February 2010

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I’ve had a bunch of things that I’ve wanted to write about recently, including some new music that I’m quite pleased with, but one that I want to cover before it gets too stale is a surprisingly interesting documentary that I watched a little over a week ago.

I got the Classic Albums documentary of Aja from the library with low expectations — it looked like the music documentary equivalent of DVD extras, but it turned out to be very well done, and helped to get me thinking about Steely Dan again.

Steely Dan is one of the bands for which I have a hard time getting much perspective. I got into them relatively early in the development of my musical tastes (which, in this case, was just after college), got the box set with all of their albums, went through a period of listening to them over and over again, and then tailed off the the point that these days I don’t listen to them all that often.

All of that makes it a little bit difficult to know what to say about them. Their strengths and weaknesses are obvious, their songwriting is amazing, I love their sound, and they don’t sound like anybody else but, on the other hand, they don’t particularly rock, they aren’t intimate (exactly) and, while they experiment with a variety of musical styles, all of their stuff sounds sort of the same. But, beyond that, for me there is a part of me that loves them in a completely unreserved way, and another part that feels like they’re part of a specific period in my past.

Watching the documentary gave me a chance to step back and have a way to approach them that was somewhat fresh, and ultimately it made me appreciate their strengths even more than I had, and feel like some of their weaknesses are quite forgivable.
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As a follow-up to the previous post, it occurs to me that the current dynamic between the movie industry and the home theater industry is relatively recent, and is not without it’s challenges.

My general sense is that twelve years ago, home theater wasn’t a large enough industry to have a significant impact on the entertainment industry as a whole and that eight years ago movies studios hated home theater because they thought it was competing against movie tickets.

At this point I assume that the relationship is more mutual — that studios have more to gain from the market for DVDs for TV shows as well as movies, than they have to lose from reduced ticket sales or TV viewership, but I don’t really know. I do know, however, that the movie industry is very much aware that the various technological improvements in home video equipment are a significant part of the environment in which the operate and sell their products.

I genuinely don’t know whether the music industry is similarly conscious of the state of the art in affordable consumer audio gear, and plan their strategy with that in mind*, but it doesn’t feel like they do. It certainly doesn’t feel like they think their position, as an industry, would be improved by people having access to better sound quality at affordable prices and that confuses me. I would, at the very least, hope that if there were significant improvements in audio technology (as there have been in video technology over the last decade) that would be good for the music industry. Perhaps it’s just that nobody thinks that sort of improvement would be possible but I don’t get the sense that the music industry would be prepared to sell it if it were. It just looks to me like their happy with a market for audio equipment in which it’s difficult for people to find out what’s available, what is better or worse, or what trade offs they have to consider and that forces people to experiment with expensive gear that might or might not improve their sound (at least at the middle of the price spectrum. I do expect that upgrading from, for example, $10 headphones to $30-$50 headphones should provide obvious benefits).

* Historically, of course, there are various stories about record companies gearing the sound of their recordings to radio. So perhaps the entire industry is just used to targeting people who are listening to poor quality reproductions.

Update: Some additional discussion of this issue at unfogged.

I’ve been mulling over this post by Matthew Yglesias about the music industry in which he argues that, if the cost of downloading music is near zero there’s no good economic reason why anybody should be able to consistently make money off of downloadable music — other than an enforceable legal standard for copyright. He also thinks that any attempt to use copyright to prevent people from downloading music is both unlikely to succeed and unlikely to be socially beneficial.

I think he’s probably correct, but I’m still unhappy with the idea that the workable financial model for musicians is to give their recordings away and make money off of T-Shirts. I personally would like to see the music industry survive as an industry.

It does strike me, however, that his post contains a very large unstated assumption — that the value provided by recorded music is captureable in an easily downloaded form. I recently heard a theory that within a few years the the movie industry will stop producing standard DVDs and move entirely to blu-ray, on the theory that they can’t stop pirated DVDs but that blue-ray disks will be too large for people to efficiently transfer them via file sharing.

I realize that there isn’t an equivalent move that the music industry can make. Redbook CDs sound quite good and are small enough, even uncompressed, to be shared over the internet. Higher definition audio formats have been attempted and failed badly.

But it still strikes me as massively disappointing that the recorded music industry has never really been able to make audio quality a sufficient selling point to discourage people from sharing compressed versions. These days high quality .mp3 are easily available, but when napster, et al were becoming popular most of the .mp3 version were significantly lower quality than the available CD recordings, and there were still seen as an acceptible substitute.

I makes me think, as I have argued before that the music industry has been far less successful at delivering experiences (as opposed to content) than the home theater industry. There just hasn’t been any consistent progress, that I am aware of, in providing cheap, high quality audio gear in such a way that the choices for the consumer are more or less simple and predictable — as the HDTV industry, for example, has.

I had a chance to demo a $1400 pair of headphones today and, you know what, they were very good, but in no way absurdly good. Compared to a $400 pair of headphones they were better in some ways, worse in others and, overall, probably not as good. I wasn’t going to buy them anyway, so in a way it made me happy that I didn’t go home feeling like there was a significant improvement in sound quality available if I was willing to spend the money. But, it does make me shake my head and think that it is a problem that the audio industry doesn’t provide some basic levels of quality at more or less rational price points.

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