Personality and Pop Culture

Recently, while cleaning out my old LP collection, I decided there were a handful of albums I wanted to convert and keep on MP3. The two rarest albums in my collection were the soundtrack to the 1966 film, Our Man Flint and the original cast album to the 1967 ABC-TV Stage 67 musical television special On the Flip Side, staring Ricky Nelson. I call these albums rare merely because I have never met anyone else who owned or liked them. I had to sell my record collection in 1970 to pay for my first attempt at moving away from home. In 1989, I found out how rare they were when I bought them for a second time. They weren’t expensive, just hard to track down. I was also able to find the two The Man from U.N.C.L.E. soundtrack LPs on a 2-for-1 CD, as well as many of the James Bond movie soundtracks. That told me there were enough people out there that loved old 1960s spy movie soundtracks to make a market for it. How many of those people also loved a long forgotten Ricky Nelson TV special?

While listening to these two albums as I recorded them with Audacity, and I wondered just how many people in the world also owned this odd pair of LPs. And if there were any, would they be like me in any way? Would we share personality traits? If I listed my Top 100 works from the vista of pop culture I treasured – books, movies, albums, television shows – on some computer system to match my list with other people’s favorites, would people whose lists overlapped with mine, be a lot like me? I’m sure such a test would be more scientific than astrology, but how much so?

The baby boomers I grew up with all listened to the same Top 40 radio during the early and mid-sixties, and we often loved the same TV shows and movies into high school. Shared books were not a common thing – I seldom met other bookworms. Sharing music, movies and TV shows didn’t make us alike but it did make us feel like a cohesive group, even though we were tens of millions of individual personalities. As FM radio came in, and album rock became popular, everyone split into different musical genres. High school gave the illusion we were all alike because we clung together in cliques that shared similar interests. By the time we went to college we realized even our friends we shared everything with were really very different.

Now I’m wondering if we worked backwards, cross-tabbing our lifetime pop-culture favorites, would we discover any statistical revelations about our personalities. I often meet middle-age boomers, generally male, whom I can strike up lively conversations with a drop of a couple names. I know a number of Bob Dylan fans. I know a fewer number of Bob Dylan and Philip K. Dick fans. Getting it down to Dylan, PKD and Jack Kerouac and that makes me wonder about the relationship between personality and pop culture.

I’m going to make a list of my major pop culture landmarks and if you, the accidental browser, stumbles upon this page and share a love for many of these works, zap me a communiqué. Also, if anyone knows of a website or study that works with this idea, also let me know. I was born in 1951, so items before then were discovered later in life. These are movies and television shows I’ve watched many times. The books, except for the ones after 2000, which I’m just now feeling like rereading for the first time, are ones which I have read many times. Many of them I’ve also gotten unabridged audio editions to experience these novels in a new way. And I will watch any and all movie versions made from these stories. These are works that I also read about and study. All of these works are ones I could write thousands of words about. They each have a personal story behind them. This list is just an odd fraction that could be used in the theoretical personality matching system I mention above.

  • Portrait of Marchesa Balbi by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (painting 1621)
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (novel 1813, film & TV many)
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (novel 1861, film many)
  • Paris Streets, Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte (painting 1877)
  • Treasure Island (novel 1883, film 1934)
  • The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (novel 1895, film 1960, 2002)
  • Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie (novel 1902, film many)
  • Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (novel 1912, film 1932)
  • Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey (novel 1912)
  • The Patchwork Girl of Oz by L. Frank Baum (novel 1913)
  • Mark Twain’s Autobiography (1924)
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (novel 1926)
  • City Lights (film 1931)
  • Grand Hotel (film 1932)
  • The Wizard of Oz (film 1939)
  • The Maltese Falcon (film 1941)
  • High Barbaree (novel 1945, film 1947)
  • Battleground (film 1949)
  • Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (novel 1949)
  • The Rolling Stones by Robert A. Heinlein (novel 1952)
  • Starman Jones by Robert A. Heinlein (novel 1953)
  • Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein (novel 1955)
  • Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein (novel 1956)
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac (novel 1957)
  • The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein (novel 1957)
  • Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein (novel 1958)
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (novel 1962)
  • “The Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire (song 1965)
  • “Stop in the Name of Love” by The Supremes (song 1965)
  • “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan (song 1965)
  • Our Man Flint (film and soundtrack 1966)
  • Star Trek (TV series 1966-1969)
  • Mindswap by Robert Sheckley (novel 1966)
  • “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany (short story 1967)
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (novel 1968)
  • “Cowgirl in the Sand” by Neil Young (song 1969)
  • “Fresh Air”/”What About Me” Quicksilver Messenger Service (songs 1970)
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Persig (nonfiction 1974)
  • The Big Chill (film 1983)
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (novel 1985)
  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (novel 1985, TV miniseries)
  • Replay by Ken Grimwood (novel 1987)
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation (TV series 1987-1994)
  • Northern Exposure (TV series 1990-1995)
  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (novel 1992)
  • Tombstone (film 1993)
  • Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon (novel 1995, film 2000)
  • His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (novel trilogy 1995-2000)
  • Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling (novel series 1997-2007)
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV series 1997-2003)
  • The Matrix (film 1999)
  • Freaks and Geeks (TV series 1999-2000)
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel (novel 2001)
  • Positively 4th Street by David Hajdu (nonfiction 2001)
  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (novel 2002)
  • Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett (memoir 2004)
  • The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls (memoir 2005)
  • Lost (TV series 2004- )
  • Heroes (TV series 2005- )


Who is Still Playing Buckwheat’s Songs?

There is a song I love, “On My Own” by a guy named B. W. Stevenson, but sad to say it’s not easy to find anymore. I recently discovered that Lone Star Music has reprinted several of his old LPs as 2 for 1 CDs and I ordered a couple from Amazon. However, I wished Buckwheat’s music (that’s where the B. W. comes from) was on Rhapsody. I don’t like buying CDs anymore, because if it not on Rhapsody it tends not to get played by me. After playing B. W. Stevenson’s Best of Album on LP, I just had to order some more of his music. I’m getting rid of all my LPs, and a few inspire me to play them just one last time, like Buckwheat’s album. I sometimes think of getting rid of my CDs, which is why I hate ordering CDs, because I know I’ll be have to make another sad farewell in the future. CDs tie me to old technology that I’m very anxious to leave behind.

I hate to think of lost music and lost artists. How many 78s were converted to LP? And then how many LPs were saved for the future by conversion to CDs? And now, how many physical albums, from all that were ever recorded and published will make it to the new digital world of music? 113,895 visitors (since 7/22/01) have clicked on that B. W. Stevenson site above to see his discography, so we know he has some fans out there. I’d love it if all the digital subscription services and digital music sales sites had to report their data to a central service. How many people played “On My Own” in 2007?

I keep up with a forgotten writer, Lady Dorothy Mills, who published fifteen books in the 1920s and early 1930s. She’s forgotten today. I maintain that web site on her. I’m one of her last readers as far as I can tell. I get about one email a year either asking about her or providing me with a new snippet of information. If her books were reprinted as ebooks on the Internet would she gain new readers? If Buckwheat’s music was on Rhapsody, Napster and Zune, would he be acquiring new fans?

Lee, a friend of mine, told me how much he loved the old British folk group Fairport Convention and I was able to find 14 of their albums on Rhapsody, including 7 of their first 20 albums. I’m playing the first right now. Does being on Rhapsody help or hurt the group? They would probably make more money from actual CD sales, but as long as I can listen to digital music and not have to mess with a physical media to file and store, I want to leave the world of CDs forever. B. W. Stevenson’s music isn’t on Rhapsody. Except for “Shambala” on a 70’s hit record, his albums aren’t on iTunes or Amazon MP3 sites either. Why? Why does Fairport Convention get 14 albums preserved? Is it because Buckwheat is pretty much forgotten and Fairport Convention was famous enough to maintain a momentum into the future – for right now. Amazon has 12 of their records for sale as MP3 albums.

As a fan I’m more concerned about hearing the music I love, but I suppose the owners of the music, they are more concerned with making the maximum amount of money. Copyright protects their work, we’d like to think. I’ve always wondered how much artists make from providing their work on subscription services like Rhapsody. But I have to ask, does being available count for something? Would young people be listening to more Beatle songs if they were legally online? Rhapsody is catching on. Rhapsody is now on TiVo and cell phones and subscription music is a new feature on some cable TV systems, and offered by some universities to their students via campus networks. And companies like Sonos make Rhapsody America and Napster even easier to access – almost like science fiction magic. Subscription music is the music distribution system of the future, even if it’s not quite a success now.

It’s like that old question about a tree falling in a forest, who will hear Buckwheat’s music when all the songs are played digitally? Like I said, I’m giving up my LPs, and maybe my CDs soon, and even my SACDs. Eventually I’ll have to decide do I want to own music, like how I just ordered the B. W. Stevenson’s CDs, or do I just want to play music by beckoning it out of cyberspace? I own about 20,000 songs. Rhapsody lets me play from about 5,000,000 in the library, with a good deal of overlap. It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. If I hadn’t ordered those CDs from Amazon I would have lost access to “On My Own.” I don’t know how long I will continue to do that, just to save some old favorite songs. I did rip “On My Own” from the LP to save it before I discovered it on CD. But I hate saving and managing MP3 songs – it’s such a pain to preserve gigabytes and soon terabytes of information.

I’m moving to a new paradigm shift as a fan of music, movies and books. Instead of having a giant personal library where I hang onto everything, I’m moving towards a future where I discover stuff just as I use it and let it go when I’m finished. Rhapsody and Netflix work like dream in that new paradigm.

JWH


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

Why Has Listening to Music Become as Solitary as Masturbation?

My friends seldom whisper a word about music anymore, which I am finding very strange. People used to talk about music, at least back in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. I assume young people today are just as crazy about music as my generation, but they don’t talk about music with me. It could be the generation gap, or has music dropped off the water-cooler topic list? Oh, I have a number of guy friends that are music nuts like me, and we tell each other what we’re listening to and trade recommendations, but as far as I could tell, most of my friends stopped listening to music a long time ago. At least that’s what I thought. I sent an email out and polled some friends and I was surprised by what I got back. Many still love music, they just love it alone.

My wife hates when I play music at home when she’s there. I beg her to sit and listen with me and share the music I’m discovering, but my enthusiasm to just sit and listen bores the crap out of her. She does love music, but in the car, when she’s by herself, where she can sing along. It’s become a personal thing, something to do in private. I’ve heard from other women friends that like to sing in the car alone too. Many people tell me their only source of music is the car radio. Others love the iPod, and we all know how isolating those little gizmos are. Plug in, turn on and tune out the world. I have heard people extolling the virtues of noise cancelling headphones but nary a word about what they are hearing. And I’ve heard endless arguments over digital music, MP3 players, music piracy and so on, but I just don’t hear people listening to albums together.

When did music become so anti-social? As kids in the 1960s with limited budgets we gathered together in after school parties to play, trade and share records. Or gangs of us would ride around in beat up old 1950s cars, going nowhere, doing nothing but listening to dashboard AM radio. On weekends we’d go anywhere where there was a great jukebox, or to roller rinks and thunder along on wooden floors to the blasting boom of the Beatles. We’d have endless arguments. The Bryds v. The Buffalo Springfield, Eric Clapton v. Duane Allman, Motown v. Brill Building. Did the Monkees play their instruments? What did those lyrics really say?

And of course, there was the communal aspect of the musical enhancing herb that would bring us together in darkened rooms lit by muted televisions, with the stereo drowning out our thoughts, sharing the vibrations, feeling groovy. We’d spend hours talking about our favorite groups between changing LPs. Music was a revolution that was of vital importance to art and society. We felt we were on the cutting edge. We could have all written our own books about Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen.

Every weekend there would a selection of touring bands to consider, and this would bring us together by the hundreds or thousands. Seeing top performers cost no more than going to the movies today. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do know there’s plenty of live music playing every night in 2007 in any big city, but that’s for a generation two generations younger than mine. My generation might go out once every year or two to some performing arts center to see an Oldie-Goldie nostalgia act, but to be honest folks, I don’t like seeing geezer rock and roll. I remember going to concerts or parties with bands and I hated when old people showed up, so I don’t like intruding on the current generation of the in-crowd. So I wonder if age is a factor – is live music mostly for the young? I know I’m going to get some howls over that prejudice.

I do have some theories about us old guys playing music alone. I think music makes us feel really good, almost like a drug, but it produces a high we like to experience alone. I’m bobbing my head to “All Your Reasons” from Matchbox Twenty’s Exile on Mainstream album that’s coming through my computer’s speakers via Rhapsody. I’m listening to this week’s new releases. I just finished Annie Lennox’s Songs of Mass Destruction and I’ll probably listen to Bruce Springsteen’s Magic next. It’s 7:43 pm and I’m tired after work, and I haven’t had dinner and I’m hungry, but the music is infusing energy into me, enough to encourage me to write. When I tired of music I’ll eat. Music is more nourishing now. My wife is at the kitchen table playing games on her laptop – that’s her way to unwind. My friends are at their homes, tired from work too, doing their thing. Maybe watching TV, maybe woodworking, reading the newspaper or maybe they are at the gym grooving with their iPods – tuning the rat race out. I guess the world of work, marriage and families split up our communal listening gatherings. That’s sort of sad.

I wished that all my friends were members of Rhapsody so I could still share music. I’d hit the share button on special discoveries and send them a song in a bottle to listen to on their own mental desert island, where they commune in their loneliness. I’d love to share some songs from The Reminder by Feist, the little girl doing the iTunes Nano commercial with her song, “1234.” Maybe that’s why MP3 music stealing is so popular – kids don’t want to get together, but they still want to share.

The best I can do to recapture this old spirit of music sharing is to write this blog. I do have to wonder why my generation is secluding itself into their little rooms to pursue solitary pursuits. Are our hobbies of self pleasure more fulfilling than trying to communicate and work on the same wavelength? It reminds me of long ago when my sister would beat on the bathroom door and yell, “Why are you taking so long? What the hell are you doing in there!”

jwh

DRM and iTunes and Rhapsody Music

With all the recent discussion of EMI and other music companies releasing their music catalogs with DRM-free files, I had to wonder what will happen with subscription music services like Rhapsody Music, Napster, Yahoo Music!, Urge, Virgin Digital, etc. Subscription services offer unlimited access to giant catalogs of songs, and they use DRM systems to make sure the music is locked down from thieves. You can boogie just as long as your monthly payments keep coming. Could subscription services work without digital rights management (DRM) systems like so many are campaigning for the buy-by-the-song businesses?

I’ve been using Rhapsody for awhile now and I’ve essentially stopped buying CDs. I have a collection of a couple thousand CDs and LPs but I’ve stored them away. Digital music subscriptions are just too damn convenient over both getting my lazy ass out of my chair and tracking down CDs I never re-alphabetize or ripping and maintaining digital collections on my always changing computers. I can’t believe anyone would be buying digital music from iTunes or any other pay-by-the-song services. Ownership, whether digital or physical means work – librarian type work of organizing, filing and preserving. Buying files without DRMs will mean easier backups, but you still have to manage your tracks – and after awhile iTunes gets unwieldy with large collections.

Physical CDs are great for playing anywhere, lending to friends, and getting the maximum sound quality. MP3 songs are great for making compilation CDs to share with friends or for emailing single songs to distant friends. Rhapsody allows for sharing songs, but your friends need to be members of Rhapsody. Rhapsody just started selling MP3 DRM-free music – so now it’s possible buy a song and share it – although I don’t think that’s the purpose of the new feature. It’s doubtful the industry wants Rhapsody to transmit all their subscription tunes over the net via unencrypted MP3 files, but would that be so bad? If everyone subscribed to music would it matter? The key to subscription music is the convenience of not worrying about owning files.

Rhapsody does all the work for me. I think of a song or album or artist and type in the name in the Rhapsody search box. If it’s there, and most of the time it is, I just play the music. When I’m tired of listening I close the window. Rhapsody does allow me to download the song files to my computer, but I don’t use that feature. First, I don’t use a portable player. I play songs through my computer or my stereo system via Wi-Fi and Firefly Media Server. I do have an iPod but I use that for audio books. When I’m at work I play Rhapsody through Internet Explorer and my computer’s speakers. If you do have a compatible player you can download files to your player. If you want, you can download thousands of albums to your computer, as much as it can hold, and as long as you pay your bill the songs will play. But is that the ultimate way to experience music?

When I was a kid I used to have this Sci-Fi fantasy that I could mentally play music in my head and it would sound like I was listening to a loud stereo. Just think of the song and my neurons would dance. Rhapsody is close to that. Rhapsody even has players that use Wi-Fi to connect to its services. I doubt I will ever have music transmitted directly to my brain, but if Rhapsody (or competitors) were available anywhere I went, then that will be good enough. Once you hear music in that light you realized that DRM locks aren’t needed. I don’t want to own the music. I don’t want to store the music. I don’t want to manage music files. I just want to listen.

Right now if Rhapsody took the locks off its songs people would steal them blind. That’s because some people can’t see the utopian view of listening to subscription music. Why horde songs when you can listen to what you want when you want and where you want? I do all of this for $120 a year – Yahoo and others even offer cheaper deals. Rhapsody currently charges more to people who want to download songs to put on compatible portable players, but if they ever perfect Internet everywhere on portable devices that wouldn’t be needed.

Finding Music v. Buying Music

I was just reading an interview with Daniel Radcliffe who told about where he was and what he was doing when reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. At one point he mentioned he was listening to a group called Takk and their album Sigur Rós, a band I’ve never heard of before. So I fired up my browser, typed Takk into Rhapsody search box and began listening to it. That’s how I find out about music now. Oh sure, I could have zipped over to the iTunes store and bought it for $9.99, but why? For the price of one album I get to listen to them all. I’ve gone beyond how to afford music. And I never wanted to be in the business of stealing music. For my ten bucks of legal rental payment, I’m now in the music finding business. I can’t believe kids steal when legal music is so damn cheap.

If the music industry could acquire X million subscribers worldwide they would probably make as much money as they used to make selling physical albums but without the costs and overhead of actually making, shipping and selling CDs. Once you get past the part about owning music you realize the problem becomes finding great new music. And Rhapsody has many features that help there too. One of them is the ability to send songs, albums or playlists to other Rhapsody members. If I discover a great new album, I can hit the share button and send it to my friends. They don’t get the actual song, but a link to where to play the music. That’s all that’s needed. The holy grail of musicians and music publishers is to get millions to people to start playing a song. Having easy access makes that much easier.

This will be a major paradigm shift in the world of music. Why listen to radio? Just request a playlist or music channel if you want surprises and randomness. This allows everyone to become music programmers by building playlists. No more mixed tapes and CDs. Create a playlist and email it to your girlfriend. When you meet new people you won’t flip through their CD collection, you can request their favorite playlists and listen to the music. You can make friends by having your playlists analyzed and compared to others. It’s a whole different world.

The greatest thing about subscription music services is discovering new music. You can try anything you want. On Tuesdays when new music comes out just play as many new albums as you can. You aren’t restricted. When Stephen King lists his top 25 rock songs in Entertainment Weekly, just pop over to Rhapsody and listen to them.

Subscription services will have to maintain their DRM systems until the mass of people realize that owning music is a pain, but eventually DRMs won’t matter.

Where Subscription Music Fails

Since 1964 I’ve been buying music, and even though I’ve had to sell my collection a couple of times since then, I’ve gathered a couple thousand albums – far more than I want to rip and preserve on hard disk. Rhapsody is great for the new stuff and the famous stuff, and crappy songs from artists that only their mothers would buy, but it is far from complete. I have a lot of albums that Rhapsody doesn’t. And if I want to play, “Fresh Air” by Quicksilver Messenger Service, I have to dig through my closet. That really puts some holes in my musical heaven.

For subscription music to really work it needs to be complete. Every online retailer should have access to everything imaginable – and publishers should allow the various online subscription libraries to promote music in whatever fashion they want. No need to have a big brother monopoly, but it would defeat the idea if I had to subscribe to a bunch of services just to get the variety I want.

The next big problem is sound quality. Compressed music is pretty damn good, but it ain’t stereophile quality. In my ideal dream music system I don’t want to own and store music, so it doesn’t matter how big the files are just as long as the music can be piped to me in real time with no interruptions. My assumption is technologies will only get better and transmission speeds will only get faster, so music libraries should have no trouble improving the quality.

A side effect of all this should be the end of the format wars. The wizards behind the Internet curtain will worry about such details. We might have to upgrade our browsers, sound cards and drivers from time to time, but that’ll just give computer companies reasons to sell us new computers. A few years ago when SACD music came out I expected to repurchase all my favorite albums – the ones I first bought on LPs and then later bought again as CDs. I didn’t because SACD music didn’t catch on, but under my dream system, instead of buying all new albums I’d just need to buy a new sound card and speakers.

Another music related fantasy I have is all the black boxes and wires will disappear and music will magically come from nowhere. It would be great if they could put SACD quality surround sound in tiny little speakers built into my monitor. I love the look of those new 24″ iMacs – and what a thrill it would be to have one if it worked like the Apple sales photos without a rat’s nest of wires docked at the back and produced Bose Wave audio quality sound without any visible speakers. Oh, drat, Steve Jobs doesn’t believe in subscription music.

What’s Playing Right Now

Rhapsody is good enough now that I very seldom get out a LP or CD. Right now I’m listening to Joe Cocker from 1969 and 1970. I’m listening to albums I haven’t owned or seen in years. Rhapsody is one great trip down memory lane. I often play albums that I remember flipping by in stores years ago when I was a teenager and my bagboy job at the Coconut Grove Kwik-Chek wouldn’t allow me to buy everything. And 128kbps WMA is probably better sounding than my old $199 stereo I bought in twelve payments from the Columbia Record Club in 1968 – my first experience in credit. I play my music through a sound card plugged into a Sony amp that’s connected to Bose bookshelf speakers sitting on each end of my computer desk, so I sit in the sweet spot. Rhapsody’s web based interface has become so good that I often skip the full client version. I just flip through the library and click the little plus sign to add songs to the playing queue. I can’t believe people actual pay for songs 99 cents at a time and then have to worry about saving them. Hell, I would have already run up a $20 bill just writing these last few paragraphs

What Happens If Subscription Music Fails

My worry is the music industry will decide to call it quits on subscription music. If they do I don’t expect to start buying DRM songs for 99 cents. I might buy a few $1.29 DRM free songs, but what I’d do is rip my CD collection, create a pool of favorite songs I’ve discovered over the last fifty years and go musical Rip Van Wrinkle and time travel through my tuneverse. Which is what I think many people have already done and explains why CD sales are down – they’ve just checked out from the system. If Apple has sold a 100 million iPods and one billion songs, it sounds like selling digital songs isn’t that big of a business since on average people are only buying ten songs. I wonder how many rental songs have been played in that same time?

I’m not sure about the health of subscription music. I know few people who use it. I show it to friends all the time. I think most of my baby-boomer music friends are content with their small collections of CDs which they ripped with iTunes. But real music fans should try subscription music so they can try new stuff. It’s nothing at all to try out several new albums of unknown artists each week. If subscription music goes the way of SACD then I doubt I’ll be trying as many new groups as I am now.

Can Artists Make Money From Subscription Music

I’m playing “In A Big Country” and I wonder if the old group Big Country will make any pennies from my few moments of nostalgic pleasure. With enough subscribers it’s possible for the music industry to generate the same billions they used to earn by selling CDs, but will any of that moola reach the deserving talent? Are there accounting systems that let the artists see how many times their songs have been played? That could be pretty cool info to track. If I pay $10 for a month of music, that’s 1,000 pennies. If I play 33.33 songs a day, that would equal to 1 cent per song per play.

To earn a buck a group would need 100 plays – to earn a million bucks would require 100 million plays. At a royalty of 10 percent, a group would have to sell 1 million $10 CDs to make a million dollars. Since most fans play their favorite songs over and over again, groups wouldn’t have to reach 100 million people, but get 10 million people to play the song 10 times or 1 million people to play the song 100 times. Thus it’s quite possible to make money at a penny a play, but I doubt the music industry is that generous to artists with their subscription income. At a tenth of a cent per play it would take a billion plays to generate a million bucks. I bet I played Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” at least a thousand times, maybe a good deal more.

I also figure the $10 a month fee Rhapsody charges won’t always stay that low. It used to be $9.95 a month paid monthly, but the by monthly fee has since gone up, so I have to pay by the year to get that low rate. If the subscription services could get 100 million users world-wide they would be in the 12 billion dollar annual revenue range and we know at least 100 million people world-wide love music enough to buy an iPod. If everyone paid the $15 monthly fee that goes with having a portable player, that industry figures grows to 18 billion. It’s quite easy to see the music business making plenty of money via the subscription model. Whether they pay their artists any more than what they paid when they sold music as LPs or CDs is another issue.

Conclusion

If the music business could get the majority of their clients to support the subscription model there would be no need for DRM systems. No one would want to clog up their drives to horde music or waste their precious free time trying to acquire and manage files. If my record collection were digital files I’d have 20,000-25,000 of the little buggers to deal with. What a pain it would be to protect all those gigabytes. The only data on my computer should be the data I created. The only data I should worry about backing up is the data I created. Music should be store elsewhere play anywhere.

Update: 12/24/07

I can now play “Fresh Air” through Rhapsody.  Several music services have closed or limited their efforts.  The big ones are still Rhapsody, Napster and Zune.  Rhapsody is expanding its services by partnering with hardware companies like TiVo and cell phone services.  Denon is even making a table top radio that has a dock for an iPod, plays XM music, is compatible with MP3 CDs and connects directly to Rhapsody – thus offering the Rhapsody library without a computer.  Rhapsody has also made marketing deals to give away songs with hamburgers.  They are making a valiant effort to push the concept of subscription music.

Guaranteed Classics – Music Just For You (To Buy)

If you searched the net you can find plenty of writers riled up over The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s The Definitive 200 list of CDs they want you to own. Since I’m a list maker myself, see The Classics of Science Fiction, I like to think about preparing a good list. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has essentially prepared a list of CDs that is based on sales from recent decades, rather than compiling a list based on artistic merit that I think most readers expected it to be. Of course, we could assume that hordes of buying fans represent good taste and the list does represent the best 200 albums any music lover should own. Maybe it’s like school where they make you read books that are good for you. The trouble is they recommend music from several musical genres that doesn’t necessarily match any single music lover’s taste.

Any list of all time great albums that leaves out Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan can’t be much of a list. (Supply your own missing album to make this paragraph more meaningful.) That’s my all-time favorite album, so I’d expect it to be on the list – it wasn’t. Do I have no taste in music? When I assembled the Classics of Science Fiction list I realized I couldn’t just tell people what I thought were the best science fiction books. I had to come up with a system that represented authority of opinion.

The Rolling Stone Greatest 500 Albums of All Time list is more to my taste, but then Blonde on Blonde was #9. Increasing the number of bests also helps to hit everyone’s favorite. However, the Rolling Stone list just feels more genuine to me. There is a lot of overlap with the R&R Hall of Fame list, especially near the top. You can spot the impact of sales on both lists by looking at the RIAA of Gold & Platinum Top 100 albums or Wikipedia’s List of Best-Selling Albums Worldwide. Studying these two lists shows how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame made up their list. Every album I went “Huh!” over with great puzzlement and head scratching sold enough CDs to wallpaper Florida.

If I was going to make a list, I’d do something like what Time did for their All-Time 100 Albums. First, I would not rank albums. That should stop a lot of fights. Second, I would arrange the list going back in time, year by year, and list alphabetically what I determined through careful research were the best albums for each year. I would do what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame did and put in muliple genres – but I’d add even more genres including World, Folk, Classical, and others they left out. This would be a massive job and one I’ll probably never work on, but I wish someone else would. Like the R&R HoF listers, I’d use sales figures but I’d also use critical reviews, awards, fan polls, books on music history and the test of time to figure out what albums really were the best for each year. I’m sure there are books that have done this, and maybe even web sites.

Metacritic has done something like this for the years back to 2000, but the list I want needs to go back through the 1920s, and maybe earlier to cover the entire history of pop music and the history of albums.

Now that I have Rhapsody Music, and can listen to almost any album I desire at the touch of a mouse for $9.95 a month, I’ll take these lists and explore what all the fuss is about. Hopefully, I’ll find some albums that I’ve never listened that’ll blow me away. Just because I lived through all those years since the 1950s doesn’t mean I got to hear all the best albums. And it really is exciting to discover great artists you totally missed.