Commentary Magazine


Music Technology

To the Editor:

Terry Teachout describes wonderful changes coming in the way we listen to music, all occasioned by the incredible increase in freedom and flexibility that listeners now have thanks to digital technology [“Why Listening Will Never Be the Same,” September]. But his assessment may turn out to be over-optimistic. The music industry has grown comfortably fat by being able to force music lovers to pay for an entire CD to get two good songs.

From the moment the industry understood the threat posed by users’ freedom to choose song by song or to move from one format to another, it has fought back with increasing fury, culminating in the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act currently before Congress. This bill would allow the Recording Industry Association of America and other representatives of the entertainment industry to hack directly into someone’s home computer without a warrant, and to alter or delete files at will. It would also force electronics manufacturers to build their equipment in such a way that the transformation of the listening experience Mr. Teachout describes would be forbidden by law.

Those parts of the music industry addicted to controlling distribution threaten to create a world in which users never really own the music they pay for, and must listen to it on the industry’s terms. I hope Mr. Teachout’s vision prevails, but that will require a Congress that feels itself more beholden to citizens than to corporate donors.

Clay Shirky
Brooklyn, New York

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To the Editor:

Terry Teachout claims that, thanks to new computer technology, physical recordings and record stores will eventually disappear. But his conclusion is no more supported by the facts on the ground than was that of the wide-eyed “dot-comers” who, during the 1990′s, predicted an end to “brick-and-mortar” retailing and print books.

Were Mr. Teachout to visit London, as I did recently, he would be amazed to find that vinyl LP’s have made an amazing recovery. In the UK, vinyl has been outselling tape cassettes, pressing plants are back in operation, and one small manufacturer of turntables sold over 15,000 units last year, mostly to the under-thirty crowd. The same thing is going on in the U.S. as well, though it is happening under the radar of the mass market.

I am not suggesting that vinyl will replace CD’s, but it is back. One reason is that young people enjoy the “thing” itself, and another is the sound. Vinyl sounds warm and comforting. It communicates the meaning of music as no MP3 file can. MP3′s sound awful. They are like barely nourishing fast food: fine for music on the go, or to communicate the basics, but hardly satisfying in the long run.

McDonald’s has not made gourmet eating disappear, and MP3′s, digital downloads, and file-sharing will not make records and record stores disappear. Not this year, not next, not ever.

Michael Fremer
Senior Contributing Editor
Stereophile
New York City

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To the Editor:

Terry Teachout is right in identifying an orchestral score as less an art object than a set of instructions; but I think he errs in regarding recordings merely as a way of experiencing a work. The very concreteness of a record—whether it be a 78-rpm disc, LP, CD, or tape cassette—allows it to become the music. Without a doubt, MP3 file-sharing and computer transmission of music will shortly assume the importance and centrality Mr. Teachout predicts. But just as e-mail has found its niche without supplanting either correspondence or conversation, the need for the music artifact will surely remain with us.

I also have to wonder whether Mr. Teachout is serious in suggesting that the power to resequence the selections of a given album has any value save that of indulging the idiosyncrasies of individuals who wish to assemble their own “greatest hits.” We all like to hear our favorite music on long drives or flights, but I think it is a stretch to represent the sequencing of tunes on an album as a life-and-death struggle pitting free choice against the tyranny of record companies.

Richard M. Sudhalter
Cutchogue, New York

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To the Editor:

Terry Teachout offers fascinating food for thought, but I have my doubts regarding a couple of his points. Just because technology makes it possible for millions of young people to download their favorite pop singles does not mean that the album as we know it is doomed. Those of us who make albums (as opposed to mere collections of singles) put a great deal of care into them, and will continue to do so. I, for one, do not want it left to listeners to decide on the sequencing and programming of my music. Some will do it anyway, but I reserve the right to produce the definitive packaging of my work. I would like to believe that more than a few listeners still appreciate that kind of care.

I also doubt that many musicians will want to start their own labels. Running even a small record company is an immensely time-consuming task—getting mechanical licenses, paying royalties, marketing, shipping, making sure you get paid, etc. Very few musicians who start their own labels stick with them for long. It is just too much effort, and it takes away from their raison d’être: performing. The Internet will eliminate a few of these difficulties, like dealing with distributors, but not most of them.

Bill Kirchner
New York City

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To the Editor:

Having read many of Terry Teachout’s articles over the years, I have gained a modicum of respect for his critical abilities. Imagine my amazement to discover that he is “rarely capable of telling the difference between an MP3 file and the original CD from which it has been ripped.” MP3 files are substantially different from CD’s in audio quality, due to the nature of the compression routines they use. The dynamic range of the CD is much greater, as is the total frequency response. Mr. Teachout’s admission is akin to an art critic confessing color blindness.

Louis M. Galie
Newtown, Connecticut

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Terry Teachout writes:

In the time since my piece in COMMENTARY appeared, American newspapers and magazines have carried a flood of stories in which recording executives left no doubt of their extreme anxiety about the effects of file-sharing and CD-burning on the music business. It seems increasingly likely that at least some record companies will soon launch new websites, or improve existing ones, from which computer users can download individual recordings at will for a nominal fee. Whether such sites can compete against free file-sharing sites based in other countries—and thus inaccessible to U.S. law enforcement—remains to be seen.

Significantly, as Clay Shirky points out, the recording industry also proposes to engage in unprecedentedly aggressive attempts to stop individual computer users from engaging in file-sharing. I think it highly unlikely that these attempts will succeed, but in the short term they may well create a false sense of security on the part of backward-thinking executives who long to return to the more stable economic environment of the recent past. These executives do not understand that the technological battle has already taken place, and that they have lost it.

Michael Fremer, who is an audiophile, is fighting a different war, one that was lost two decades ago. The reason why vinyl LP’s are outselling audio cassettes in London is that the cassette—which was from its earliest days an inferior transitional technology—has been rendered definitively obsolete by the emergence of the CD, including now the recordable CD. The appeal of the LP is at bottom nostalgic (as Mr. Fremer himself unintentionally acknowledges when he observes that vinyl sounds “warm and comforting”). I am far from unsympathetic to those who feel the tug of this nostalgia, but it is a mistake to suppose that it will have any discernible effect on the music business of the 21st century, save among the tiniest possible minority of antique collectors.

Richard M. Sudhalter and Bill Kirchner are both noted jazz musicians and writers on music, and their view of the future, unlike Mr. Fremer’s, may be right. My piece was a combination of reportage and speculation, and while some of the speculation has already been borne out by events, much of it as yet remains nothing more than a thought-experiment—an attempt to imagine the cultural consequences of a new technology. I feel confident that my view is clearer than theirs, but obviously only time will tell.

I am glad that Louis M. Galie has a modicum of respect for my critical abilities. That being the case, he might want to consider giving me the benefit of the doubt. MP3 files can be “compressed” to widely varying degrees, and, depending on the source material, the effect of this compression varies just as widely. An MP3 file of a digital recording of the Atlanta Symphony encoded at 128 kilobytes per second sounds different from one of a transfer of a King Cole Trio 78 encoded at 160 kilobytes per second.

To be sure, MP3 files are not for audiophiles, but then I am not an audiophile. I am a musician who listens to records for musical pleasure, and I have no great interest in sound quality for its own sake, though obviously I prefer good to bad. (When I want to hear really good sound, I go to a concert.) I am also in my mid-forties, and I don’t hear quite as well as I did when I was in my mid-twenties. If that makes me the equivalent of a color-blind art critic, then there are a lot of other timbre-deaf music critics out there.

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