Music industry of the future might be a brand new beast

Music industry of the future might be a brand new beast

January 27, 2004


God knows I’ve stalled this epic task long enough, but now I’m committed. Boy, am I ever.

My spare room is now officially the Burn Unit. A 12-inch PowerBook is connected to a half-terabyte hard drive and surrounded by heavy cardboard boxes. They contain every CD I’ve ever owned, and converting CDs to digital music files isn’t even a misdemeanor, let alone a federal offense, unless of course you believe what the RIAA tells you.

I’ve been turning CDs into MP3s since … well, gosh, let me check. The oldest MP3 file in my current iTunes library is REM’s “Drive,” off of “Automatic for the People.” Dated March 1996, it’s emblematic of why I established the Burn Unit. It sounds horrible. It was ripped with one of the earliest MP3 apps, so it stutters in a couple of places. And because I ripped it at fairly low quality, it’s chockablock with annoying compression artifacts (the digital equivalent of an LP’s pops and clicks). It’s a victim of primitive technology.

And I have the two big hits from “Automatic,” but where’s “Sweetness Follows?” Or “Ignoreland?” Nowhereland. In 1996, a one-gigabyte hard drive was hot stuff, and when the first pocket MP3 player came on the scene, it would only store about 40 minutes of music, tops. Ripping a whole CD was just plain unheard of; you grabbed the one or two hits and left the rest behind.

So I’m digitally re-mastering my entire music collection. I’m using a thoroughly modern transcoder (iTunes AAC) at an extremely high bitrate (256 kbps), and I’m ripping every disc in toto.

I’m pacing myself. Every time I step out of the office, I stop by the Burn Unit to make a swap. (Which reminds me … excuse me again.) I’m only 1,582 songs into the project, but already I’m reaping rewards.

The first 10 gigabytes are on my iPod, and for the past few days I’ve been air-drumming on my steering wheel to songs I haven’t listened to since the ’90s.

I dove into digital music headfirst and succumbed to the bliss early on. But one of the curses of technology is that you never know what the long-term consequences will be until one day you find yourself mining feldzpar for a regime of sentient and remorseless Bose clock radios.

My generation was the first to grow up with CDs. The fact that we could pick up a remote, and zap straight to the next track the moment we got bored shaped our listening habits: It weakened our commitment to listen to a whole album all the way through.

Now I’m fretting about the first generation to grow up with digital music. When you rip a CD, you’re throwing its songs into a Darwinian rodeo. The tracks become divorced from one another; they’re no longer songs in an album, they’re electrons in a 2,000-song library. And the songs that don’t make it onto playlists will disappear forever. It’s just like radio.

Online music stores make things even itchier. When the basic unit of music sales becomes the 99-cent song instead of the $18 (for God’s sake) CD, why would publishers give artists the time and the money needed to produce more than one or two tunes? When publishers have access to tune-by-tune purchasing data, why would they gamble on producing anything other than a likely hit song?

It could be the end as we know it for Theremin music (bad) and Neil Diamond’s hopes for a comeback (good). Or admittedly it could just be that I ran out of Cokes a few days ago and low blood sugar has left me moody and cynical.

So what will I do with these hundreds of discs once they’ve been ripped? They’ll go into storage. I don’t dare get rid of them. The CD is the last format that will allow consumers to buy clean, unlocked music unencumbered by digital file compression artifacts or quasi-legal artificial limits on how it can be duplicated or where it can be played.

I intend to live long enough to own one of those atomic-powered heligyros that the April 1936 issue of Popular Science promised were right around the corner. If I want to hear “Pablo Picasso” on my in-heligyro music system, I’d better keep that “Repo Man” soundtrack someplace safe.

Andy Ihnatko writes on computer issues for the Sun-Times.

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