I moved house recently, and with me came an enormous quantity of boxes. A large number of them contained not clothes, crockery, or useful household implements, but CDs and vinyl records—product of an embarrassingly self-indulgent music-accumulating habit. The boxes are hulkingly heavy, and I still haven't unpacked them.
Contrast that with the collection of Stephen Witt, who at one point owned 15,000 albums, with one crucial difference: unlike me, he could fit them all into a single plastic bag if he wanted to.
The reason is simple. Witt is younger than I am, and all his music was in MP3 format, storable on computer hard drives. Witt is a child of the Internet generation, and I wasn't. As an eighth grader it took me two months to save the money for David Bowie's album Hunky Dory, and get it by mail order. Nowadays it's a couple of mouse clicks away, free, on Spotify.
That's a revolution, and Witt's new book How Music Got Free charts in fascinating detail how it happened. (Read Mac Wilson's review of the book for The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club.)
The history of the MP3 itself is central, but the book's slightly puffed-up subtitle—The End of an Industry, The Turn of the Century, and The Patient Zero of Piracy—hints that Witt is no mere techno-geek, and will address the broader cultural and commercial impact of digital music technology.
He does, and the story is not a pretty one. It includes the decimation of physical CD sales by the illegal downloading of MP3 files from online sources, something Witt himself did addictively: "on an industrial scale," as he puts it.
Deeper in the "darknet," random acts of digital opportunism morphed into harder forms of criminality, as record company supply chains were infiltrated, and new releases leaked early to the file-share forums.
This cost the companies and their artists money (lots of it), and the industry as a whole is still struggling to rebuild the revenues of old—Apple Music is the latest tilt at establishing an online streaming facility that is actually profitable—and adjust itself to an environment where many consumers now expect to pay little or nothing for the music that they listen to.
For anyone remotely interested in the music industry, Witt's book is a page-turner, scrupulously researched over five years, and written with a lean, compelling economy. It has one oddity, though: classical music is totally omitted, unmentioned anywhere in 300 tightly argued pages.
Does that mean the MP3 revolution has simply passed the classics by, and has no relevance to classical music? A casual look at Spotify, Amazon, or iTunes suggests otherwise. Classical playlists are everywhere and download opportunities proliferate, with even the least familiar works and composers generously represented. That has to be a good thing, doesn't it?
Well, no, actually. I get about as much pleasure from listening to a classical MP3 as I would from eating cotton candy for dinner. It's a uniquely unsatisfying experience, and the problem is one of quality.
MP3 files are heavily compressed to remove allegedly inaudible bits of information from the original recording, enabling easier storage and transmission. They take about a twelfth of the space that an uncompressed CD does on your mobile device or hard drive.
And that is where I definitively part company with Witt, who fails to challenge in his book the assumption that MP3 technology compresses files "with perfect transparency" and is "sonically equivalent to the CD," as he puts it.
It doesn't, and it isn't. Mathematically, converting CD-quality audio to a 128kbps MP3 means discarding somewhere in the neighborhood of 90% of the sound information contained on the compact disc. MP3 technology is designed to make the quality reduction difficult to discern—but try this experiment.
Take a decent orchestral recording from your collection, and play it through a reasonable hi-fi system with good speakers (not earbuds—they mush everything). Then play the same performance through the same system in its MP3 format.
What happens? To my ears anyway, you get a serious reduction in the dynamic range of the performance, and a sucking-out of the sense of acoustic space around the players that should let the music breathe and give an impression of the venue that they're playing in.
On its own and decontextualised this "ambient information" may well be close to "inaudible" or seem irrelevant—but it lends vibrancy and detail to a classical performance, where subtleties of expression are at a premium, and the complex interplay of instruments and performers is often a crucial factor.
So has downloading nothing of value to offer the classical enthusiast? It turns out that it has, because many classical companies, piggybacking on the infrastructure created by MP3 and the online digital culture, now offer many new releases—and some old ones—as high-resolution downloads, in 24-bit format, which is significantly better than even the 16-bit CD version.
Guess what? I'm hooked. Hi-res downloads cost more than their MP3 or CD equivalents, but they sound way better, and I can't resist them. There is one consolation: next time I move house I can, like Stephen Witt, simply pop my music in a plastic bag, and leave the shoulder-wrench of lugging heavy boxes definitively behind me.
Terry Blain was educated in Northern Ireland and Cambridge, England, and writes for a wide range of publications, including BBC Music Magazine and Opera Magazine. In his spare time he is an avid record collector, and walks his dog Buddy.
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