Downloading Pro or Con: It’s Not About Ethics; It’s About Storage

Molly: A funny thing happened on my way to make a record purchase this morning. Over my 8 a.m. coffee, I had read that an artist I’m particularly interested in had a new album out. Clicking over to iTunes, I entered it into the little search box, fully expecting to have the thing downloaded and ready to soundtrack my commute in just a few minutes. My excitement hit an immediate wall—iTunes did not offer this album. Ack! What to do? I could order it, but that would mean finding my credit card, filling in all those little shipping info lines, and waiting—waiting maybe two whole days!—before it arrived. I could go to an actual store, but probably wouldn’t have the chance until next week. I’m no technologically inclined early adopter, but I realized with a start that I haven’t even set foot in a real record store in over a year. I’ve completely adopted the whole online system and didn’t even realize it. It was just that easy, and that’s why it works.

Do I miss having an ever-expanding shiny wall of CDs? Not for a minute. My iPod and PowerBook together weigh in at about six pounds and travel too often to ever need dusting.

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Frank: There was a really great piece of music I heard via a legally-downable MP3 on a web site a few weeks ago, but already it’s fallen out of my memory. I could try to retrace all my steps web-surfing to try to find it again but it could take hours, hours that would be much better spent listening to records.

Nowadays I frequently encounter composers saying, oh you can hear my music on my website. But rarely do I find myself listening to entire pieces. (A good deal of the time the measly amount of a composition featured on a site curtails the listening experience for me.) It does seem that MP3s have spawned a listening culture that has less respect for listening to a composition from start to finish. Of course, this already started with the fast forward button on CD players, which is probably still why I’m so attracted to LPs since lifting and dropping needles is harder to do than just letting the music play out. Nowadays, unless something is 100% compelling—and ultimately what is?—it’s just too easy to tune it out and move onto the next thing, ultimately never truly listening to anything.

For what it’s worth, I haven’t been in a real record store (one that sells LPs) in… 2 days, and already I’m feeling a bit shaky from the withdrawal.

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Molly: Two quick points…

A satisfying online music life requires investing in equipment and a delivery system that works seamlessly for you. My father has never used an ATM card—still visits a teller and writes checks to pay his bills. For him, the convenience of never having to keep track of due dates or scramble for stamps has not yet outpaced his discomfort with the machinery involved in online bill-pay.

And it’s funny that Frank mentions music on composer websites—I love it when someone directs me to tracks on their site. If I hear a composer’s name that’s unfamiliar, it’s usually in reference to something else I’m reading or listening to at that very moment. Again, I want to be able to go directly to a site and listen to a piece by this new composer yet to be tested by my ears. Hopefully, the composer will have picked a work from his or her catalogue to share with the world as a calling card and just put the whole thing online so I’m getting a complete picture. Even one track is worth so much more that a simile-filled description. I’ll listen, and if I like, I’ll probably be passing the link around to friends and fellow bloggers. And I’ll probably be looking to give up another $9.99 to download an album. This means I can go from unfamiliar to potential fan in under five minutes.

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Frank: As an advocate for the new, far be it from me to get in the way of progress, but sometimes progress can feel like walking off a cliff. I happily check out music people point me to online all the time, but I draw a distinction between that casual encounter and a real listening experience, which is something I believe a listener can have as much from a recording as a live concert experience. And, I too plunk down money for things I discover online, I’m just patient enough for Amazon or whomever else to deliver them to me in a physical form.

I am a tad bit worried that in our desire for instant gratification, nothing has lasting significance. Part of the joy of having amassed a record collection for over 25 years is being able to constantly refer back to things, something much easier to do when you live amongst the records and see them all the time at home. Something about safely hiding the music away in a hard-drive feels like putting dirty laundry in a drawer and forgetting ever to wash it again. For the record, I refuse to keep my CDs in drawers or binders for the same reason.

Also, in the true confessions department, I don’t pay my bills online although I’ve started phoning them in from time to time since the rest of New York City always seems to be waiting online every day I need stamps at the post office.

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3 thoughts on “Downloading Pro or Con: It’s Not About Ethics; It’s About Storage

  1. Frank J. Oteri

    According to an article published yesterday on the BBC’s website (cited in Artsjournal), CDs will stay the dominant format until at least the end of the decade.

    All is not cozy for collectors, however. Turns out that the average person only owns 126 albums, and 37 of them eventually get lost due to either a friend not returning it or as the spoils of war in a break-up.

    Let that be a lesson to you. If you want to build a record collection, don’t loan your records to anyone, not even your mother!

    Reply
  2. Chris Becker

    Hi, guys. My issue with downloadable music is that it often suffers in sound quality as a result of being compressed even into higher quality mp3 formats. The difference in sound really bothers me and takes away from my enjoyment of the music. I also rarely listen to music on headphones again because the sound is odd to me. It doesn’t give me a complete “picture” of the music.

    My mastering engineer has voiced similar complaints – and you’ll hear sound quality issues being debated among audiophiles or other folks in the recording industry. I imagine that if I hadn’t begun using the recording studio about 10 years ago as extensively as I do to compose music, these sound issues might not have arisen for me.

    I do hear differences in various digital formats and definitely DEFINITELY vinyl vs. CD. Maybe this isn’t an issue for most folks – but I think it’s kind of a shame that folks might be missing a more…intense aural experience as a result of filling up their ipods with digital files…

    That said, I love previewing music online and occasionally love to blast Basement Jaxx or Interpol on my poor broken headphones on the 7 train…

    Reply
  3. JPehrson

    Personally, I believe there has been a radical change in listening habits over the Internet brought in by better and better streaming technology. It used to be that composers posted “snippets” of music. This was reasonable, since the file format of choice was the large .wav and posting space was limited.

    However, today with mp3s and portable devices, which did not exist in the earlier days, people are experiencing entire works. A couple of years ago, I went back and changed much of the music I have posted on my personal site, from single movements and extracts of pieces to full pieces. People are constantly downloading these.

    Of course, people with a more “pop-oriented” or “casual” approach to listening, I’m sure are “fast forwarding” through a lot of music. However, I need to be presented evidence that the same is happening for more *sustained* forms.

    When one of the recent big hits was the free downloading of entire Beethoven symphonies, something is happening here in terms of people downloading and listening to longer pieces.

    Personally, I believe people more involved with the listening technology have less prejustice against it, and I believe it will be used more and more in the next few years and the future to advance *all* kinds of music of *whatever* length!

    –Joseph Pehrson

    Reply

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