416 · 16 January 03
You don't have to know very much about me to note, among my geekdoms, music and gadgets. I have thus frequently found myself explaining, against reasonable assumptions, why I have chosen to resist some tantalizing new device that would otherwise seem to be catering directly to several of my weaknesses. I never, for example, bought a large-capacity CD changer. My non-music-geek friends generally seem to assume that the number of CDs you will want to load at once is a measure of your obsessiveness, which elicits from me a typically over-detailed analysis of why that isn't necessarily so. If you own fewer than 200 CDs, a 200-disc changer is a storage solution; if you own thousands, it's yet another organizational problem. There is not, after all, any such thing as speed-listening, nor (vexingly, given my constant violent struggles against sleep) are my days any longer than anybody else's, so no matter how much more than you I ever manage to love music, I will still never be able to listen to more of it at a time. For my purposes, five changer slots has always been plenty. In fact, if there are fundamental ways in which my listening differs from that of people for whom music is not as central, one of the major ones is probably that my listening is subject to more variation and more decision points. My five-slot changer is rarely filled, and much of the time exhibits its changer-ness principally by allowing me to delay decisions about what I'm going to listen to next. A changer that didn't let me switch the next disc during the last twenty seconds of the current one's final song would be of no use to me at all. And I've never actually bothered installing a CD changer at work, since in my office I'm either sitting two feet from the player or I'm not playing anything, but for years my morning departure ritual has included the virtual-changer-loading exercise of picking out a stack of CDs for the day's listening. Naturally, even this trivial task I contrived to over-think: it bothered me to take a record to work and then not play it, and it bothered me to be forced to listen to anything twice, so I always tried to guess exactly how much listening time I'd have during any given work-day, and bring exactly enough music to fill it.
When the first few MP3 players came out, I had to explain why I wasn't getting one of those, either. The small-capacity models, the little solid-state ones that only held an hour or so, were obviously useless to me, as I almost never listen to the same hour of music twice in a row, and would thus waste all my time refilling the miserable thing. The first few hard-drive models seemed like dubious propositions to me on technical grounds (I'm going to carry a fragile hard-drive with me, operating, bouncing around in my bag? As what, a test to see if I can get the mean time between failures down to being measured in days?), but also a mismatch of needs for the same basic reasons as the big changers. It didn't seem like they could hold enough of my collection to anticipate my listening whims from a steady state, and it seemed like partially reloading them every morning would be too slow for my always-rushed before-work schedule. The first iPods were certainly cute, but they didn't work with Windows, and 5GB still seemed like it wouldn't be enough. I did buy a $99 Compaq iPaq, which played MP3s off of ultra-cute mini-CDRs, but a) the sound quality was dreadful, and b) as I feared, preparing material for it was just too much of a nuisance. But when iPods got up to 20GB, I started rechecking my math. Four thousand songs, Apple claimed. With my snobbishly elevated compression bit-rates, maybe only three thousand, but that's still quite a lot of music. Enough? I peered at the stacks of CDs on my desk and paid closer attention for a couple weeks to what I found myself choosing for work or discman trips. Yes, 20GB might well be enough. Even 10GB might suffice, but 20GB would be better.
And then, of course, I decided to buy a Macintosh, and it became instantly and irrefutably obvious that I had to get an iPod with it, on gadget grounds no matter what I thought on musical grounds. The reservations I couldn't dispel, I thus routed around. A few of them, I suddenly realized, would only have been constraints of using an MP3 player with my existing PC: even with a SuperDrive designed for form-factor rather than performance, the PowerBook rips CDs a lot faster, and extra hard-drive capacity on the computer also means that "reload" doesn't necessarily mean "re-rip". So while I still wasn't totally sure how many of my listening niches the iPod would fill, I figured it could fill enough of them to be interesting, and as with the Mac itself, I cheerfully threw myself into the conversion to see how far I could get.
I've had the iPod, now, for just over a month. The conversion has actually been even more sweeping than I anticipated. I still use my car changer, and I still do the bulk of my serious home listening with the real CDs on my real stereo, but the iPod, and/or the PowerBook's mirror copy of the same set of MP3s, now runs everything else. Instead of choosing the day's listening in the morning, I just take the iPod with me and plug it into the speakers in my office. The CD player that was on my nightstand is now the CD player in my nightstand drawer, and another speaker-lead dangles there in its place, waiting to be connected to either the iPod or the PowerBook at night. Obviously the iPod replaces my discman for trips of any kind. I've even got a lead attached to my real stereo so that the iPod can be plugged in to provide extended background music when that's needed. It's the winter new-release doldrums at the moment, but iTunes reports that between ripping every new CD as I buy it and ripping miscellaneous other things as they occur to me, I've so far loaded 1,981 songs from 186 discs by 115 artists, for a total of five days, twenty-one hours, twenty-eight minutes and eleven seconds of music, which encoded at 192 kbps takes up just over 11GB.
And while 186 discs is a small fraction of our collections, yours and mine, for the average non-music-geek civilian it's probably more CDs than they'll ever care about at once. And that makes me really start thinking. On one hand, I believe it ought to be a fairly uncontroversial assertion that the iPod itself is a transitional device. Apple has done an incredibly clever design and marketing job to present it as if it's an established bit of consumer electronics, but in truth it's very much an early-adopter gadget. My 20GB model was $500, and you can be pretty sure that once this is a mature category, you'll be able to buy a $59 Panasonic version at Best Buy that has better raw specs than this iPod. Somebody will also eventually realize that the current generation of MP3 players are missing an entire market-segment by requiring computers, and sell a $99 model that comes with its own stand-alone CD-reader (although for this to work we need to settle the CD-Text issues so that the encoder doesn't need an internet connection to figure out credits information). If storage capacity increases faster than collection sizes, then the excess capacity can be spent on encoding quality, and there seems to be no technical reason why, within two or three years, most people won't be carrying their entire music collections, in close enough to full fidelity, in their pockets.
But real-world experiments never get to change only one variable at a time. My iPod hasn't just facilitated my old listening patterns, it has begun to change them. My moment-by-moment daytime listening moods, for example, shift in ways that my day-in-advance planning would never reliably account for. I used to pick stacks of CDs for both thematic coherence and variety, and now I'm more likely both to jump around between unrelated themes, and to narrow in on extremely focused subsets. CD-singles were fairly thoroughly marginalized in my pre-iPod scheme, just due to music-to-bulk ratios, but once encoded they're on equal footing with everything else, and although I remain emotionally disposed to listening to whole artistic units rather than playing private-radio-station (the iPod is yet another music device whose shuffle mode I don't use), individual songs are now several orders of magnitude more accessible. Carrying a single physical player between listening environments means that my Pause function now transcends contexts, which was not true at all when I had to move CDs from one player to another. Persistent personal edits, although exception-cases in my listening philosophy, are now enticingly easy. (Sorry, Elizabeth, I deleted "Almost Blue"...) At least temporarily, albums I might have given up on when they represented desk space I could reclaim get a little more slack as iPod sectors, and might get listened to one more time. And most obviously, perhaps, music I have only as MP3s is now for the first time integrated into my general music space.
This last detail, of course, is the one that continues to terrify the music "industry". Napster-quashing legal successes notwithstanding, the portability of MP3 files still puts many people into blithely illegal frames of mind, and while Apple has played along by making the iPod connection one-way in their own software, third-party tools for copying music off of iPods quickly compensated. Album purists like me are, in commercial terms, a tiny minority, and the profitability of a major-label music business that has allowed itself to become perilously dependent on decreasing rosters, increasing marketing budgets and throwaway singles is still teetering on the same precipice Napster pushed it towards. Throw in Bluetooth, or whatever wins the small-device wireless-standard war, and the nationwide market for the next "Sk8er Boi" may be about three store-bought copies and ten minutes of invisible network traffic. An enormous number of people, perhaps including you, don't want a collection, they just want to be able to listen to music.
Populism never routs big business for very long, though, and because I'm sure I can't fight this, I will go ahead and say aloud how I think the music industry is going to start winning this war as soon as their heads emerge from their asses with a clue clenched in their teeth. CDs, as a mass-market distribution mechanism, are dead. Writing about Napster, two and a half years ago, I said that online music could kill CDs, and I think when we look back we'll realize that their death became inevitable some time in mid-to-late 2002. As a method of getting digital audio files from the producer to the consumer, they're awkward and on the verge of being rendered moot by other numbers. Even 320 kbps MP3 files, which only a tiny fraction of listeners will be able to distinguish from native CD audio, reduce whole albums to manageable sizes for both DSL/cable-modem transmission and hard-drive storage. For the moment, people like me still need a little too much space, but 7000 CDs as MP3s is somewhere on the order of half a terabyte, and I could buy two 250GB firewire drives right now for less than I'd spend on the shelving for that many CDs (hmm, hadn't actually done that part of the calculation before). Compression, for that matter, is only a temporarily necessary evil at all. At 500MB per album, on average, my collection is still only 3.5TB, which is less than ten times what I could easily deploy today. And I'm the least of the music industry's concerns. What these numbers mean for them is that we're almost to the point where they can flank the whole erstwhile MP3 "revolution", go entirely to streaming audio (merging with the phone companies in the process), and get more control over the planet than they ever dreamed of having. In my Napster thing, dated 3 August 2000, I predicted that radio and site source-music would be entirely transmitted by early 2006, and now I think I overestimated how long it will take. My two new predictions are that the Clear Channels of the world will be entirely off of physical music-distribution media by the end of 2004, and that in the major-label arena the replacement of CDs by a combination of wired and wireless streaming audio and some batch downloading will be underway and undeniably irreversible by the end of 2005. CDs will die along the same shape of curve cassettes died, but probably a lot faster. The single will re-emerge as the dominant (perhaps heavily dominant) commercial format, music-on-demand will deliver most listeners an experience they will overwhelmingly prefer to disc-collecting on all criteria, the music business will end up being the advance scouts for the higher-stakes TV/film/video business later following exactly the same path, and the evolution of Western culture into an entertainment economy will continue to accelerate.
And this next bet will fly in the face of every sensible rule of thumb about the social correlates of thermodynamics, but I actually think everybody will end up liking the new world just fine, even including us. Once the media business gets its audience onto cheap (or subsidized/free) streaming-content subscription plans, there will no longer be any real point to imposing copy-protection on the bits after they've arrived at the player, with the result that the minority of listeners and producers who care about music beyond the current charts will be able to easily maintain local and/or distributed archives. Supplemental information and art, already migrating out of physical music-packaging onto the web, will eventually get incorporated into the same binary formats as the music (eliminating the technical distinction between "audio" and "video" content, in fact), and while there will continue to be compatibility issues over time, it will be a whole lot easier to maintain a library of software readers for obsolete digital content encodings than it is to maintain the equipment for reading obsolete physical media. Put another way, any piece of music you have on CD today, you will never again have to rebuy in the sense that you rebought CDs to replace LPs (although the practices of revamping and expanding and augmenting will continue to produce new incarnations of what is at the core old material, so I'm not saying you still won't find yourself paying nine more times, over the course of the rest of your life, for something that claims to be Moving Pictures). The concept of out-of-print will cease to exist in any meaningful sense, to the immeasurable benefit of anybody who actually cares. Big business will still (and forever) exert enough control over exposure and attention to maintain the star system, but the commercial predicament of independent artists will get no worse, and might conceivably improve a little. And if this isn't enough to keep you amused, video will undergo these same transformations no more than two to four years after music. (Although there your current investments in DVDs are worthwhile only as hedges against obscure work not getting remastered for the next format, since PAL/NTSC video is going to look like shit on gigapixel monitors. Hell, current DVDs look like shit on megapixel monitors, which we already have, and HDTV is such a trivial improvement, compared to the coming resolutions of both capture and display technology, that there is no sane reason to bother implementing it.)
I won't pretend I can foresee many of what will no doubt turn out to be the innumerable more-interesting changes, arising out of these new technologies, to how art itself is practiced. Content and distribution advance in alternation. Video is gearing up for its big format leap, and while I will continue obtusely insisting that two-channel PCM audio is just fine for human listening purposes, there are many other dimensions along which changes to music can unfold. When most music is streamed over a global infrastructure anyway, for instance, we may find that for the first time in a century the broadcast and short-delay rebroadcast of live performances can compete, both for artists and audiences, with studio recordings, a development that might have enormously positive implications for "musician" as a day-to-day occupation. The digital distribution network will have individual people as its broadcast resolution (of course this is precisely narrowcasting, not broadcasting, but the term will stick), which will engender creepy targeted advertising à la Minority Report, but will also make possible again the kind of regional (or virtual-regional) variation that radio and TV consolidation over the past two decades have eliminated. Collaborative filtering-and-referral, already at work in forms like shared playlists and people-who-bought-this-also-bought linking, won't eliminate corporate bludgeoning, but over time might humanize it a little. Once the technical challenges of providing enough downstream network bandwidth start getting boring, upstream bandwidth will begin to catch up, which will make gaming a whole lot more interesting even if nobody ever figures out how to apply it to music.
And maybe this all feels like meta-geekery, like I've temporarily lapsed from cataloging records into cataloging schemas for cataloging-systems, or maybe you think that if I haven't found the cynical extrapolation I must have quit analyzing too soon. Maybe so. But it's a new year, and so far good things are outnumbering bad things in my corner of it, and for tonight I'm ready to believe that the irresistible forces of banal evil are going to turn out to have outwitted themselves for once. Not only do I really believe these predictions, I think the coming changes are not just likely but necessary, and not just harmless but important. What we do with media matters, and iPods don't but they're the beginning. It might seem, for the moment, that we're talking about squandering the technological state-of-the-art on a massive earth-spanning machine for filling every available sub-continent with bored high-school kids so that we can then separate them from their allowances, but machines that complicated never turn out to work exactly as they were designed. The more all this happens, the bigger and more integrated the media business becomes and the more comprehensively the delivery of art and/or entertainment permeates our environment, the more what we do with what we're sent becomes, as it ought if we're to be an intelligent species, and as it must be if we're to share the planet, the central narrative of our cultures, diverse and combined. I am now carrying around with me an arbitrary and miniature archive of what human beings are capable of. It is not a representative selection yet, nor am I representative in carrying it. Miniature archives of what human beings are capable of are a great idea, but they need to cost a lot less than $500 each. What streams into Springfield and Dallas tomorrow, though, will march into Nairobi and Paramaribo next week, and be on the streets in Beijing and Baghdad by Valentine's Day. And thus, if they (if we) have any clue at all, vice versa. Resistance is futile, but response can be revolutionary. Arguably only response can be revolutionary. Ask not how you will escape assimilation, ask how the assimilated ever survived without you. Stop thinking that you have to defend everything you love, your love made most of it immortal a long time ago. Evil is everywhere, but the only true danger is that it'll distract you from the right questions. When the songs are scattered, ask yourself which ones are yours. Ask yourself, while you're at it, which are the obstacles that keep you from being happy, and which are the excuses for not jumping them. Ask yourself which of the things you fear would love you best. Ask yourself what you would salvage if we told you you could salvage everything. And ask me, in five days, twenty-one hours, twenty-eight minutes and eleven seconds, what I want to listen to next.