Friday, March 20, 2009

The many unfullfilled promises of online music downloads

Once upon a time, there were CDs. Then, there was the Internet. Later came broadband access.

It seemed logical that the Internet would become the medium of choice for purchasing music. Downloads promised to be much less expensive than pressing CDs, producing cases, and physically shipping them. The Internet should lead to cutting intermediaries that stand between artists and their listeners and reducing unnecessary costs. One could instantly get access to the music of their choice, in a much more ecologic way, without taking a trip to a music store.

But rather than embrace the new medium, the record companies felt threatened. They lived desperately in the past. They stuck with consumer-unfriendly DRM schemes for far too long. Now, a select few Internet companies own the commercial online distribution channel, such as Apple with iTunes and Amazon.

These companies have redefined the medium for music. In many ways it's good. In others, not so much. Technically, the new medium is no longer what was originally recorded. Digital music downloads are typically done in MP3 format or similar, compressed with lossy algorithms. Most certainly, this reduces download times, but it also comes at a price - what you hear is no longer the original. This may not matter for those who listen to music on a cheap pair of speakers on their computer, or their portable music player. But for those listening on high-fidelity systems, particularly for classical music, it matters. And the fact is that to my knowledge today, nobody offers commercial digital downloads of lossless music. That is despite the fact that many connections are fast enough already for lossless music. Typically Apple lossless will compress about 2:1 - vs 6:1 for a 256 kbps MP3. We are only talking about a factor of 3. This is one of the reasons that I haven't purchased any online music, and that I still exclusively buy CDs. I have purchased hundreds of CDs, about 800, and would very gladly download instead, but a prerequisite is that the music has to be in lossless format.

My latest music purchase was a box set of 34 CDs of Scott Ross playing all of Scarlatti's sonatas for harpsichord . This set was not available for download anywhere, lossy or lossless. I ended up purchasing it for $145 shipped from Berkshire Record Outlet - about $100 less than the Amazon price. It took a full two weeks to be delivered to my door. It came with a nice 200 page booklet, and a box. I would have gladly have sacrificed it for an e-book. It took about 3 hours to feed all the music into iTunes, and the 35.5 hours of music compressed to 13.72 GB with the Apple lossless encoder. My "6 Mbits" DSL connection has a sustained download speed of about 625 KB/S, so this could have been a 6.5 hours download. I would have liked that a whole lot better than a 2 week wait. And I bet Amazon or Apple could provide this download for less than $145, and have a lot of money left over to pay the record company, and still make a profit.

So, why aren't we here already today in 2009 ?

Please, Apple and Amazon, give your customers an option to get lossless music. Even if this option costs more than 256 kbps MP3 downloads !

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