Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Apple vs Apple

According to conventional wisdom, history always repeats itself. We may be about to see an example of that in the music business. Long ago, the main push of the record companies was to produce hit singles. Kids bought 45's by the dozen so they could listen to whatever their favorite song was that week. Albums were expensive to make and to buy. Most albums were collections of a few singles with lots of filler tracks thrown on. Other than movie soundtracks or Christmas albums, there was no consistent theme within an album. That all changed with the Beatle's Sergeant Pepper in 1967. The album became an art form. People started listening to albums instead of just songs. (yes, I know the Beatles didn't do it first, but they made it popular, so that's what counts - ask Christopher Columbus.) Selling albums became the main goal. An album could become a big seller with few or no singles.
Many times, the album as a whole was better than the sum of its songs, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, being a prime example. Songs segued one into the next with no break between. They belonged in a certain order. You would never plop the needle down onto "Any Colour You Like". It would sound like a mistake. You had to start back at "Us and Them" (or more likely, way back to "Money") and listen all the way through that side of the album, right to the end of "Eclipse". The only true, proper way to listen to albums like Dark Side of the Moon (or Fragile or Brain Salad Surgery or Leftoverture...) was in the dark, alone, late at night with headphones - not the wimpy little open air headphones they make now but the big heavy over-the-ear, sound-blocking, bass-thumping, looks-like-they-belong-to-the-guy-on-the-airport-runway kind that guaranteed that all you would hear would be the music, not traffic or people talking or the background hum of civilization - just you and the music, the whole music and nothing but the music, so help you God. Amen. (Artificial brain chemistry adjustments were optional.) In that environment, listening to an album could be an experience. And it's all about to go the way pf the eight-track. This is mostly due to MP3's.
Don't get me wrong. I love MP3's. Whether at my computer, in my car or out in the yard with my Nomad, MP3's are about the only way I listen to music. The very first thing I do when I buy a CD is launch Musicmatch and rip it to my harddrive. In fact, my 20 year old receiver died a few months ago and I haven't even thought about replacing it because I couldn't remember when I last used it. Before that, I bought a new car stereo that plays mp3 CD's. I could not hook up the antennae at the time so the radio doesn't work. Since radio sucks (I don't have XM), I haven't missed it. All I have are mp3's.
But thanks to MP3's, everybody (including me) has access to all their friend's album collections, which they can root through, pull out the songs they remember and like (i.e. singles) and stick on their MP3 player of choice. It's no accident that all mp3 players have a shuffle mode (why do you think Apple called their player a Shuffle?). It's like having a radio that only plays your favorite songs with no commercials or annoying DJ's talking over the music.
Enter I-Tunes (Yeah, yeah go ask Chris again). Now, you can just buy the songs you like and skip the rest. Albums will become passé, so the single may about to become king once more. Those other tracks, the ones that were never singles, the ones you learned to love but only after you listened to them a few times because you were too lazy to fast forward to the next single, the ones that became your favorite songs, as opposed to everyone's favorite songs, those other tracks won't get recorded, because there is little point in recording songs that won't get downloaded, at least from a commercial standpoint.
But if history does repeat itself, then someday someone will bring back the album, or something like it. What might that be? DVD audio. Headphones and MP3's all work nicely in stereo, but DVD offers several flavors of surround sound. Perhaps, someday soon, someone will create something in surround sound that is just so new, so original, and/or just so flippin’ cool, that people will flock to get it, stick it in their home theater system, plop down in their favorite chair and marvel at its ingenuity - alone, late at night, with tiny satellites, a center channel speaker, and big thumping subwoofers. Then the album will be king again. I'll be looking forward to it.

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