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I was born at a relatively young age. Growing up consumed the better part of my childhood. As a young man I chased a lot of girls. But they kept getting away. Then I got older and even slower, so I got married. I've lived in New York City almost since before I moved here. I summer in Manhattan, which is like New York City, but with more humidity.

Here's me, without baby, thinking big thoughts. (Actually, what I'm thinking is, "Hey, these aren't Pringles!") I think I look better with baby.

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On The Effect Technology Has Had on my Relationship With Music
Monday, July 26, 2004

It should come as no surprise to regular APW readers that I am an avid purchaser and listener of music. Lately I’ve been thinking about the way new technology profoundly changes the way we interact with music. In particular, I’m thinking about how two sets of innovations have radically altered my own behavior: the whole downloading/burning thing (make your own CDs); and, the portability of the MP3 player.

The advent of the gramophone had an unimaginable impact on the way people dealt with music. Before Edison, music consumption generally meant buying sheet music. You can imagine the turn-of-the-century board meetings at the sheet music houses with terms like “paradigm shift” being tossed around, and early 20th century music fans being blamed for their abandonment of the traditional business model (Did they have PowerPoint back then?)

In my own life, the switch from LP to CD was a quantum change. With LPs, we listened to music as albums arrayed into roughly 20-minute sides. Music was a 20-minute slab; albums were programmed accordingly. The advent of the CD gave the artist the ability to put out a single 75-minute chunk (a privilege too many are abusing, although Todd Rundgren’s Liar for example takes great advantage of the lengthy format.)

I still miss the warmth of the analog LP (although great strides have been made) and the sides, but I wouldn’t want to give up the opportunity to load 5 discs into the changer and program 6 hours of music for myself. Or the glorious “shuffle,” whereby you put 5 similar albums into the player and let it randomly cycle through them. Love that shuffle.

I think the critical mass year was 1986. Paul Simon’s Graceland was big that year, and while it has two distinct sides, it plays well as a continuous work. But I generally think of the Dire Straits album Brothers in Arms as the first album recorded to be a CD; it came out on vinyl, but the CD features longer versions of many of the tracks, and the work really opens up in the CD format. And I remember my friend Chris the cameraman telling me he liked album Peter Gabriel’s So-- “especially 3, 7 and 10.” Chris, and I think all of us, stopped knowing the names of songs with the advent of the CD format; now we tend to know track numbers.

So on to the matter at hand.

When I talk about downloading music, I’m not talking about MP3s to amass a collection of music (wither legally or otherwise.) I’m from the camp that MP3 is a lossy format; that by using a tenth of the data of a full CD track, MP3 is costing us music. Sensitive ears can hear the loss (a metallic edge, and maybe a swirling, and a slurring of the “S” sound, at the high end.) Me, I like a lot of data in my music.

No, I’m talking about the rampant availability of what we used to call bootlegs—unreleased demos, live shows in top quality, available for download in lossless form (shorten, or .shn; and FLAC). I’m not inclined to offer a tutorial on using these formats; you can get that at a couple of places, including eTree, which also has links to all the software you’ll need. Suffice it to say you’ll need high bandwidth.

But I swear, every week I’m trading for or downloading two or three absolute gems. My favorite source is Sharing the Groove; everything good ends up there eventually. Some of the gems I’ve grabbed:

--SIX (!?) CDs of studio quality outtakes of the Stones Voodoo Lounge sessions. One of the discs, an alternate mix of the album, would have been the best Stones album since Some Girls if it had been the version they put out. And one is just Keef, messing around in the studio.

-- Five, count’em, five unreleased albums and/or sets of demos from Ryan Adams: the Fucker demos and Forever Valentine (both from Whiskeytown); and 48 Hours, the Pinkhearts Demos, and Suicide Handbook, all solo.

--All kinds of great FM or soundboard concerts from my favorite era of the Stones, the Ronnie Wood years.

--Only the second known soundboard recording from Prince of an aftershow, from 10-25-02 (the first, the legendary Small Club from 1988, has been there too but I had it.)

--The last Paul McCartney & Wings show, from 1979; eclectic setlist, and I think the source for that Kampuchea album. “Cook of the House” rocks as a 20-minute jam (just kidding).

In addition, Phil Lesh—former Grateful Dead bass player and leader of his own combo, affectionately known as the PLQ for Phil Lesh Quintet-- has made maybe 15 3-CD soundboard shows available for free download. If interested, try looking here or here.

The upshot is that every week, in addition to whatever CDs I might have bought, I generally have 2 or 3 live shows or unreleased albums in heavy rotation. I still buy CDs; but they have more competition for my share of listening.

The second development is the portable MP3 player. Now, I know I’ve just ripped MP3s a new bunghole (did you get that awesome pun about “ripping”?) To me, the utility of the MP3 is twofold: (1) trial. Download a band’s MP3, see if you like it, buy the album. I don’t think record companies—who are terrified of technology—have done an adequate job of selling the benefits of CD quality. The jamband festival Bonaroo is selling downloads of artists’ sets this year; in an ingenious marketing move, they price the MP3 version lower than the lossless audio version. Check here to see a place that could teach the record industry something.

Where was I? Oh yeah, twofold utility of the MP3. Bullet (2) is portability. Man, do I love my iPod. Its my second MP3 player, with a 40 gig hard drive and brilliantly engineered. I encode at 192 kbs; typical is 128 kbs, which just means my MP3s are 50% bigger than the norm, for more fidelity. Right now I have the equivalent of about 450 albums on the thing (although I generally avoid ripping whole albums, and prefer to pick and choose tracks. Then I create thematically or sonically unified playlists and listen to them set to shuffle. Love that shuffle.) And the thing is a little over half full.

Imagine! 450 albums worth of music in my brief case, or breast pocket, or clipped to my belt. And all stuff I picked because I like it. It is really quite awesome. One thing it does, of course, is it renders radio pointless as a source of music. Riding the subway each day, it seems like almost everyone has headphones—there really is a headphone revolution going on, maybe greater than the walkman revolution of the early 80s—and no one is listening to the radio through those headphones. Indeed my wife bought me a little connector that plugs into the headphone jack and broadcasts the iPod to an FM radio; on a recent business trip I lulled myelf to sleep with my soft rock mix coming out of the hotel clock radio.

So what’s the point here? Well, I’m not entirely sure. I am a heavy music purchaser, and so my behavior is atypical. On the other hand, shouldn’t the record industry be targeting heavy purchasers—like, oh, I don’t know, EVERY OTHER business does? And what’s happening for me is that I don’t WANT CDs to go away, I don’t want to be suckered into a new format, I don’t want my expensive collection to become obsolete (they pulled that scam with me once, LP to CD, and I’m not having it again.) And music must be free—not as in, you don’t pay the artist for it, but rather, as in unfettered, allowed to travel wherever it wants to. If I buy your album and the 5 tracks I really like end up on my MP3 player, just go with the flow. And I really don't want to see the lossy MP3 format become the standard for distributing music; as I say, I like data in my tunes.

I linked to Todd Rundgren’s Patronet site above. I’m a fan, but I have to admit that he’s not really made the thing live up to its promise. But I still vividly remember the day in 1996 when I downloaded the song “Surf Talks” from his website onto my work laptop; dashed home (after a quick stop at Radio Shack to buy the right cable); plugged in the laptop to my tape deck to record the song; and played it over my speakers and big stereo. Sure, this seems ludicrously cumbersome now. But at the time it was an epiphany on the order of “Watson, come quickly, I need you.” Todd had managed to make a song at his place, and get it to me, and I was listening to it at my place—and no one, no infrastructure, had to hang between us to facilitate the transfer.

With all the improvements in digital technology since then, I still look back fondly to that moment. It truly was the dawn of a new age, and nothing in music has been the same since.


Posted by: --josh-- @ 11:44 PM  

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