By Sam Frank
Hard to believe it's been a decade since Shawn Fanning's original Napster took the music industry by storm when it popularized P2P (Peer-to-Peer) file sharing. Before Napster hit the mainstream there were only a few ways one could exchange music: either with a CD writer (which was also considered new technology at the time) or by recording the album onto a cassette tape (which was considered crappy technology at the time). Dealing with CDR drives and tape recorders requires a great deal of patience and often ended in frustration. Anybody remember "dusters?" It wasn't until my tech-savvy friend told me about MPEG audio layer III (a.k.a. MP3) files that downloading became my preferred method of music consumption. Now that MP3s are standardized the CD, like vinyl, 8-track, and cassette before it, is slowly being phased out, but losing of this medium really worth it for music fans?
In July of 2007, nations came together via the internet to watch Live Earth, a series of concerts that took place around the globe spreading awareness of global warming. Today's top artists including Madonna, Duran Duran, Black-Eyed Peas, Linkin Park, etc. all performed at random locations throughout the world, but in between their sets were infomercials explaining how people can save energy on a day-to-day basis. One ad suggested that if record companies were to stop making CDs then we could save the gas used by trucks that deliver them to stores. That unfathomable option two years ago has become reality in 2009 with the loss of stores like Virgin, Tower, and HMV. Now people buy CDs at stores that consolidate entertainment products like Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Target, leaving us only one other way to get music...download it.
Downloading in 1999 was extremely controversial. You had commercials where Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich threatened to stop by your house (or dorm) and beat that ass if you downloaded his music. What the record industry never grasped was that using Napster made people feel they were ahead of the game. We used to justify our actions with statements like, "it cost them [record companies] less than a dollar to make CDs and we pay $18.99? That's not fair!" but that argument doesn't seem relevant in this day and age with sites like Emusic, Rhapsody, iTunes, and the "new" Napster. Just because we now accept online music doesn't necessarily mean things are moving in the right direction.
When Radiohead released In Rainbows back in October of 2007 the band put their album online and told fans to pay what they wanted for it. I paid five dollars for the album, and was ecstatic when the download link arrived via email. It was one of the biggest bands in the world being proactive with their music. This initiative not only empowered other acts to self-promote, but it caused a "tipping point" in the music industry. Now there was an example of band that profited by cutting out the record label. But the excitement over Radiohead's fresh new album and campaign faded fast as soon as I listened to In Rainbows lossless. The "pay-what-you-want" model only involved an MP3 version of the album with the full "CD quality" version only being sold in stores at the full retail price. The vast difference in sound forced me to question the quality of MP3 coded music.
Just like vinyl records, cassette tapes, and CDs the MP3 is a product with pros and cons. Vinyl records may put out amazing sound quality, but like cassette tapes they deteriorate after heavy use as well as warp in extreme temperatures. By 1982, Philips and Sony joined forces to create a stronger medium for music which wouldn't deteriorate after every listen; thus, the compact disc (CD) was invented. But audiophiles panned this new technology, claiming that CDs sounded flat and lifeless when compared to records. While CDs grew in popularity the MPEG audio layer III was reaching its final stages of completion.
By April of 1989, The Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, headed by Karl-heinz Brandenburg and Dieter Seitzer, received a patent for MP3, but how much processing power did computers actually have two decades ago? Back then your average computer only had 2MB of RAM (Random Access Memory), no hard drive, and used a speedy dial-up 14.4k modem go online. By these calculations, a song larger than 2MB would've crashed the computer. This is a big problem considering that most songs range between 3 and 5MB. For MP3s to work properly audio layers had to be removed which is why people refer to this type of compression as "lossy." Technically, official CDs from record labels are considered "lossless" because no sound layers have been removed from the original files, but audiophiles to this day consider CDs a "lossy" format because they don't sound as good as records.
Comparing "lossless" and "lossy" music is like having LeBron James play one-on-one hoops with the captain of your JV basketball team. The JV captain may get some points on the board, but he'll never dominate the game like King James, and within the first few seconds of In Rainbows, that difference was obvious. I could feel the beats pulsating up and down my neck, as higher pitched sounds fluctuated between channels; thus, creating a swirling effect similar to what one feels on a carnival ride at the state fair. "Lossless" music even sounds good with $20 Skull Candy earbuds from Best Buy, but transforms into a sonic experience when heard on high-end headphones from companies like Bose, Monster Cable, or Sennheiser. After hearing In Rainbows "lossless" I couldn't help but feel duped by Radiohead. People paid for the MP3s, but then paid full price a few months later for the "lossless" version, if they could find a store which carried the album. The Best Buy in midtown Manhattan only had four copies on the shelf while copies were on sale at various Starbucks locations throughout the city.
Music accessibility has also been affected by the decline of music stores. This past September, two iconic Hip Hop figures dropped monumental albums, Jay Z's Blueprint 3 and Raekwon's Only Built for a Cuban Linx II. Two Hip Hop albums aimed at completely different demographics. Songs from the radio-friendly Blueprint 3 not only found their way on every radio station around the country, but have aired on popular television programs such as Gossip Girl and Sportscenter. Stand alone Jay Z displays were strategically placed in the music section of Target department stores; whereas, Cuban Linx II only had two or three copies per store that sometimes weren't even in the right section. Raekwon doesn't do country music folks! People who couldn't find Cuban Linx II in stores were forced to buy it online in MP3 format. It's no wonder Jay Z's "lossless" Blueprint 3 got more recognition than Raekwon's "lossy" Cuban Linx II. This example proves that if your sound is mainstream and marketed properly then people will have a better chance of hearing it "lossless." Although Jay Z demolished Raekwon in sales and exposure, all the Hip Hop heads I spoke with who listened to Cuban Linx II "lossless" thought it was a better album than Blueprint 3.
MP3 compression is considered "lossy" because the process used to create these files removes sound layers that are supposedly "inaudible," but the truth is these sounds are "audible," and producers put them in music to be heard, not to end up on the digital cutting room floor because the term "MP3" is buzzworthy. In the two decades since MP3s were invented computer processing power has increased exponentially. Now laptops are equipped with 4 Gigs of RAM, 200 Gig hard drives, as well as WiFi and broadband internet capabilities, so why the hell are we still pushing MP3s? Jack Johnson's newest album En Concert can be bought three different ways: (1) CD/DVD (2) CD (3) Digi Pack. As an incentive to buy the digi pack people receive bonus songs unavailable in the other two formats, but because the exclusive tracks are MP3 encoded they won't sound as clear as the music sold in Target or Best Buy. Why wouldn't they just distribute in FLAC like Pearl Jam and Metallica does with their live recordings? FLAC (Full Lossless Audio Compression) files are part of this new wave of audio compression that is spreading throughout the internet like wildfire. Because computers are so much more powerful today then they were 20 years ago audio compression does not have to be "lossy," and Apple's M4A "lossless" format demonstrates this beautifully.
When Napster's popularity peaked ten years ago hard drives were smaller and more expensive than they are today. Songs were often mis-labeled, virus-ridden, and a pain to download, but its user friendly interface is what made using Napster so desirable. It jump started the music industry's digital revolution, and a decade later people are downloading music to their phones. If the record stores are closing and we're being steered toward downloading music, shouldn't we have the option to purchase music online with the same (or better) quality as what's being sold in stores? Think about that question the next time your favorite artist releases a new album.