Tag Archives: MP3

How Mobile Music Became the Norm

With the advent of smart(er) phones and tiny mp3 players, there is ample opportunity to listen to music when you are away from home, wherever you are. In fact, we are quickly approaching a time when everyone will have access to “music on the move” whether they choose to listen or not. If you get a new phone these days, unless you make a concerted effort, it will more than likely come with a media player. You can then add tunes from your PC (so-called side loading), download mp3’s you can purchase or stream music to the device. And the chances are that you didn’t even get the phone with music in mind.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this – I remember a time when deciding to take your music “on the road” with you was a bit of a chore and made you stand out as a bit “different”.

I got my first Walkman (great branding that – it wasn’t a Sony Walkman of course, they were far too expensive for me, it was a clone) when I was about 13. For younger readers, it may seem a bit weird now, but these were essentially portable tape players. They became pretty small in to the early 1990’s, but fundamentally couldn’t get any smaller than the media you played on them, i.e. cassette tapes. Still, they were small enough to put in a coat pocket. They came with headphones. Yes, “head” phones. In-ear? not invented. These headphones consisted of two rather large foam-covered speakers held together with a piece of aluminium that, erm, went over your head. This made you stand out a bit. Another limitation was that you had to carry around the tapes you wanted to play. Not your 40,000 songs on your iPod – an album per tape was the norm, unless you made up a compilation (which, to add a bit of variety, almost everyone did). Then the device had to be powered. Charged via the mains? Nope – with batteries that didn’t last more than a couple of weeks of pretty light playing.

So, you see, there were obstacles to mobile music back then – but to us it still seemed revolutionary. It didn’t matter that the music was bathed in “hiss” (if you had Dolby B or C “noise reduction” or chrome or metal tapes (I’m not making this up!) the hiss was reduced a bit.) Or that the tape could get eaten up and mangled by the player at any time. Or that you couldn’t skip tracks (that hadn’t been invented either). Or that if you left the tape in the sun, or in a car, or actually anywhere where it could get hot, you ruined the music. Or that if you actually walked with a “Walkman” the music used to “judder” due to the unit being moved. Or that the headphones usually stopped working after about three months of use. Oh no, this was amazing stuff. If you were lucky or rich, your Walkman (clone) would have mysterious switches – Dolby B and C as mentioned above and one to choose the type of tape you were playing – metal, chrome or “normal” (imagine a marketing exec ALLOWING a version of a product to be labelled “normal” these days). Some, even had graphic equalisers, which were sort of a nerd’s revenge – fundamentally sliders that altered the bass and treble of the music that were labelled with unbelievably complex “frequency information” that no one understood.

The Walkman evolved, of course – it was superseded by the Discman – the same concept, but with Compact Discs. This was a little like taking the wheel and making it 50p shaped. carrying tapes around was annoying. Carrying CDs? Well, I didn’t see many with Discmans….

I would love to know how many people listen to music on the go now and how many had Walkmans back in the day. I assume that the benefits of the iPod and like have enticed millions that never would have put up with all the kerfuffle of owning a Walkman. And, as mentioned at the start of this post, smartphones have made music on the go just another add-on.

Still, the  enjoyment of listening to some crap 80’s music on a Walkman did give you a sense of achievement – even if you did stand out.

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Anyone for music by the minute?

So Pink Floyd succesfully challenged EMI over the sale of its albums as indivdual track downloads, arguing that their albums are whole pieces and shouldn’t be sold on a track-by-track basis.

This is interesting for a number of reasons and may yet change the way music is sold to the public. As discussed in earlier posts, there are a number of historical reasons why pop songs tend to last around 3-4 minutes, ranging from the physical media that recordings were distributed on before the digital age to the structure of a song to what radio stations are and were willing to play. People’a attention span probably had quite a bit to do with it as well. The fist medium sold to the public, the wax cylinder, could contain around 2 minutes, the 78RPM pushed things to 3 1/2 minutes. The 7″ 45RPM allowed a little more than that, but generally a “pop” single was around 3-4 minutes. The LP 33RPM suddenly allowed a collection of songs to be added to a single disc. This meant that artists had up to 26 minutes per side to play with.

By the late 60s, LPs were outselling the single and music became all the more “thoughtful”. This meant that certain artists started to deliver collections of music that had themes and went way beyond a collection of 3-4 minute pop songs. Chief among these were Pink Floyd. Of course, at the time, a single may be taken from an LP, but there was no way to look forward 40 years and foresee the arrival of digital downloads and the selling of individual tracks. And for this reason, many contracts signed by artists before the digital revolution didn’t contain clauses that albums could only be sold as full “suites” of work. The Pink Floyd ruling is therefore important. I’ve just checked iTunes and “Dark side” is still available as separate tracks, but I assume that eventually it will be sold as an album only. This would obviously impact on sales for EMI, as punters can’t “pick and choose” the tracks they like. We all have albums sitting on our shelves that are good for one, maybe two songs with another ten instantly forgettable efforts.

So, a couple of bands are a bit miffed how their back catalogue is being sold, but how will it affect the selling of tracks going forward? Some bands are already embracing the “immediacy” of releasing tracks as and when they deem fit – why wait for 10-14 songs before releasing an “album” of songs? Has this broken the three year “album, three singles, tour” routine?

Another thing to contemplate is value for money. When music was only delivered on standard physical formats, there was pretty much an accepted recommended retail price for each format. Generally speaking, each format’s length dictated the “value” of the release and thus the price. So, 7″‘s were cheapest, 12″ about double the price and albums 4-5 times the price of a 7″.

But what about digital? Many online stores like to standardise prices – so around 79p – 99p for each “track”. But what if one track is two minutes long and another twenty? Will they both retail for the same price? Probably not…. So, are we going to see a “price per minute?” – The Ramones would have been screwed and Pink Floyd would have tanked their lucky stars for their slightly more middle-class audience!

It probably won’t come to this, but now the physical production of music has been removed from the downloadable equation, I suspect that we will see a variable pricing model emerge. In the “old days”, the more successful an album was, the lower the price became. I remember Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms selling for £3.99 in my local WH Smith in the late 80’s, down from an RRP of around £6.99. Maybe a kind of “digital music stockmarket” will emerge in the coming years.

Will musicDNA add value to digital files?

So, MusicDNA has arrived and it’s designed to make people start paying for digital file formats.

The record industry has realised that people aren’t that inclined to pay for a computer file that they can easily (if illegally) get for free if they can use a computer. As much as they have tried, the quality, ease of portability/transfer and quickness of transfer of the humble MP3 file was always going to mean that trying to monetise it was going to be tricky, or at least monetise it enough to sustain an industry.

MusicDNA is being promoted as  a kind of a “super MP3”. The idea is that extra stuff comes along with the song, like the lyrics, the video, artwork and blog posts and extra stuff will be added later – so the idea is you kind of “sign up” to the band. And pirated copies of the file won’t update.

This is a noble effort to get people to start spending on music again and recognises that you need to offer a lot more than the music file these days. Will it work? I think probably not. The thing is that at the end of the day most people just fundamentally want the song – apart from proper fans of an artist, most people hear a tune, like the tune and want to get a way of hearing it as and when they want. As readers of this blog will know, I’m very much an advocate of the whole music experience (or what it once was).

People have always liked music. From the first time that man could bang out rhythms people have liked music. In the last hundred years or so we’ve had the privilege of being able to own recorded versions of music, from wax cylinder, through shellac, to vinyl, tape, CD and now digital file. Cassette tape was the first time when people could realistically copy “records” in the 1970’s. You did have bootleg vinyl, but it was so prohibitively costly that only live gigs and rare mixes/versions were illicitly pressed up. I remember working on record stalls in the late 80’s and bootleg LPs were a good £12 upwards (some of the Beatles bootlegs were £25-£30 and this was 1988). The real issues for the record companies and music industry as a whole was the advent of the CD – “perfect” digital sound – no hiss, crackle or pop (unless it was on the master tape). This meant that people could copy CDs onto cassette tape and it was as good as the cassette tape you bought in the shop – the beginning of the end. When recordable CD became affordable around 1997, things got really bad for the recording industry. Not only could perfect copies be reproduced with no loss of sound quality, but they could be made very quickly indeed. Around the same time, MP3 emerged. Double whammy time.

Realistically the record industry must have realised it was the end of the gravy train then. So the persecution of internet pirates began. But if a kid has a few quid pocket money and has the choice of ripping off a few music tracks or buy the digital files – identical files – what is he going to do? Say to his mates that he can’t afford to pop down the pub on Saturday because he’s given EMI a few quid for exactly the same files he could go to a torrent site to get illegally? What do you reckon? Do you think music fans in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s really bought music to keep the bands in their limos and private jets? Or because that vinyl/tape/CD were the only way they could get hold of the music?

Put it this way, it beer flowed through taps for free, straight into the home, would you go to the pub to pay for the stuff?

So, music will survive. It was around for years before “the buying years” and will be around for years more. And people will always want new music and associated artwork, videos and image of their favourite stars. It will be different – because the digital world has made getting music (and the videos, lyrics, artwork etc) too easy. There really is no going back.

I’ve got an iPod, about time I used it…

So I’ve never bought an Apple product. Not a Mac, not an iPod. I do, however, have a 4th gen iPod Nano. Now, for someone who’s obviously a bit into music, I’m not actually that into the hardware… I’ve always bought cheap (but good) hi-fi gear from Richer Sounds (right back to the late 80’s when I got my fist NAD amp at the London Bridge store – still got the amp 🙂 ) and as long as it sounds OK to my ears, that’s cool.

So, I won this iPod (thanks Gadget Show!) and meant to use it quite a lot. But for a few reasons I left it gathering dust  (mainly I didn’t get a case for it and couldn’t be arsed loading my music onto it) but not through any anti-Apple sentiment, I didn’t bother for the first nine months or so of ownership. I had a 60GB Creative Vision:M and a 1GB 1st gen Creative Stone and they did me fine. But about a month ago, I thought I’d buy a case for the Nano and give it a whirl.

Blimey. The sound quality is fab. Beats both Creatives hands down. Listening to The White Album on the way to work yesterday, I was hearing bits I’d never heard before in over twenty years of listening.

So there you go – another Apple convert. Well, I like to let things bed down a bit before jumping in…

Ooo-arr Jim Lad, am I missing something….?

Yesterday the guys behind The Pirate Bay (note the name) were each sentenced to a year in prison. For those that aren’t aware of The Pirate Bay, it acts as the “middle man” for those wishing to (mainly) illegally download music and films by providing “torrent” technology. I’m not expert, but my understanding is that torrents work on a peer-to-peer principle. That is, I allow some of my hard drive to be “open” where I can place files that others can essentially copy on to their drives. Those sharers will also allow a portion of their drive to be “open” as well. Therefore, nothing is hosted by The Pirate Bay – it is merely facilitating the connection for the download. The really clever bit about torrent technology means that you can download files in smaller, broken down parts – this speeds up the time it takes to download the file as the torrent software will intelligently look for the fastest way to download the file from multiple sources. So, you might look to download the latest single by a band. You would go to The Pirate Bay (it’s one of many, by the way, but the most famous), look up the song and request it. It would find the file (if it is available on another user’s PC – that PC needs to be on and connected to the internet with the torrent client running) and if it is available, you click on the link and download it. The more people that are hosting the file, the easier and quicker it will (probably) be to get.

So, taking whether illegally copying music is right or wrong out of the equation, is it really that surprising that these guys have been sent down and asked to pay over £2 million in compensation? I’m not surprised in the least. Some of the comments I’ve read over the past couple of days have been pretty jaw-dropping. Mainly along the lines of this being an unbelievable miscarriage of justice. Really? Do you really think that? One comment I saw along the lines of “they are just like Google – providing links to content – they are just a directory!”. Erm, sorry, but OK, Google certainly points you to illegal/questionable content from time-to-time, but I don’t think that was their business model. The Pirate Bay, however, operated with that idea explicitly in mind. They knew what they were doing. Surely at the very least they are accomplices in the crime of stealing music. Say I Lent a car to a couple of mates who I pretty much suspected were going to rob a bank. They then robbed a bank using the car as a getaway vehicle and the police traced the car to me. Now, I was pretty certain that they were going to use the car in a crime. Would I be fearful or being prosecuted as being compliant in the crime? You bet I would…

As well as taking the moral standpoint out of the argument, I have no doubt that this will make absolutely no difference to whether people will continue to illegally copy music files or use similar sites to The Pirate Bay to do so. None whatsoever. Likewise if I was arrested for lending my car to some mates who then used it to rob a bank, I doubt it would stop others from robbing banks. The future of marketing/selling music isn’t the argument here. We all realise that will change radically and it is only due to the size and power of the worldwide music industry coupled with the public at large getting used to the fundamental change that has meant that things are still a little up in the air. I clearly recall the moment that I discovered MP3. It was in 1997 during my previous life as an IT manager. One of the guys on the team knew I was into music and downloaded a 5MB file of a single I liked there and then and played it to me. I realise that audiophiles will argue about the compression of an MP3 file versus uncompressed vinyl or not-as-compressed CD audio, but to 99% of the population, MP3 sounds as good, if not better than a CD bought in a shop. It was immediately apparent to me that such a ridiculously easy and convenient way of copying and moving top-quality music files around the planet was going to fundamentally change the way we buy (or not) music and listen to it. There was obviously no turning back. I remembered the “home taping is killing music” campaign of the 1980’s, but transferring an LP or CD to tape was never going to really dent sales. But MP3 was different. I heard a whole industry start to creak there and then.

Since that moment back in 1997, we have seen broadband become available to the masses while speeds have gone up and prices for broadband in the home go down. We have also seen the “music system” that most people own change from a stack Hi-Fi or portable “ghetto blaster” to a music player no bigger (and sometime a lot smaller) that a packet of cigarettes that can contain around 6,000 CDs. And people look at my all funny when they see my CD and vinyl collection taking up most of a room. “Why not burn them to MP3 and sell them?” is their perfectly reasonable argument. See what’s happening?

People will always want to listen to music and now it has become easier and more convenient than ever. Where convenience goes on the internet, various peddlers of services sprout up to make it even easier. But a fundamental shift in behaviour does not make everyone exempt from prosecution. We should not hold up these self-confessed “pirates” as a cause celebre to move things along with the marketing of music. We’ll get there, but there are far too many people with too many financial interests for it to happen overnight.

So daddy, you used to go to a shop to buy music?!?

Two stories broke during the last week that further underlined that one day kids will ask their parents to remind them when they didn’t get their music fix via a mobile phone (think about it – 25 years ago a phone was a bakerlite thing tethered to the wall with a big dial on the front and you bought 12″ plastic disks to listen to music – who’d have thought it, eh?).

Firstly, Zavvi announced that another 15 stores will be closed immediately – that’s 55 down, 48 still going. The management team are obviously streamlining and looking for a buyer that will be interested in keeping the main stores open. But will they still be regarded as ‘record shops’ – I think that they are closer to ‘Game’ now than anything. In fact, as DVDs are so cheap already and the film industry is facing up to an ‘online’ future, are games the last ‘margin maker’?

Secondly, EMI announced that the company’s digital revenues rose to £102 million in the six months to September 30, a 38 percent increase from the previous half’s £74 million figure (http://www.paidcontent.co.uk/entry/419-maltby-capital-report-in-progress/). This lead EMI chairman Lord Birt to concede that ‘the music market is in turmoil’. Good oh, EMI – so you didn’t see this coming 10 years ago then???

It seems that the record companies are finally facing up to facts. They can’t carry on as a cash-generating old boys club that basically treated artists and customers in an equally shabby manor. Time’s up, the MP3 boat finally came in. Also, what with Woolies also going, will ‘Record Shop’ seem a ridiculous a notion in a few years? When I was a lad, the idea that everyone got their suits made seemed pretty mad – will the record shop become as relatively rare as the bespoke tailor? Unfortunate as it is for all those they employ(ed), record comapanies are basically going to become marketing companies. Apart from offering advances that allow bands to go and buy some nice clothes and marketing a new album, why would a young band sign their lives away to a label these days? Why not get a buzz going via the plethora of social media sites and stuff  ‘the man?’ It is even easy to press your own vinyl these days.

But then again, with no record shops to sell the bloody things, what’s the point?