It is no secret that the music industry is in trouble... and they do not seem to have a fix. While theft of music through illegal downloading is wrong, lawsuits only breed contempt for the record companies. This only aggravates their problem. My opinion of illegal downloading has changed through the years. I no longer believe that people were trying to get by without paying for the music they wanted; they just wanted their music now, twenty-four hours a day. This is same concept that has made the neighborhood 7-11 type store successful, by offering their customers convenience.
Record companies have historically controlled the marketplace, but history has rewritten itself. Back when, record companies switched from 78s to LPs, and consumers bought new record players (of varying quality) and many new LPs. Then they came out with prerecorded tapes, in various formats. Some of those formats failed, and users of those formats bought new, different players and more music to play upon them. Life was good for the record companies. In the '70s, record companies started to whine about people copying LPs to cassettes (sound familiar?). They claimed they were losing money — even if they were, it was nothing like what was to come. They had leakage, to be sure, but not the bloodbath they have today. Along came the CD, and consumers abandoned their LPs in droves and embraced the new format, “Perfect Sound Forever” and again, bought new players and more new music.
The CD solved some problems as record and stylus wear and the need for proper turntable setup, but exchanged them for a completely new set of problems. The biggest one was sound quality, which was not good at all with early CDs played on the first and second-generation players. It, like the cassette, it offered portability which is a big plus. Gradually, the discs and players both improved dramatically.
Years later, the arrival of the Internet, MP3s and personal music players signaled the beginning of the record companies' downward spiral. Physical media was unnecessary. Let us forget the fact that the sound quality of many MP3s are awful due to low bit rates- that is not the point. Instead, consider that the public is ceasing to look to record companies for their products, many are taking a different route, and the music industry has failed to adapt. This is a monumental consumer shift.
Audiophiles, the last holdout, have started to embrace PC audio as well, with many (including myself) ripping their music in a high quality format to large external hard drives and using their PC or Mac to play the music through their high end systems. In many instances, the computer based front ends are not an addition to their high-end CD players. Instead, they have replaced them entirely. With such a setup, there is no need for physical media, as music can be downloaded over a high-speed Internet connection straight to your hard drive. No more driving to the music store (if you can find one) or waiting for a shipment to arrive to your door. Computer audio-based playback has greatly enhanced not only my listening sessions, but it is slowly changing the way I buy music. I decided to share my experiences with a few different websites.
Apple, to the best of my knowledge, operates the largest legal music download site in the world. Most downloads are offered in low quality 128MBs format, but they are slowly adding higher quality 256 kbs recordings. While this is a big improvement, I would still like to see lossless formats offered, or at the very least 320 kbs MP3. Apple Lossless (ALAC) files or high bit rate MP3 can always be down sampled for those who choose to do so. Kudos goes to Apple for their iTunes program (which must be used to visit the iTunes store.) A few clicks, and your music is downloaded, along with the artwork, in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, iTunes does not offer support for FLAC, a major lossless format. FLAC files downloaded from other sites must be converted using an external program to allow the files to be integrated into the iTunes music library. I use TuneBite. It is inexpensive ($29) and seems to work well.
The sound quality of 256 kbs, while not CD quality, is surprisingly good. I purchased Brian Setzer's latest release Wolfgang's Big Night Out ($13) in the higher quality format, and found the sound to be quite acceptable. The bad thing about the iTunes store is DRM, or Digital Rights Management. DRM is a method used by the record companies to control the number of times a downloaded file can be copied. The fault of DRM does not lie with Apple, but rather with the record companies. Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, has publicly stated that he prefers non-DRM encoded files, but that the record companies will not allow Apple to sell files without DRM. This is at odds with the record companies’ own practice, as CDs are not DRM encoded. Fortunately, TuneBite will also locate DRM encoded files on a user's hard drive and strip the DRM from the file.
Nine Inch Nails
My wife is a Nine Inch Nails fan, so when I saw that their new instrumental album Ghosts I-IV was available on their website as a lossless download for the bargain price of $5; I decided to give it a shot. Upon visiting the site, I found that they had three different download options: ALAC, FLAC, and 320 kbs MP3. Also available for purchase was high resolution 24-bit/96khz double disc CDs for only $10. Downloading Apple Lossless files into iTunes was as painless as the Apple Store, but the files themselves were of higher quality. I only wish we enjoyed the music as much as I enjoyed my experience at the band's website. By marketing the music themselves, the band actually makes more money than if the music was controlled by a record company. This concept looks like a win-win for both the performer and the consumer.
High Definition Tape Transfers
My favorite and least favorite downloaded albums came from the same source- High Definition Tape Transfers. The concept behind the site is brilliant. Touting “Rare Classical Recordings in Audiophile Sound,” they sell 100 percent legal downloads in 24-bit/96kHz resolution (as opposed to the compact discs' 16-bit/44.1kHz resolution.) What is being offered are digital copies of old reel to reel tapes, transferred from analog to digital with some of the finest high end (and specially modified) gear in existence. No royalties are due performers or record companies, because the copyrights on the recordings offered have been allowed to lapse, and they are now public domain. The artwork may or may not be original. While the performance has fallen into public domain, this is not necessarily true of the artwork. If royalties are due on the artwork, High Definition Tape Transfers has substituted their own in place of the original.
The price of music downloads are quite reasonable. Each movement of a piece is offered individually, so Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, for example, is offered in four files, at $3 per file. Dvorák's Violin Concerto is offered in three files, at $4 per file. Once payment has been made (via PayPal) customers have seven days to complete their downloads. I learned to only download one file at a time, as trying three or four at a time and the download process become slower than molasses. Technophobes can buy burned (not stamped) high resolution DVD copies at $20 per release.
The download process was simple. All of their files are offered in FLAC format, and because iTunes is incompatible with FLAC, the files had to be converted to uncompressed WAV files. I used TuneBite again. Once the file conversions were complete, I added the files to my iTunes library. I checked the file sizes — they are about three times larger than conventional WAV files — high resolution, remember? I also checked the sample rate, which is 96 kHz. I was in business.
Those with Duets, Squeezeboxes, or Transporters as well as those who use Foobar or JRiver Media Center as their playback program will have an easier time, as these devices and software can read FLAC files natively. No conversion will be required, just download and go.
The first album I downloaded was Artur Rodzinski conducting the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of London’s reading of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony ($12). I don't know a whole lot about classical music, unlike rock and roll: my friends say I am a walking rock and roll dictionary. But I know what I like, and I did not like like this one. In comparison to my Classic Records LP with Pierre Montreaux conducting The London Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra sounds rushed and out of time with each other. More disturbing is the fact that in the first movement, it sounds as if there are at least three tape splices. That aside, the sound quality is quite good. While I can look past the performance, I cannot look past the technical faults. This one should not be offered for sale, in my opinion.
I did not want to damn the website based on one offering, so I decided to download Dvorák's Violin Concerto, performed by the Czech Symphony Orchestra. ($12) This one is a winner. The sound quality is stunning-big, bold and super realistic, just as advertised. Based on my enjoyment of this recording, not only the music, but the technical merits of the release, I am sure I will be visiting the site again.
The future of the music business right in front of the record companies' eyes- quality and convenience, along with the realization that control of the business is shifting from the companies to the consumer. This is just the dawn of music downloading. This can be a boon to the record companies, as long as they decide to embrace technology and stop fighting it. Consumers have spoken with their wallets, downloads are in, and eventually, physical media as we know it will be a thing of the past.
We can learn from the past however. Any LP can be played on any record player, any cassette on any cassette deck, and any CD in any CD player. High quality downloads are available, and I only see this trend continuing. What is needed now is 100 percent compatibility — all players or software should be able to play any file format without conversion. As far as DRM, if the record companies would quit treating music lovers as criminals and invest in file servers offering high resolution downloads instead of serving lawsuits on citizens, maybe those citizens will once again become customers.