Music Industry Blow Back

The Rabbit had his nose in Chicago Tribune rock critic and Sound Opinions co-host Greg Kot’s Ripped: How The Wired Generation Revolutionized Music (Scribner) when New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s lament on the demise of the music industry came out. Blow’s piece “Swan Songs?” is a short critique of events that have led, he says, to the consumer’s consumption habits moving from “an acquisition model to an access model.” It’s not clear who’s at fault here. Is it the industry, which is offering single tunes thus undercutting the sale of entire albums, or the want-it-for-nothing consumer? And why would anybody cry about the retreat of a business that exploited artists and prosecuted its fans?

Blow might have had a clearer understanding of what’s at play if he’d read Kot’s book. Kot sets the stage by condemning the consolidation of record-producing conglomerates and radio outlets and the payola promotion practices of music “middlemen.” When the internet became the vehicle for an inevitable backlash, the media corporations, rather than seeing opportunity, saw crime. Radio was no longer the vehicle for exposing consumers to new material. Now they could download it online. Musicians who saw Napster and other swap services as stolen revenue—we’re looking at you Metallica—failed to see the opportunities the internet afforded them. Kot shows how some groups, from Girl Talk to Wilco, took advantage of technological innovation to gain (or keep) control of their own business. Blow seems to think that downloading music for free will kill an art form. Kot suggests it can only diversify and improve it.

Comments on Blow’s column and the letters published in response seemed far more informed and a bit more optimistic than the columnist. Not surprisingly, representative of the music industry who wrote in seem to have a positive, even naive view of their future based on subscription services, streaming charges, advertising fees and ring-tone sells. These solutions smack of schemes to keep Kot’s dreaded middlemen profitably in the game. What we’d like to see are technologies and business models that bring more music of all kinds to its listeners while giving artists direct control of their revenues.

Unspoken in Blow’s column and not of much matter in Kot’s book is the quality of the audio being disseminated. We all know the information–loss quality of compressed files, something that doesn’t matter much when listening through laptop speakers (this from a guy who grew up listening to Top 40 on battery-powered transistor radios). But headphones? Those of us who complain about the quality of digital reproduction (cds) when compared to analog (lps) aren’t happy with the quality of the music we download. This matters most (but not exclusively) to those of us who are jazz and classical devotees. That’s why the Rabbit was happy to read Alex Ross’ latest piece in The New Yorker discussing the problem of “scrawny” sounding downloads and a couple of solutions for classical fans. One is at which offers “CD” quality downloads (they also carry jazz and pop music downloads). The other is Pristine Classical which “reequalizes” classic older recordings to give them more listenable sound (they might be playing with fire here). We haven’t yet utilized either service and will be anxious to hear from music lovers who have. But this kind of wide-open niche marketing, whether it be shared recommendations of innovative new rock and pop music or classic Blue Note jazz recordings re-released as superb-sounding 45 rpm lps, is what we hope the future holds for music fans.–Cabbage Rabbit

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