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The Compressed Digital Blues

27 February 2007

I got a CD player in 1987 when my Dad bought himself a changer. I was immediately off to the races. As a geeky kid, the combination of the CD’s superior sound, more rational navigation (although I’d likely not have phrased it that way back then) and the shiny metal surface of it were everything I could want in a playback media.

In 1997 I installed a CD burner into my computer and added back that critical read/write element to my musical life. This was an esoteric device at that time, but it opened up an entirely new realm for managing my music. The unfortunate experience of carrying and playing a CD for an individual song was no longer the problem it had been, as the CD-R made compilations possible in a way that had been abandoned with the little-missed analog cassette. I could move tracks around to my heart’s content.

Ten more years and it’s 2007. Now what? In some ways the transition from compact discs to digital music has been messier than the previous transitions, although in some ways more convenient (moving music from our CD collections to our iPods is very easy). The fragmented nature of the providers of digital media tools has given us more choice than we had in the days when one consortium (or perhaps two) of electronics manufacturers would get together and decide what the next format would be.

20 years after I got my first CD player, I still haven’t (and can’t) abandon the medium. Apple will sell me music by the track or eMusic will sell me a subscription, but there are huge holes in the universe of digital music.

On the one hand, the music ecosystem is very large. If I want to download the latest Top 40 hits on iTunes, I don’t have a problem, but if I’m looking for obscure CLIFFORD BROWN sessions or the back catalogs of lesser-known bands, I’m probably out of luck, and I wind up right back to the CD.

On the other hand, no one who really cares about audio fidelity is ready to accept getting music in a compressed format. While an MP3 or AAC sounds perfectly fine on my iPod in the subway, when I’m at home in my listening room and am sitting right in the sweet spot of those B&W 800Ds, the difference between the uncompressed audio of a compact disc and the approximately 12-to-1 compression of MP3 is day and night (for the record, I hopefully will still have the aforementioned setup in about ten years from now).

All of which leads me to believe that we haven’t seen what’s really coming next yet. If analog cassettes were the lo-fi interim step in between LPs and CDs, perhaps MP3 is the lo-fi interstice between red book audio and something else, probably a digital, DRM-free uncompressed download.

Who will give us this download? The major record labels have shown very little interest in providing DRM-free music (although the recent open letter by STEVE JOBS shows that the anti-DRM forces have real legs) and have more or less ignored the notion of uncompressed music via download. But eventually, is it too much to hope that we might eventually get uncompressed music free of a physical medium? While I still buy obscure CDs from for $4 plus $3 in shipping, I’d much rather buy them for a few bucks via download. I don’t want to spend 99 cents per track for some of this stuff, but I still want to buy it. My business school professors would say this means a market.


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