By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
January 13, 2013
Apparently I am a dinosaur when it comes to my collecting habits, because I still buy music CD’s. In fact, I even buy LP’s, usually used ones, especially if I think I won’t be able to find the music on CD. Back when file-sharing was all the rage, I never participated (although I was aware of the phenomenon, thanks to the young people in the household who didn’t have the money to buy music and would prefer instead to steal it.) I have never been an MP3 fan—I always felt that MP3 was an inferior sound preservation medium, even back when I didn’t understand the scientific basis for why I felt that way. I rarely download music, even today. However, I have warmed a bit to streaming music services (I have a paid subscription to Spotify), but I tend not to “collect” music that way, preferring instead to use Spotify only for research. I do have an iPhone, but I only use it for phone calls, e-mail, and text messaging. It purports to be a telephone, but sometimes it’s hard to actually find the icon that turns it into a phone. Despite that little problem, I do own the iPhone, and I do manage to make and receive telephone calls on it– but I do not keep any iTunes on it.
In short, I belong to a dying breed. Which begs the question, “Why collect physical music?” Why not just stream the music you want to hear, when you want to hear it? What is the purpose of owning physical copies of music?
I have thought a lot about this issue, and I have read what others have to say about it. Frankly, I think that music collectors like me are a little threatened by this topic. For years, we collectors could claim to possess this awesome, wonderful trove of obscure stuff that nobody else had. Only to find out now that everybody else can suddenly access most of our collection, even for free, by going on Pandora or Spotify. I’ve been cataloguing my music collection, item by item, a little bit at a time, since 2011. The current printout of the Dalenberg Library collection is a Word file that goes on about 50 pages, and even at that I have thus far only catalogued less than 20% of the music holdings. Suddenly, with the advent of services like Spotify, such cataloguing seems rather pointless. It seems as if nobody would care what I own if all they had to do was a quick computer search and play whatever tracks they wanted to hear whenever they wanted to hear them. My valuable collection of a lifetime seems on the surface to suddenly have no value, because anybody can listen to anything from the collection for free at the touch of a button.
I have taken steps to resolve this dilemma in my own mind. My reasoning through the problem doesn’t make me feel any less the dinosaur, but at least I can still justify spending money on the collection (I think.)
As a collector, I cling to the concept of ownership, which is linked to the concept of being a steward of important cultural artifacts. To be sure, I must own hundreds of CD’s that aren’t important artifacts, that went gold or platinum and aren’t all that difficult to find—the world doesn’t need me to be a steward of any of those. I might as well stream the latest CD by Bruno Mars, unless for personal reasons I just can’t live with not buying it. At least for the next few years of his sure to be fleeting fame, you’ll be able to find his CD’s everywhere. On the other hand, it was only a few years ago that I bought Rhino Records’ set of British Invasion compilations. Those have gotten scarce, and it takes a few hundred dollars in purchases from on-line used CD purveyors to put that collection back together again. Furthermore, if I had the good fortune to have all the original recordings of all the songs on original vinyl, the collection would be worth many thousands. However, it may well be that all the songs are available on Spotify, which must diminish the value somewhat (at least for the time being.)
There is a collecting impulse that only other collectors understand. Keeping playlists off of a streaming music service just doesn’t cut it for a person with the collecting bug. Some people collect old bottle caps. Some people collect those squashed pennies you can buy at tourist sites, where you pay 51 cents, and your penny comes back squashed into an oval shape with a souvenir stamp on it of the tourist site you are at. It just isn’t good enough to those collectors to look at pictures of other peoples’ collections of bottle caps or squashed pennies. They must possess the tangible objects themselves.
The other thing about streaming music, or file-shared MP3 files for that matter, is that they seem so transient. The music could easily be here today, gone tomorrow, depending on the shifting currents of cyberspace. If your computer crashes, the files might be gone. You can back stuff up on a cloud these days, but how secure is a cloud? It might rain someday—afterwards, no cloud (bad metaphor, sorry.) Back when Napster-style illegal file-sharing was all the rage, my ex-stepson Sean had proudly amassed a collection of 10,000 songs. Where did all the songs go after Napster got sold and the record company finished suing a random selection of file-sharing music thieves? Those 10,000 songs apparently vanished into the ether. I myself had a bunch of downloaded songs on the later iteration of legal Napster—they ended up disappearing too, eventually, never to be heard again. So, after you get your playlists and downloads and files all tweaked just how you like them, and there is then some kind of financial or electronic upheaval in the streaming music world, what happens?
Lots of people say that they like physical music because they want to hold it and read it and study it. They like to see the art, read the lyrics, get the entire package, aside from just the listening-to-the-music part of the experience. I think there is merit to that argument, although nowadays you can often assemble most of the overall “package” from available on-line sources. I own a scanner, and a printer, and pretty much all the technology I need to experience the extra-musical aspects of on-line music. But I still prefer the real thing, whether it be in a CD or LP format. Actually, I mostly prefer LP’s to CD’s for that physical aspect, because the art is bigger and splashier. But having made that point, the truth is that getting my hands on the art is actually NOT a big part of why physical music is better. In reality, my larger worry is electronic warfare.
It’s only a matter of time before the terrorists set off an electromagnetic pulse bomb that fries all of our electronics. My vinyl records are going to play just fine, especially on my old hand cranked Victrola. While I am spinning records, the rest of you are going to be stuck in a dystopian nightmare, devoid of music, devoid of a lot of things we take for granted, that puts the former threat of Y2K to shame. Actually, I’ll be stuck in the same mess too, because I won’t be writing this computer blog, or doing much else that requires technology for that matter, but at least I can while away the time cranking my old Victrola.
A big argument that some people advance against digital music downloads or streaming music has to do with the loss of quality of the music with each new generation of sound reproduction. Such people believe that analogue recording is the standard, because it is a more faithful depiction of the original sound that is being recorded. They believe that LP’s had richer, fuller sound, and that CD’s dumbed down the sound of LP’s, and that digital files (like MP3s) are even worse, and so on. However, if you really research this topic, you’ll find that there is only a limited, shifty truth to this line of reasoning. Fact Number One is that ALL recorded sound is only an approximation of the real sound that is being recorded. LP records make compromises recording the full dynamic range of sounds that are recorded. Read about RIAA equalization. Read about turntable rumble, wow, and flutter. And even if you don’t follow all the audiophile tech geek details, remember why LP’s gave way to CD’s in the first place—the quest to eliminate snaps, pops, crackles, scratches, and skips. Fact Number Two is that much of the lushness and richness of listening to vinyl that people talk about is just the noise between the music notes. Sometimes, all people are really saying when they find digitally recorded music too austere is that there is too much space between the notes, which often just means they are missing the tape hiss, whether they recognize it for that or not. And Fact Number Three is that analogue recordings have one big deficiency that digital recordings do not have: analogue recordings degrade with each subsequent re-recording or copy, whereas digital recordings remain true to the original regardless of the number of times they are reproduced.
Just like analogue recordings and their preservation on LP’s represent compromises on the original source sound, CD audio is also just an approximation of that sound. There is also DVD audio, which is a better approximation that CD audio, but it’s still an approximation. CD and DVD audio are both subject to the limits of sampling frequency and accuracy of the recorded sound. The sampling frequency of CD sound is 44,100 times per second. CD cannot record the exact soundwave, but at 44,100 samples per second, that’s a lot of snapshots of an analogue soundwave. And the accuracy of those snapshots is pretty good. If recorded sounds were colors, the 16-bit audio recording of a typical music CD allows for a choice of 65,536 colors to characterize every sound, sampled 44,100 times per second. Your ear would have to be pretty damned discerning to pick up a wrong “color” out of all those data points that make up the whole “picture” of the sound being recorded.
MP3 and other shared or transmitted files rely on data compression algorithms, which are supposed to produce an approximation of the music file that has already been laid down on CD or DVD (which, given the numbers in the previous paragraph, is a damned good approximation of the original source sound.) The data compression algorithms are supposed to be designed to “fool” the human ear, but there is some evidence that MP3 data compression doesn’t quite achieve that for some listeners. However, the MP3 standard is going away, and now we have Advanced Audio Compression (AAC) and others, with certainly more advances to come in the future. There is no question in my mind that digital audio, and the ability to transmit it over the Internet to wherever we want to hear it, will get to the point (and is largely already at the point), where it is indistinguishable from the original source sound, even by the most discerning of listeners.
So all the arguments about music losing its richness in the digital era are lost on me. What it comes down to is that I like collecting music the way people collect bottle caps or squashed pennies. Plus, it’s a hedge against electromagnetic pulse warfare. Not that I won’t have bigger things to worry about if an EMP bomb goes off in my neighborhood.
It is estimated that Spotify offers so much music that it would take over 80 years of non-stop listening to hear all of it. In an effort to see how Spotify’s offerings measure up against the Dalenberg Library, I chose three vinyl LP’s from the Library that I thought would be enough out- of- the-ordinary that Spotify might not have them. It turns out that Spotify stood up very well to this challenge: