The digital music renaissance

Having all your tunes at your fingertips isn't just fun -- it makes you a more avid consumer of music. So why are the recording companies fighting the future?

Published July 1, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

I bought a 120 gigabyte external hard drive to back up my music collection on Sunday. It was a moment of relief. I now have about 13 gigs of music -- around 2,700 songs -- on my home computer, and the prospect of losing it all in a hard drive crash has been giving me the cold sweats. All those evenings spent ripping my own CDs, transferring the mixes friends had made for me, making sure all the identifying information was correct -- I couldn't bear the thought of doing it all over again. For the rest of my life, backing up my entertainment files is going to be one of my core missions. When I send my kids off to college, one of my parting words of wisdom will be, "Remember to back up your music files!"

Amid the relief, there was also satisfaction. Thanks to computers and the Internet, I am now a better, happier and more productive consumer of music than I have ever been. I am exposed to more new music, I listen to more old music, and I purchase more of all kinds of music. I've spent more money buying music this year than in any of the previous 10 years.

The music industry hates this. By their every indication, record executives appear to be unhappy that I am more engaged with popular music. They are busy cooking up half-baked copy protection schemes that will prevent me from ripping my own newly purchased CDs. They are pushing legislation intended to criminalize all kinds of behavior and technology. Rather than make it easier for me to spend money, they would rather I return to the neolithic times when if I heard a song on the radio I liked, I would have to trudge to the record store and spend $18 on bloated filler. Why am I not excited?

I'll return to their nuttiness in a minute. But first let me explain in more detail why I'm experiencing a musical renaissance in my own head.

Some people might wonder why a grown man would spend hours every night ripping CDs he already owns to a computer -- unless his nefarious plan is to make them all available on peer-to-peer file-trading networks. After all, there is usually some decrease in sound quality when you compress a music file. Why voluntarily listen to lower quality sound?

Those people have yet to experience the joy of creating playlists from one's entire collection, or the surprise that comes from iTunes randomly playing some tune you'd forgotten you owned or never listened to that closely. Or maybe they don't appreciate how much easier making mixes for their friends is when one's whole collection is point-and-click accessible. I suppose there are still people who don't understand how much more fun it is to have all your music at your immediate command. (Or how frustrating it is when it isn't! My 9-year-old daughter became irate when I told her she could not burn a CD from iTunes on the family computer, because it was streaming iTunes over my wireless network from my work computer in the basement. To her, everything should be accessible, all the time. The Internet already seems to come through the air, why not all of popular music, too?)

Having my whole collection available on my hard drive combined with the opportunities presented by the rest of the online universe of music psychologically reengaged me with music. I'm not talking about peer-to-peer networks -- I was never an avid file-trader (though I appreciate how the spread of such networks finally forced the industry to allow things like iTunes). I'm talking about the creation of a new world conducive to choice and experiment -- and purchase -- that is a direct result of music being more accessible than ever before.

This includes things like Salon's own Wednesday Morning Download, which provides a nifty little human filter pointing to free or cheap downloads of singles that I find irresistible. The Web is rife with people recommending music! This includes sites like Music From TV Commercials -- so if I hear a snippet of some cool tune on a Bud Light commercial, I can look it up on the Web and be watching a video of the band in seconds. This includes, of course, iTunes, and all the other commercial online purveyors of music. I was shocked, a week or two ago, that an indie-rock, alt-country loving friend of mine had never heard the album "Reckoning" by R.E.M. Minutes later, I had purchased it for him from iTunes and we were listening to it.

Ease of access enriches our lives. I am not just a happier consumer now; I am a better consumer, more discerning, more informed, more confident to pull the trigger on a purchase. I read a review of an album on the day it comes out, and before night has fallen, I own it -- something that rarely happened before. Previously, by the time I got to the record store, I had long forgotten the positive reviews I might have read. And listening to so much music feeds a virtuous cycle: The more I hear, the more I want to hear.

But the record industry still doesn't get it. A couple of nights ago, I searched iTunes for the song "Days Go By" by Dirty Vegas. I found it, but was annoyed to learn that it had been designated as "album only." In other words, I could not purchase the song for 99 cents -- I had to buy the whole album. So, naturally, I bought nothing at all. I don't like having my arm twisted. Again, I'm not a file-trader, but that kind of heavy-handed bait-and-switch treatment might very well encourage me to look for the song on Kazaa or to ask a friend to burn it for me. So now the studio, the artist, the song writer and the retail outlet are all out their percentage of my purchase.

This kind of behavior is a microcosm of everything that the industry has been doing wrong for years. I won't buy CDs that I can't rip to my hard drive. If legislation is passed that outlaws my CD burner and prevents me from making mixes for my friends, I'll return to my cloistered past, unaware and unengaged with all the music being created in the world. And if I'm exposed to less music, I'll buy less music.

I can understand the fear that motivates record company executives. As is blindingly obvious, the economics of recorded music have changed. Never mind Kazaa or even iTunes; as I've written before, the reality that the 13 gigs of music on my external hard drive can be picked up and plugged into my neighbor's computer is a chilling shot across the bow to every studio interested in profiting from its backlist of recorded music.

I don't want to get bogged down in questions of whether it would be right or wrong to slurp up the record collections of my friends wholesale (I will concede, the prospect seems icky). The laws of supply and demand have a way of sidestepping morality. Like it or not, the day is coming -- soon -- when your neighborhood flea market will, for some laughable fee, sell you 50,000 songs on a portable hard drive the size of your wallet.

The only way to stop this would be to create a music industry Big Brother with the power to look into each and every one of our computers and scour it clean of anything we don't individually have a deed signed in blood for. This is, of course, exactly what the industry is trying to do. The CD "Contraband," by Velvet Revolver, a band made up of former members of Guns N' Roses and the front man of the Stone Temple Pilots, comes equipped with copy protection software, that, like spyware, surreptitiously installs itself on your computer when you pop the CD into the drive, and then, theoretically, prevents you from ripping the CD.

Early reports indicate that Contraband's copy protection is hopelessly inept and easily circumvented. But what can't be done technologically may be achievable legislatively. The Inducing Infringement of Copyright Act, moving through Congress at alarming speed, could potentially outlaw, say its critics, everything from CD burners to iPods. Either way, there appears to be no sign that the industry has learned the obvious lessons of the last few years -- that making it harder to listen to music can only backfire.

Instead of trying to prevent me from enjoying my own music, the recording industry should be working as hard as it can to get everything online and available, cheaply. It should be making it easier for me to rip and burn to my heart's content. Because when I'm happy listening to music, it doesn't take much encouragement for me to spend more money. I've got about 90 gigs left on my hard drive to fill up!

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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