Over 40 years ago, Mr. McGuire told us there was a great future in plastics. But it’s clear that, in the case of music delivery, we’re entering the “post-future” (to quote Anthony Braxton). Although CD-Baby founder Derek Sivers argues that you “alienate a percentage of your potential audience” by going download-only and not releasing a CD, I find myself wondering how long it will last (if it’s even true)? (In the UK this week, the number one single was a download-only oldie that doesn’t even have a holiday theme!)
Anecdotally speaking, I see more and more musicians giving up on physical formats, both as consumers and as artists. Although I know a handful of groups that can still sell CDs like hotcakes from the bandstand, an overwhelming number of artists can barely give them away, which has led to resignation and disappointment. Instead, CDs and CD-Rs are being treated more and more as business cards than as sellable product, primarily because clubs, radio, and the press don’t take you serious unless you’ve “invested in yourself” (as the booker of one San Francisco bar told me). But it has been clear for years that, at some point, music will be as easy to access as water, once we figure out how the tap will work and what the corresponding metaphor that equals a public utility will be. How will we invest in ourselves as artists at that point?
As a consumer, I’m thrilled about the prospect of hearing any music I want, immediately. With our house in upheaval during construction this month, and most of our CDs in storage, I simply turned to Pandora and dialed in a holiday channel (“mid-century jazz stylings only, please”) as the peeps and I wrapped and decorated. Sure, I have no control over what song will play, and, yes, the audio is digitally compressed. But we were looking for commercial-free mood music, which terrestrial radio can’t deliver, and audio without aliasing, which satellite doesn’t offer. Pandora, of course, is just one of many ways to get the music today—although it’s still primitive by post-future standards.
And if music or video content will be at my beck and call, why would I want to “own” it on some “thing?” I confess that I’m one of those people that still likes to have a physical artifact of the music I’m listening to, whether it be CD, LP, or cassette. But as a musician and an indie-label owner, I have to wonder why I bother making them anymore? If the new paradigm is to watch and listen in informal and convenient situations, why not fulfill those needs, as well as be totally green about it, and stop manufacturing all these plastic discs and the wasteful packaging that delivers them? It’s only a matter of time when we can stream uncompressed audio and high-def visuals over the line or through the air. Or is it to much to assume that commercial forces will actually lead us to formats that deliver higher resolution content?
As music producers, how far have we actually gotten in the last decade regarding the quality vs. convenience issue? We certainly haven’t solved the problem of how to get people to listen to music on a system that delivers the fidelity we intended. Shouldn’t we, instead, be mixing in a compressed format with earbuds in our ears? Think about it: today we mix and master on accurate and expensive systems, in a room that is as acoustically flat as we can make it, only to intentionally degrade the audio with a somewhat mysterious algorithm so it can be delivered from a pinhole placed next to our eardrum.
Ah, right! We’ve kept a 24-bit, 96 kHz, 7.1 surround version of the mix for some future delivery format, just in case. Keep your fingers crossed while you burn through your multi-terabyte hard drives that the next generation will rebel against the current paradigm of low-quality audio by learning to appreciate full-spectrum sound. However, current research seems to be revealing the opposite.
My question to you is: How long do you think physical media will have relevance? And how will artists destinguish themselves when its gone?
Those are two of the billion-dollar questions I’ll be pondering as we enter the next decade.
May your holidays be filled with music and creativity! See you in two weeks.
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