Realty Bytes – November 2015
Acetate cylinders (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonograph_cylinder)
__ 78 RPM Records
__ 33 1/3 PRM Records
__ 45 RPM Records
__ Cabinet Radio
__ Portable (Transistor) Radio
__ Car Radio
__ Closed Circuit (Carrier Current) Radio
__ Cassettes tapes
__ Compact Discs
__ MP3 Files
__ A Walkman or other portable cassette player
__ An iPod or other portable MP3 player
__ Streaming broadcast on the Internet.
__ Sirius FM
__ Spotify or Pandora or similar music service
With the exception of the first and last two, I have lived long enough to have experienced all of these. I personally have some recordings in at least three different formats. I once had a standing cabinet radio with vacuum tubes that played records, including 78 rpm records with a steel needle. It had been my grandfather's entertainment center.
The New York Times reported that 2014 represented a sea change in the way we listen to music:
"The American market for recorded music was flat in 2014, but income from streaming services like Spotify and Pandora has quickly grown to become a major part of the business, eclipsing CD sales for the first time, according to a report released Wednesday by the Recording Industry Association of America."
Several observations can be made here.
It is self-evident that we want to listen music on the go. Since broadcast radio went mobile with the car radio and the transistor radio, we have not stopped the progression of wanting to take music with us where we go. On a clear night in central New York in the 1960s, I could listen to WCLF-AM (The Voice of Labor) from Chicago. In college, the airwaves were filled the new progressive FM radio ("no static at all"). I spent time as a DJ on a carrier current station in a college dormitory, where you could ask listeners to call with requests, put on "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" and be assured that no one would call.
The trans-formative social impact of wireless communications has been noted by writers far more eloquent than this scribe:
But it was not only the earth that shook for us: the air around and above us was alive and signaling too. When a wind stirred in the beeches, it also stirred an aerial wire attached to the topmost branch of the chestnut tree. Down it swept, in through a hole bored in the corner of the kitchen window, right on into the innards of our wireless set where a little pandemonium of burbles and squeaks would suddenly give way to the voice of a BBC newsreader speaking out of the unexpected like a deus ex machina. And that voice too we could hear in our bedroom, transmitting from beyond and behind the voices of the adults in the kitchen; just as we could often hear, behind and beyond every voice, the frantic, piercing signaling of Morse code.
Soon Moore's Law began to take hold. Transistors became smaller and smaller and became computer chips. We moved from portable cassette and CD players to iPods and Zunes. The Internet changed everything again, slowly at first, then ever faster. Streaming radio came along. Worldwide broadcasting became a reality over the Internet. Bands and musicians at first found a way to reach large audiences online.
Streaming music followed, with iTunes and Amazon selling music files. Social media sites like MySpace gave new artists exposure. YouTube brought music videos.
Now, we have streaming music services -- Spotify and Pandora -- that have changed things again. It is fair to say that there never has been so much music available so easily to so many people from so many sources.
There have been compromises and short-comings along this pilgrimage, however. If you remember long playing phonograph records, you will recall the annoyances of scratches and analog hiss. Compact discs seemingly offered a better solution. They were more durable and did not have to be handled with as much care. Streaming music seems even better. You can take it practically everywhere and only have to keep the player dry and in one piece (and have a connection!).
Unfortunately, along the way, in the shift from analog music to digital music, the quality of the music suffered. The dynamics of digital music are not nearly as rich as the old analog recordings. The convenience of compact disks and digitized music online lured us away from our records by offering convenience, but quality arguably diminished. We seemed content to accept the convenience and sacrifice the quality.
When was the last time that you listened to an analog recording on a record? How about your transistor radio? Have you been out for a stroll with your Walkman recently? Technological change has made earlier formats obsolete (with the exception of audiophiles who still maintain turntables and other earlier play-back devices). This change has relegated the music that we purchased in those formats obsolete. I have hundreds of records and two turntables and have not played any records in several years. I also have hundreds of CDs and only play them occasionally now in my car CD player (when I do not have my iPod plugged in).
As we adopt the next wave of technology, we end up having to acquire the music in that new format. We may be buying new music, but we also may be buying (again) old favorites that we still want to play.
One alternative might be "streaming" music services, like Pandora or Spotify. I have both on my mobile devices (ancient iPod and iPhone 6). I like both, but prefer Spotify. Both provide streaming music if you are connected via Wi-Fi or the Internet. There are "free" options, with premium upgrade for a fee. I pay for the premium Spotify service, which makes the streaming available pretty much anywhere you can connect and allows you to download tracks so that they are available on your device when you do not have a connection. These services allow you to create playlists and provide a degree of background information on the artists and different "channels" that simulate themed radio broadcasts. Remember Hearts of Space? It's still around and available for different devices. Pandora and Spotify are like big box stores for themed programming.
As we are flooded with so much digital music so "freely" available, do we care about the quality of what we are hearing? Many do not seem to know that better quality is possible. If you have taken the time to actually listen to digital recordings, however, you understand that such recordings vary widely in quality. Some of this comes from the time and care taken in producing the original recording and its translation into digital format. An artist or a producer may have insisted on better quality. (Examples that come to me immediately -- music recordings produced by T. Bone Burnett and the Radiohead catalog.) As consumers, we need to be wary of digital reissues that promise to be better than the original analog recordings we knew and loved (and still may own). Often, it is just a carnival huckster's sales pitch to get you to buy the music all over again.
Through all of this, some artists have not gone quietly down the path of mediocrity. Two examples are Neil Young and Jay-Z. Neil Young has long spoken out about the inferior quality of digital sound. Finally, he did more than talk about it. He created a new digital music device with superior sound quality. It is called Pono and you can find more information about it online. You can buy the Ponoplayer and digital music at the Pono (or pono) store. "Cousin" Neil starts his explanation this way:
Pono means righteous. It is a Hawaiian word, the one, the pureness. On behalf of Pono, we thank you for helping us give music a voice. You have helped to set the stage for a revolution in music listening. Finally, quality enters the listening space so that we can all hear and feel what the artists created, the way they heard and felt it.
The PonoPlayer only comes in yellow and black and costs $399 and you still have to buy the music (again). The Best of Kiss runs $16.49. Elvis Costello & The Attractions - This Year's Model runs $20.99 for the entire album. R.E.M. - Document is $14.29 for the entire album. Individual tracks from any of these are $2.29 each. Once again, you are buying the music in a new format.
Meanwhile, Jay-Z (the artist otherwise known as Mr. Beyonce) has launched Tidal. It is a digital streaming service attempting to offer superior sound quality and equitable compensation of artists. It has attracted an interesting alignment of artists. Prince can still be found on Tidal. So can such seemingly different artists as Lana Del Rey and David Gilmour. Tidal appears to be targeting Spotify in the competition for world dominance. It is a subscription service that comes with featured artists, videos, suggested playlists, and functions that allow you to create your own playlists and stable of artists and recordings. Tidal's pricing in the US is $9.99 per month for "Hi-Fi" and $19.99 per month for "Premium".
These are steps in a direction to bring improved quality to listeners and perhaps reclaim a market lulled into acquiescence by abundant availability.