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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2006/10/23
by David Steinberg

Towering Disaster

For all of its problems, you can always count on the Phantasy Phish message board for one thing – it breaks news faster than almost any other source. I’ve found out about many stories there, from a lockdown at LAX to Phish’s breakup. So while I wasn’t surprised by getting some breaking news last week from the board, the news itself was shocking. Tower Records was going out of business.
While it’s not like the idea that the music industry was in trouble came as a huge shock, the surprise here is in seeing a worrisome trend suddenly actualize. This looks like a tipping point, a moment where it becomes obvious that things are as bad as people have feared.
How have we arrived here? The main reason is that few people buy albums anymore. Sure it’s a clicho complain about kids these days and their downloading sites, but that is a real issue. While I don’t believe that it’s moral to download music that you’re not going to buy [1], the more interesting question is why this still happens. It’s not hard to understand why people would prefer to get something for free when the only thing stopping them is guilt. Still though, you’d think that the record companies would have come up with a way of stopping this by now. How have we reached a point where all music is on a format that is easily ripped?
When CDs first came out in the mid 80s, the computing world was quite different. I had a pretty state of the art computer – a Franklin Ace 1000, upgrading from my Commodore 64. It was pretty special because it had two – count them, two – floppy drives. No not those fancy schmancy 3.5 inch floppies with the higher capacity, we’re talking the 5 1/4 disks. They put the floppy in floppy disk. Hard drives did exist, but their capacities were measured in megabytes, not gigabytes. Modems existed, but most people had 300 or 1200 baud speeds. People couldn’t download music and even if they could, they had nowhere to put it. It’s hard to blame the people who invented the format for not being able to see the future of technology.
CDs might be the way they are due to lack of imagination from execs, but they have tried to change things at least. SACD and DVD audio were created but they haven’t caught on. When compact discs came along, they were a clear upgrade over cassettes in terms of sound quality and convenience. Random access was a huge advantage over fast forwarding and hoping or walking over to the record player, lifting up the needle, looking for the spot to put it in next, and then dropping it. [2]
The newer generations don’t have these advantages. We’ve pretty much reached the limits of what the majority of humans [3] can hear. People aren’t upgrading to SACD because CDs sound good enough to them. In fact people are choosing lesser sound quality in order to not have to deal with the actual discs. If you can’t rip it to your media player, people aren’t going to be interested in the format.
The music industry definitely has a problem now. They are married to a format that isn’t secure and any attempt to try to move to an unrippable one just annoys people. Regular CDs only sell to the diehards as everyone else just rips them and copy protected discs don’t even do that well because everyone gets mad. This isn’t a tenable solution; Tower’s closing is an early sign of this.
If records aren’t going to pull a profit, there are only two ways of changing things. The first approach is that people are going to try to get the money elsewhere. The most obvious idea is to think of albums as an advertisement for seeing them live. That works fine for jambands, but not everyone is a great live act. Moreover, it’s not like the concert industry is doing that well either. It’s hard to imagine that they can raise prices much more than they have over the last few years.
The other – and I’m afraid more likely – option is that people are just not going to put the same kind of efforts into albums as they used to. To some degree this will be mitigated by recording equipment being significantly cheaper due to the same computer revolution that’s creating these problems. That will help, but there still needs to be a model that will actually make people money if for no other reason than that they need time to be able to perfect their work instead of banging it out when they’re tired after working all day.
The next ten years should be very interesting. The existing order is collapsing leaving open the question as to what will replace it. I just hope that the answer isn’t nothing.
[1] I allow myself to download material as a preview, but if I don’t buy the album after a few listens, I will always delete it.
[2] One of the main differences between CDs and LPs is that the latter is a very tactile medium. You have to interact with the actual album all of the time to the point where many people would make a point of holding and examining the album cover while listening to music. CDs remove the physicality of the music experience. Record collections are meant to be shown off. CD collections are meant to be hidden in booklets. One of the reasons why MP3s have caught on is that people got used to separating the music they were listening to from the object that it was stored on.
[3] Audiophiles excluded of course.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html
He is the stats section editor for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at www.livejournal.com/users/thezzyzx.

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