Are MP3s at the End of Their Lifecycle?

I have a lot of LPs I’m about to give away but I’m torn about whether or not I should try and save them as MP3 files first. Nowadays I prefer to listen to music through Rhapsody Music, which has a giant library of music. Even though there are several million songs in their collection they don’t have everything. Not by a long shot. Music albums are like books, they go out of print, often to become forgotten, sometimes to become rare lost gems.

When CDs became the new music format decades ago people waited for their favorite LPs to be re-mastered as CDs. A lot of LPs got new lives as CDs, but probably only a small fraction of all LPs. Now with digital music, a fraction of all CDs are reborn as MP3, WMA or AAC files. I’m talking about legally published music – if you count illegal, then probably a greater percentage has been reprinted on the net by fans. If would be great to have a music database like Internet Movie Database that tracked all the various incarnations of albums and how to find them now.

Most of my albums don’t even inspire me to replay them much less spend the time to record them to MP3. I even have a Sony turntable designed for use with my computer. I’m pretty good at using Audacity to record MP3 files, but even if I did it the sloppy way of making one MP3 per LP side, it takes about an hour an album to convert. Dividing the side recordings into individual song files and entering the song data into the ID3 tags would add even more time. It would be easier to see if they are on Rhapsody and just record those that aren’t. Buying would also be cheaper than wasting my time.

Doing some spot checking shows me just how many albums Rhapsody doesn’t have in its collection. Rhapsody seems to have every Bob Dylan album back to his first one. For Buffalo Springfield they have their third and a couple hits albums, but a year or so ago I could have sworn I played the first two albums on Rhapsody. In other words, there is no guarantee that Rhapsody will have any specific album in the future. I’ve often wondered how Rhapsody acquires music. I assumed if they had a deal with the publisher they would offer everything that publisher had in its library. I’m now guessing publishers control access to parts of their collections. It almost appears if a CD is in print and available for sale it might be included, but if the CD is pulled from the market it’s also pulled from Rhapsody.

Future of Music: Owned Or Subscribed?

The music world sits at the crossroad of many possible futures. Ian Rogers points out in his blog “Convenience Wins…” – the music industry has been fumbling around for eight years and finally AmazonMP3.com beta points to a practical future. I, on the other hand see a different future as described in my blog entry, “DRM and iTunes and Rhapsody Music” that the subscription model should be the future of digital music. If Rogers is right then I need to record my music. If I’m right eventually everything should show up on a subscription service. Most people want to own music – and buying MP3 songs from Amazon is perfect for that mindset. It baffles me that subscription music isn’t the obvious choice because it’s so damn cheap. For the price of 10 songs I can listen to as many songs as I can squeeze into my month of musical enjoyment. To me it’s worth $120 a year just to preview all the hundreds of new albums that I try out. And playing music through a subscription service makes music listening so convenient that it’s about like switching from normal TV to DVR TV watching.

I don’t mind paying .89 cents a song, that’s cheap enough. What I hate is managing all those files I must save for the rest of my life. If you study science and science fiction you’ll know that technology is moving towards machines with fewer moving parts. Digitizing the world means moving information off of physical formats and onto binary documents. An iPod like device that instantly acquired songs off the net in real time would be the ultimate Music Mecca for listening to songs. This is about as simple as I can imagine for the final form of music storage and distribution. 78s to LPs to CDs to MP3s to Subscription music.

However, if I’m wrong I’m giving up a lot of treasured songs when I give away my LPs. And since I’m also thinking about thinning out my CD collection, I’ll be losing access to even more songs. Betting on the subscription music future might be dangerous, but it’s the one I want. I readily admit the ownership model might win out. However, Rhapsody is moving subscription music on cell phones, Tivos, and cable TV services, and music publishers are talking about selling subscription libraries to internet providers. Music everywhere might be more powerful than music hording.

The Past is a Heavy Weight to Carry Forward

It would be great if Rhapsody and its competitors became the Library of Congress of music history so I could always depend on finding the music I want to hear with just a few keystrokes. Since I can’t, I worry that I should save my old LPs and CDs, or at least convert them to MP3. But I don’t want the burden of becoming a digital librarian. I’ve spent a lot of money over the last forty-five years buying this music so I should want to hang on to it, but I don’t. My music collection has become a heavy weight on my shoulders. It’s connected to a lot of memories too. I could put my albums in the order I bought them and create a timeline of my life. On the other hand, I’m getting old and running out of future years, and life is busy and I don’t have a lot of free time, so managing these physical tokens of my past has become time consuming work.

Several times in my life I have had to give up my record collection and years later I always regretted that and would hunger to hear long lost albums. Sometimes they would be reprinted as CDs, or I’d shop with rare record dealers and re-buy vinyl treasures. Many though, are even forgotten by my memory. I seldom play my LPs anymore. Every couple of years I want to make space on my shelves and I get them out and find that I still love them and put them back. This time they are going. I met a young woman that collected 78s and LPs but lost her collection to Katrina. I figure she will give them a good home.

Letting Go of the Past Makes Room for the Future

I always loved discovering new music so my collection really is a form of external memory. I’ve known a lot of fellow baby-boomers that never got past the 1960s or 1970s in their music tastes. Evidently they reach a point where they had enough music to cherish and that was good enough. When I go onto Rhapsody each day I have the choice of looking up something old or trying something new. Feeding my nostalgic moods keeps me spinning old songs. Hunger for new rushes pushes me to find new songs. I probably own 20,000 songs now, but Rhapsody allows me to try 4,000,000+ new songs.

Giving up my LP collection, and even my CD collection frees me from the physical world and lets me live in the non-material digital world. I can’t help but wonder if that’s a higher plane of musical existence, a more spiritual state of mind beyond the crass world of ownership and hording and living in the past? The time I would spend being a music librarian could instead be spent on being a music fan.

The Ultimate Playlist

Let’s play the old stranded on a desert island game. Let’s imagine I can’t keep everything, but I’m allowed to keep my all-time favorite songs. That might be an interesting project that wouldn’t require too much work and time and even fit on a memory stick or flash memory player. Such a collection could be a hedge against Rhapsody going out of business. Even if I decide to keep my top songs, what format should I save them in? The music industry is moving towards 256kps MP3 files, but audiophiles prefer FLAC or lossless recordings. I could buy an Olive OPUS Nº5 and start feeding my CDs to it and then pack them away in the attic. Then over time I could delete the songs I don’t like and I’d end up with my perfect playlist. That takes a lot of work, and what happens if my OPUS dies? I can’t imagine owning a stereo device for thirty more years.

How long will Rhapsody or iTunes last? CBS, NBC and ABC have been around my whole life providing me with TV entertainment. Is there any chance that Rhapsody could become a music network with their staying power? Geekboys on the net like to talk about the MP3 revolution changing the music world and how the old guard better get with the new paradigm. What if MP3 is already old hat? Net music might now be the new MP3 and they don’t even know it.

I’m giving away my LPs and I’ve already packed up my CDs and put them in a closet. I’ve stopped buying CDs except for gifts. I will only buy MP3s from Amazon for songs Rhapsody doesn’t provide, but I’m leaning towards not even buying MP3s at all. I’m wondering if AmazonMP3 isn’t just as backwards as the DRMed iTunes?

Final Format

Subscription music could be delivered on MP3 but its WMA now because of the DRM restrictions. It doesn’t have to be DRMed any more than songs sold one at a time. And it could be broadcast in FLAC or whatever current technology is the best suited for the network technology of the time. The burden of formats and storage would be pushed to the broadcaster. Why should there be millions of copies of Feist’s “1234” sitting on hard drives all over the world when it just needs to be on a few servers? The net should trump hard drives. I don’t buy DVD movies anymore because Netflix is too damn convenient and cheap. Why should I own songs when net music like Rhapsody is available?

The real questions are still: What happens to all those forgotten out-of-copyright albums? Can subscription music services ever be allowed to be complete like a Library of Congress? Will copyright and publishing rights limit subscription music to marketing whims or fracture it into too many services to be practical? Technology allows for the network delivery of anything song you can think of – but will legal and marketing issues destroy that potential? If you consider illegal P2P trading, the reality is almost here. Can the music industry find a marketing system that satisfies the publishers, the artists and the music fans? Will AmazonMP3 become the legal front-end to a vast distributor of stolen shared music? One reason I would buy a song from AmazonMP3 now is to give it away. I would prefer my friends would all use Rhapsody so all I had to do was hit the Share button, but if they aren’t a member and I want them to hear a song I like, I have to find an alternative way. What if I hear a great song and buy it from AmazonMP3 and give it to seven of my friends? And this becomes the norm, how long will that sales model last? Any ultimate music system has to account for music sharing. Subscription music has that built in as long as all users are subscribers. Is that practical? What if I’m a Rhapsody subscriber and three of my friends are Napster users and four are Zune users?

We have a long way to go before we have a stable music system. Maybe this is just another reason why most people of my generation stopped buying music. See my blog, “Why Has Listening to Music Become as Solitary as Masturbation?

James Wallace Harris 10/10/7

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