, particularly higher end models, and you have some problems at hand.

That brings us to today. Although the digital revolution has not managed to kill the vinyl record, in fact vinyl has enjoyed a big resurgence in recent years, it has brought about the death of the record industry as we knew and loved it, and with it, the compact disc is breathing it last or so it seems.

In his excellent book Appetite for Self-destruction, Steve Knopper documents the spectacular fall of the American record industry, brought about by sheer hubris and stupidity. I myself predicted back in 1987 that one day in the not too distant future, all the music in the world would be available in a big data base accessible to one and all through an inexpensive monthly subscription.

It would take the advent of high speed internet to make my prophesy come true, but it did. And the record labels sat back and watched it happen, completely unprepared to deal with the consequences of file sharing and the easy and free distribution of music.

Some say that the demise of the industry is a bad thing. I contend that it was an inevitable good because there is now more music available than ever before and countless artists who would have never been picked up by a major label now have a voice in the greater music world. Huzzah!


Now that we have had a little history lesson, (call it a reminiscence if you will) here are some of this writer's observations about some, and I emphasize here, selected, digital music streaming services.

It all started with Napster, and we all know what a copyright nightmare that turned out to be. Napster lost its lawsuit and was eventually swallowed up by Rhapsody, a product of Real Networks. (Remember when you had to download a Real player to see movies or hear music on line in the dial up days?)

Rhapsody offers a ginormous track library for a modest price and is available for most any kind of delivery device you can imagine. My biggest beef with them is the careless way that they handle classical music. Yeah, I know, we aren't the biggest market share, but if it's worth doing, it's worth doing right and Rhapsody frankly SUCKS when it comes to the proper labeling and categorizing of  Bach, Beethoven and the boys. After many years of devotion to Rhapsody, I finally got fed up with them and switched to SPOTIFY.

Spotify's layout and format took me a little getting used to, but now that I have figured it out, I love it so far. They have an enormous library of albums, they DO properly label classical music (although I find that their classical selection is rather bogged down in giant compilation sets that most serious music listeners skip over on sight) and they have lots of great extra features, including detailed biographies of most of their artists. All for 9.99 a month.

If you are a serious classical listener, there is only one place to go, and that is to the Naxos Music Library.

Klaus Heymann's little label that could has now just about conquered the world of classical music. With 87,000 plus cds available to stream and a catalogue that grows by the week, it's hard to beat this service. Include complete program notes, services for schools and teachers and a price point of $20-30 a month depending upon bit rate, you just can't go wrong. Naxos also offers Jazz, world, audio books and lots of other categories for your listening pleasure.

Another personal favorite is Grooveshark, which offers a very friendly interface and a big catalogue of music for free. They do offer a premium service as well, but the print ads on the site are not intrusive and the only real advantage to paying is to have access to their mobile apps.

Pandora is worth mentioning as well, but call me selfish, I like being able to select my own music. If I am in discovery mode, then Spotify, Rhapsody and Groove shark all have "Radio" functions that allow me to explore music that other people are listening to.

I have yet to explore Google music, but with 74 lifetimes worth of music at my fingertips, I had to stop somewhere.

We live in a wonderland of media, and frankly, I think we could argue that there is too much on hand. Where to we start? But hey, we also have just as many books to read and movies to watch. So hunker down in your den and bust open the Chardonnay! You've got lots of listening to do.

Happy music making everyone!

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