Spinning hard drives

A look at the digitization of music

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The world of music is like a revolving door. No other form of media has seen such radical changes in the way it is conceived, produced, delivered and experienced. Even within many of our lifetimes, music has surfaced in the forms of vinyl records, eight-track tape players, cassette tapes and compact discs. With the advent of digital music, a fundamental and undeniable shift is occurring in the concept of music itself.

As with any change, apprehension often follows. As MP3 downloads become the norm for many music listeners, the pros of this technology (ease of access to more music) are fighting with the cons (losing out on quality of sound and fears of the marginalization of music.) Many are painting the music industry as going into a state of panic about their longevity in the overwhelming digital age. With the inevitable transformation going on, the question arises: should we fight the change or adapt to the new way of doing things? Recent developments suggest that we may be able to do both.

The history of music delivery

The pursuit of music has not always been an easy one. Prior to the invention of the tape recorder during World War II-it was created originally for espionage purposes-the music people listened to and how they acquired it was an issue of social and financial concern. Art music, a category devoted to endeavours classified as structurally and theoretically advanced, was reserved for a chosen few.

"Before 1945, if you wanted to hear this music, you had to either go to a concert or learn how to play it yourself on a piano," says University of Calgary musicologist Dr. Friedemann Sallis. "If you wanted to go to a concert on the east coast of North America or Europe, you had to dress in a certain way, you had to have money to get those clothes and you had to be used to associating with those people who dressed up in ties and tails to go to a concert."

Sallis says that the sheer amount of discomfort associated with these outings was enough to deter the masses from attending concerts for performances or pursuing this intellectual music. Most people also had no interest in media above their social class.

Tape recorder technology was quickly applied radio station transmissions as well as adapted by French and German composers, ushering in the age of electro-acoustic composition and avant-garde sounds. With the advent of the LP as well as the quickly decreasing costs of technology, people of every class gained access to more music, especially in the western world.

The 21st century is home to innovations that startled and confused many social conservatives of the music world. New digital elements bring attention to the unavoidable fact that music is evolving to the point where it can't even be conceived of through conventional means, like laptop bands that operate using too many tones to be recorded on a normal music staff.

The stratification of music listeners and the quality debate

Living in a time when people have the opportunity to choose what music they listen to and what medium to project that music with has set the stage for an inevitable battle regarding what medium is ultimately the best. Some say that the way we listen to music is simply a result of our fast-paced lifestyle and, while a lot of choices are the product of necessity or obliviousness, others are conscious decisions made as a declaration of knowledge.

The proponents of vinyl have made a strong case for the medium's audio superiority over CD and, especially, MP3 formats, citing records' place as an activity rather than just a background soundtrack to every day life, as well as a way to enjoy music in a truer form.

"Vinyl is a political statement," says Dawn Loucks, co-founder of Calgary's Saved By Radio/Saved By Vinyl label. "It's a different experience to sit down and listen to a record than to put it on your iPod. This is why we do the downloads with the records: people can still have stuff on their iPod, but we want you to sit down and actually listen to the record start to end, looking at the artwork for more of a spiritual experience. That's the kind of musical experience that we want to be associated with."

Danny Vascarelli an employee of Calgary record store Melodiya Records agrees.

"There are always enough people that want the whole tangible thing and I think people appreciate that," he says. "Sound quality is a big thing. Even a casual listener should be able to notice that vinyl is not as thin-sounding."

Some of the music world is more generous to acknowledge the virtues of many media, digital included.

"I understand that vinyl and analogical technology has certain advantages over digital technology because of the range of frequencies that you can achieve," says Sallis. "On the other hand, digital technology has a crispness of rhythm that you can't get with analogical technology. I can still hear Bach on a CD and if there are a few frequencies missing on the top and the bottom, it doesn't really change the view."

The debate over music medium even goes past the sounds themselves and concerns the intellectual content and how actively people are experiencing their music.

"Today, anyone can buy a walkman or a CD player and go into a store online," says Sallis. "You don't need an education, you don't need to know anything at all. You just push a button. Now, this has meant that this music is now out there and is being listened to, but with no prior knowledge. This music was not composed for this public. What people are getting out of this music is now the question."

Sallis adds that when music was associated with social status outright, it was implicitly accompanied with the need to engage.

"The music was written in such a way that it demands active listening and intellectual engagement and concentration," he says. "Of course, this was not available to most people in the 19th century and it's not really available to most people in the 21st century either. I think that, in many cases, the people that purchase this music are not aware of how rich it is and sometimes, it's used as musical wallpaper. A lot of people today, because of the lack of information, are not able to distinguish music that is commercially produced as wallpaper and is really nothing more than that and highly sophisticated pieces that should not be listened to as just wallpaper."

What most people can agree on is that music created conscientiously needs more attention in order to be appreciated fully, but that only a small sector of the population has the means to cultivate the appreciative skill. While social class is not necessarily a determining factor in what music people listen to, society is creating a new, more subversive, caste system centred around the music itself, solidifying the "discrimination factor" as an inevitability.

The impending death of the music industry or how digital music saved vinyl

The Canadian Recording Industry Association is one of the strongest voices in the highly-publicized battle between the record industry and the impending digital era. Their website is host to various articles detailing sharp decreases in sales-35 per cent in 2007's first quarter-as well as pages trying to dispel myths about digital downloading and urge people to keep buying to support the industry.

Most notably, the CRIA is part of the music sector that is looking to reams of copyright reforms as the main way to protect the industry and the artists. Though their doom-and-gloom forecast for the future of the music industry may be a little hasty, there are those who concede that some things definitely need to be restructured.

"In the next five years, there will be no physical representations of music anymore," says Rollie Pemberton, who performs as the rap artist Cadence Weapon. "No CDs or records or whatever. There will be no record stores anymore and everything will be online."

Those in the thick of underground, independent and art music have taken a different approach to the issue of industry sustainability, citing the move to digital as something that could help them flourish as well as noting that CDs are likely what will become obsolete.

"I observe that the popular music business is in a crisis because everyone's downloading," says Sallis. "On the other hand, art music is just chugging right along. People who want that music also want a little booklet because they want to know about it and they usually have a little bit of money to spend on it, so spending that money isn't a problem."

Smaller labels are actually reaping benefits because they can adapt to changes more quickly as they focus more of their attention on vinyl for the specialty listener and, as a result, fostering a strong consumer base that doesn't possess the fickle tendencies of digital listeners. The stores that specialize in vinyl are also making the shift successfully, riding the storm better than those who are catering to the CD crowd.

Loucks says that accepting change is key, rather than trying to be a stick in the mud.

"I would say, don't even try [to stop leaks] because it's like fighting a losing battle," says Loucks. "Bootlegs and all that stuff, those are things that add mystique and value to musicians. We would stop making CDs if we didn't have to do them for mail-outs for campus radio and CBC, because that's the format they're accepting stuff in."

While the changes in the industry are more and more favouring the underdog when it comes to small labels and record stores, many think that up-and-coming artists will suffer from lack of profits. The artists themselves, though, are taking up new attitudes about that reality.

"If you want to make money, I guess that's how you have to do it, but you're not going to make much," says Ladyhawk's Duffy Driediger. "It might be a good thing, because it might force people to play music more for the love of it than to try to make money. It's not a viable career option."

Pemberton agrees.

"The age of blingin' out and selling a million records is not going on anymore," he says.

The future

History is notorious for housing social conservatives who claim the end of the musical world like clockwork and 2008 is no different. The re-emergence of vinyl will give life to a certain sector of music that few thought would be around in the 21st century.

Radiohead's initial self-release of their latest album, In Rainbows-the band offered the MP3 files on their website for as much as listeners were willing to pay-was a thought-provoking exercise for the industry. When the hard-copy release came along, Vascarelli says that, surprisingly, the sales were even higher than normal.

"Even though everyone and their dog downloaded it for a dollar and everyone has it-I heard those MP3s and they didn't sound that great-when In Rainbows finally came out in hard copy, we got a lot of it on vinyl and I think we sold more of that than we had of anything in a long time," he says. "Having that little download on your computer as opposed to having the whole package, you're getting more for your money. Some people still appreciate that."

Technology is also fostering new ways to experience the media that already exists. The trend of including MP3 downloads with vinyl albums gives record aficionados the sound they want with the portability that has become a necessity. Turntables that connect to computers via USB cables are also on the horizon, giving those same vinyl lovers an option for having their own version of the music they already embrace in a digital format.

People will always struggle with what to keep around and what is functional in ever-changing societies. As we progress further into a digital future, though, most musical pundits are welcome and embrace the change.

"I don't think that the transmission of music via digital means will cease and it's going to increase," says Sallis. "It's not necessarily a zero-sum game, though. The increase of the transmission of knowledge via screens has not led to a decrease in books. I think these things evolve and it's not that one crosses out the other. On the other hand, it's true that the whole media that we use to transmit what we do with sound are historical objects and if they are, they came into existence one day and will cease to exist in another."