The Downside of Downloads
The news cycle has been abuzz about digital music and iTunes‘ ascendance to a position as the country’s leading music retailer. Likewise, the mainstream press has continued to feed its desire for an iTunes-Amazon.com octagon-style retail death match, and steadily has been promoting Amazon.com’s mp3 download service as a worthy challenger to the iTunes hegemony.
(The music labels, long irritated with Steve Jobs‘ control of the legal download market, silently would approve of such a challenge.)
We don’t see what the big deal is. There are several problems with music downloads, and none of them have anything to do with three-letter acronyms that purport to “protect” the underlying content. The primary problem with downloaded music is that it sucks.
I bought my first (and only) .mp3 download from Dancetracks Digital several years ago: “Still A Dancer” by the late Kemdi. “Dancer” is a fabulous song with a wicked rhythm, but the .mp3 file I received in exchange for my dollar’s purchase sounded as if was amplified through a wet paper bag. To its credit, Dancetracks Digital rips its files at much higher bit rates than other music retailers (generally 256- to 320 kbps instead of the normal 128 kbps). Still, the sound quality, even at 320 kbps, is noticeably inferior to even a standard compact disc.
Music is about sound, and the sound quality of audio .mp3 files is unacceptably poor. There are several reasons why this is so: the compression format is inferior; the compression bit rates on commercially available .mp3 files is cheap; the source recordings are poorly equalized and mastered (if at all); and the source music levels are too loud.
Together, this results in garbage that is laughable sonically and a commercial rip off, even at 99 cents per file.
One plausible solution is to use a better encoding algorithm, such as the Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) or Ogg Vorbis. Unfortunately, many portable digital music players — including, ahem, the iPod — do not play FLAC or Ogg Vorbis files natively. Instead, users have to install third-party software onto their computers in order to use either format.
Xiph, the organization that has developed both formats, provides an iTunes plugin that will allow iTunes to play such file formats. While the plugin is a welcome solution, the average Joe or Jane likely will not investigate this option for several reasons, one of which is a fear of crashing their computers.
Music listeners want to listen to music; they don’t want to hack their computers to do so.
(I’ll refrain from digging into the licensing/”first sale” argument because that argument is for copyright wonks, and this piece is about music.)
I understand the portability argument, but again, there are ways consumers can get sound quality and portability given how inexpensive storage has become and the availability of viable alternatives to the .mp3 format. To this end, Apple and Steve Jobs are as much to blame as the music labels.
Music lovers should demand that Apple and the record labels support superior digital audio formats such as FLAC and Ogg Vorbis, as well as higher resolution compact discs for those of us who would pay for higher end, 24-bit audio. Given the technology available to us in 2008, these should be the baseline, not a gold standard.
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