Uncle Meatspace

Buying more music at iTunes Music Store over the past six months; their catalog keeps expanding in ever-widening circles. Increasingly, it seems that when I buy a CD, it only gets touched once. Not because it’s not good, but because it only needs to be ripped once. After that, it’s in iTunes, on the iPod, or pumped to the living room via Airport Express, and the meatspace disc does nothing but take up space. If all I really want is bits, why futz with atoms (especially if I can still support the artist, kinda, by buying it electronically?)

When I told a friend this recently, he remarked (nicely/half-jokingly) that I was “part of the problem.” “What problem is that?,” I wanted to know. “Encouraging the proliferation of lo-fi digital music.” Well, he has a point. On the other end of the spectrum, another friend recently rejected a large-ish collection of music because my 192kbps MP3s were of too-high quality. Even with disc space so cheap today it may as well be free. You can’t win this one. There’s nothing to win.

Can’t help but think that too much discussion about formats, codecs, and bitrates falls prey to the traditional and sometimes true criticism leveled at Hi-Fi freaks: Energy spent thinking about gear is energy stolen from enjoyment or discussion of the music (which is why I love it when an audio tweak puts an old scratchy mono LP on the turntable — I know they have their ears in the right place).

Now excuse me as I return to my regularly scheduled MC5.

Related: Mary Hodder at Napsterization: The Musician’s Era: Do We Still Say ‘Album’?

So will musical development change as more people download by the song and musicians know and work with this new way of interacting with music? Or will both musicians and listeners maintain the convention of the reference to an album, even though we don’t have them for the other reasons mentioned, to describe an associated grouping of music as a complete work?

Music: MC5 :: Kick Out The Jams (Uncensored)

9 Replies to “Uncle Meatspace”

  1. Even with disc space so cheap today it may as well be free.

    Which is why anyone with audio equipment that is reasonably high-fidelity could use Apple’s Lossless CODEC, or FLAC (Free Lossless Audio CODEC, see http://flac.sourceforge.net/) for material that justifies it.

    For my iPod, I buy the CDs and encode MP3s using LAME (http://lame.sourceforge.net/) with the “–alt-preset standard” cmd line switch, which outputs high quality VBR files. But if 128 bit rate AAC files sound good enough on the iPod for someone, then go for it. Nothing wrong with those, and after all, it’s your ears which matter :)

  2. Ludovic, I know, I’d love to, and am actually in the midst of a long-running project at kissthisguy.com to link all entries there to ITMS, but to do it from here would require doing a manual lookup with their linkmaker for each artist/track to link – a few minutes of effort per post that I’m not willing to do. If there were a way to automate it…

  3. Scot–

    I think I can guess who critiqued you for “encouraging the proliferation of lo-fi digital audio”. (cough, cough, *baald*)

    But I’m interested in this other question of yours: “If all I really want is bits, why futz with atoms?”

    I want to pose a question in response to this: Are bits all that matters?

    The smell of vinyl is irresistible to me. The same for books, old or new. And the physical process of putting on a record is a kind of ritual that I, for one, would miss if my collection were digitized.

    If meals could be synthesized automatically with no loss in quality, would you eat them? Would you stop cooking?

    My argument — which doesn’t invalidate any other way of seeing it — is that the “gear”, the physical *stuff*, is indissoluble from the enjoyment of the music. I actually don’t care (that much) about the amp and speakers and other details, but I do care about the physical presence of records and (to a lesser extent) CDs. Guess I’m old-school that way.

  4. Chris, I couldn’t agree more about the romance of the LP, and to a lesser extent, the CD. And of the physical act of being in a record store, smelling the dust and the bins and the history, about the tangibility of the record, the joy of the cover art. In fact, there’s an old bit on the O’Reilly site I wrote in 2000 – a piece that was cut from my MP3 book – on exactly this topic (nothing special, just talking wistfully about exactly this and how it’s all lost with digital music files):

    The aesthetics of digging music

    So if all of that is so important to me, why am I willing to give it up? I don’t think I’ll actually ever give it up – I have a collection of LPs and CDs I’ll continue to enjoy, and I certainly won’t stop going to records stores — I can’t. I’m just saying that my musical listening habits today have been permanently changed by the flexibility and portability of file-based music, and that’s how I do the vast majority of my listening. I guess convenience and flexibility have trumped the ritual, in part because digital files work well in the midst of a busy life, where I don’t have time to hang out in the living room *just listening* like I once did.

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  6. How itunes has changed the way you listen and purchase music is fascinating to me. Some of my changes good and bad include…

    1. I buy more music from more artists, but only 99 cents at a time.

    2. My music is much more personalized with playlists resulting in more happiness per listen.

    3. Exposed to more new music via itunes streaming of stations like radio paradise.

    4. It really is more about the music now, less judgment of music based on it’s genre, photos of band, and propaganda (which oddly is what i miss about no packaging).

    5. frustration that there is no “cut-out bin”. Good, bad, new, old, it is all 99 cents a song. Not expensive, but c’mon should U2’s Vertigo cost the same as the Skatalites Guns of Navarone from 1963? wait, i retract that argument, the fact that I can even find that music makes 99 cents a great deal.

    6. I am very much a “concept” guy that preferres to hear an album as a whole. That part of me is nearly gone. Will itunes, be the final death knell of album oriented rock?

    Sorta related story from this weekend… Attic space is at a premium, I try to keep the often accessed items near the front with the never accessed junk in the back. After ripping my cd collection, i put them in crates near the front. This weekend I cleaned the attic and moved them to the back. 12 months without being touched will do that to an object.

    Ironically I placeded the cd’s next to 3 crates of LPs, which prompted a last minute addition to my Christmas list….


    Rip, Remix, and Burn Baby!

  7. Scot, you’ve hit on one of the fundamental problems of audio, it’s a very, very subjective sense. I read rec.audio.tubes and this one fact is the source of most of the arguments and flame wars therein, principally between those who think vacuum tubes in general make better sounding amplifiers and the transistor/IC trolls who come to tell us otherwise.

    The truth is listening is not a passive sense. Your ear is not a recording device, it’s more like a musical instrument and it is linked to its very own part of your brain. Every ear is unique to begin with, and the life it has led is indelibly etched on its response to sound, like a Stradivarius violin or a much loved guitar.

    The brain part of the equation can be trained or left to its defaults. Most of us are born with basic hearing, it’s a survival sense. Some people train their ears (brains, really) to listen to a sound, to hear the subtle clues that make it sound like a live performance. These people are generally audiophiles.

    My own hearing isn’t that great. I worked in sound reinforcement in college and had a few incidents with 200 watt amps and monitor speakers going into feedback, plus the usual trauma of being a teenager with high volume music and a few concerts. Yes, going to the Eagles Hell Freezes Over concert in the bay area almost certainly damaged my hearing. Yes, it was worth it.

    I’ve been training my ear (brain) to hear the nuances of stage vs canned music a little. Thus far it hasn’t led me to any too-expensive conclusions, other than that the cheap Radio Shack amp I’ve been using with my computer all this time is the piece of junk you’d expect of a thirty dollar Radio Shack amp, and is unworthy of either my G5 or the Accoustimass speakers on the other end. The G5’s audio system is pretty decent, when I plug directly into its headphone jack with my good headphones, the sound quality difference is startling.

    As for encoding, I’ve had no serious qualms with ITMS’s encoding. For MP3s I go with 192VBS, and for most music that’s fine, though some cymbal heavy pieces there are artifacts I can hear even at that rate.

    At the end of it all, we come down to this: Does your music suit the instrument of your ear and the bit of your brain devoted to it? Then it is of sufficient fidelity. All else is vanity.

    -Jim, waxing poetic as I get towards the end of Nanowrimo. :)

  8. > I am very much a “concept” guy that preferres to hear an album as a whole. That part of me is nearly gone. Will itunes, be the final death knell of album oriented rock?

    Griff, I definitely think you’re right that MP3 is going to mean that kids growing up today don’t hold and cherish the album format nearly as dearly as we do. You can already see it happening. Personally, I rarely buy or download singles – I still purchase entire albums. But I also delete or downgrade (prune) tracks I don’t like without worrying about it. And even though I’m still buying albums electronically, I’m in random play mode or custom playlist mode more often than album mode. So I buy albums, but don’t listen to them *as* albums as often.

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