It seems inevitable that the future
of music, at least as far as obtaining it in recorded form
goes, is online.
The days of the specialist shop are numbered,
unfortunately. It is not just the Tower Records that have disappeared
as a shopfront presence. How many of you can would report that
their local CD shop is a shadow of its former self, or is no
longer there? Here in Newcastle (the Australian one north of
Sydney with a population of 500,000) there is no specialist
classical music shop, and classical CDs barely rate a presence
on the shelves
of the CD retailers that do exist.
Even in Sydney, the situation
is fairly grim, though there are a few specialist shops, but
the new releases
are ones I've seen on Musicweb a couple of months earlier, and
as for getting older releases by back order ... well, don't
get me started!
As a consequence, I've hardly bought a CD from
an Australian shop in the last two years, and have gone down
the path of ordering them from the United Kingdom - in 99% of
cases, they arrive within a few weeks and about two-thirds the
price that they would be in a local shop (if they were obtainable
But buying CDs as a physical entity is
not what this article (and its associated pages) are about. We
are now in the early stages of the next step away from buying
our music in a shop: where the physical entity of a disc (black
or silver) is no longer part of the process. Our purchases will
be in the form of data transmission through our modems (I will
refer to the area as digital music
, which is
the industry term, even though we all know that CDs and DVDs
are digital as well).
is already very clear that this is the future. The International
Federation of the Phonographic Industry recently released
a report titled
Music Report 2007"
(January 2007), the relevant points
for classical music devotees of which are:
• online sales of digital
music doubled in value from 2005
to 2006, reaching an estimated $US2 billion
• the share of online sales of digital music also doubled in 2006
• the number of tracks (all music) also doubled to over 4 million
• the number of providers of digital music is over 500
• the classical music genre is the fastest growing at 23% (albeit
lower base than popular music) (see a Gramophone article on this aspect)
It should be noted that at the same time, CD
sales have continued to decrease, showing a 25% decrease in units
sold between 2000 and 2005 (in the United States).
An explanation of the types of services
The majority of services offer download of the music as files
which you save to your computer's hard disc. These become
your property to do with as you will.
The most common format is MP3, a compressed file
format for audio. There is a loss of sound quality which some
people will say is unacceptable It is dependent on the amount
of compression: 192 kilobytes per second is common, and it gets
as low as 48 and as high as 320. I'm afraid my 50-something year-old
ears have got to the point where the difference (between full
CD quality and good mp3, 192 say) is not enough to worry about.
Full CD quality (lossless) is gained by the WAV format,
but unless you have a very fast internet connection and a
download allocation, you will find this rather burdensome
(see file size comparison in Table 1 below).
There are three other less common formats: the lossless
FLAC, and the compressed AAC, WMA and OGG.
to do both reduce the file size without information. It works
in a similar way to Winzip and other such programs, and is
able to achieve lossless compression of around 50%.
AAC is considered to be sonically
superior to mp3 at the same compression rate, and is the
format used by Apple with iTunes and the iPod.
WMA is the Microsoft entry in the field. Obviously
it is supported by Windows Media Player (among many other PC media
playing software), but the format is also supported by many portable
devices. It too achieves a more efficient compression at the same
sound quality as mp3.
OGG is something known as a
container format (the precise meaning of which, I freely admit,
escapes me). There is a Wikipedia
page which "explains" this, and
I direct the curious reader to that.
Table 1. Comparison of file sizes (in Mb) for a music track of
mp3, aac, wma
mp3, aac, wma
What if I want to play my downloaded music on my CD player?
WAV are the direct computer equivalent of the CD track, and as
such, can be converted to a conventional CD with a program such
as Nero. Audio management and playback programs such as Winamp
and iTunes are capable of burning other formats to CD, and in
the most "desperate" of situations, files of "difficult"
format types can be converted to a "burnable" format
and then across to CD using freely available (and free) software.
The "lossy" formats (mp3, wma, aac) will create a lesser
quality sound (though unless the compression is very substantial
eg 48 kbps, it is not too intrusive; while FLAC files will generate
sound of identical quality to the original CD.
Also bear in mind that most DVD players will
play mp3 files directly, as will many newer car CD players, where
the loss of sound quality is not so noticeable.
Downsides of some download sites
With some download services (eg emusic), you are limited to a
certain number of downloads per month, the number not surprisingly
depending on how much you are paying. Unfortunately, this system
is not designed to suit the classical listener. Why not? One download
is one CD track, regardless of duration.
This is fine for pop/rock where most tracks are of a similar length,
but is rather a problem for something like the Goldberg Variations,
where your entire month's downloads (and more) would be used up
by the 32 tracks. Mind you, if your taste runs to Mahler, then
you could get the 20+ minute first movement of Symphony 3 as one
track download! This is clearly an issue for classical subscribers.
The other issue is that, for Byzantine copyright
or distribution reasons, you may not be able to purchase downloads
from particular sites because of where you live. You need to live
in the UK to puchase downloads from Amazon UK, though it is perfectly
OK to buy the physical CD form Amazon UK and have them ship it
to your overseas address - make sense of that if you can! iTunes
has "stores" in different countries - an absurd concept
if you think about it - and what is available in the US store
is not necessarily available in the Australian store, for example.
If you live in Australia, you can't buy from the US store. All
In this instance, the bytes of musical information being transferred
through your modem are being immediately translated into sound.
Once you press the stop button or the music finishes, it is gone:
it is not stored permanently on your computer. It is, therefore,
the 21st century equivalent of the distinction between listening
to a recording on your player versus listening to it on the radio.
You will need specific software (generally free) to play the music,
since the form in which it is being sent down the connection will
have been determined by the webcaster. Normally, the webcast page
will specify which software you require, and if you don't have
it, will provide a link to a site from where you can install it.
Fortunately most people will already have the three most common
programs that webcasters use: Window Media Player (if you have
Windows you have WMP whether you want it or not), Real Player
or Quick Time.
To allow this to happen without interruptions requires a relatively
fast, but more importantly reliably consistent, broadband connection.
If not, you will face regular breaks in the sound (and a message
in the software along the lines of "Buffering ....".
The buffer is a "bucket of data" which the software
that generates the music on your computer uses. If it is emptying
the bucket faster than it is being filled from the internet connection,
then you will get the annoying break.
Technologically, this is just streaming, but the distinction being
made here is that the content is live radio or a concert, rather
than a recording of your choice, hence the name: the web equivalent
of a radio broadcast.
DRM - Digital Rights Management; a copy protection system
devised by the big labels to safeguard against piracy. Needless
to say it didn't work for very long. In most cases, there is no
DRM (or any other form of protection) on downloaded files purchased
from the commercial sites. Fairplay is Apple's proprietary protection
code, there are others.