Monday, February 28, 2011

Of Music Lovers and Illegal Music Downloads

Intellectual property legal precedents and economics aside, why do an overwhelming number of music lovers put up with the dubious quality of illegally downloaded music?

By: Ringo Bones

Once upon a time, we music lovers used to show our devotion to our favourite musician by making them obscenely rich. We even tried to be musicians ourselves in the hopes of becoming obscenely rich too without resorting to being a narco-trafficker or a despotic leader. Then came the dreaded Napster at the very tail-end of the 20th Century and thus financially ruining the whole music biz, musicians and wannabe musicians like me. Only musicians – ageing ones - with a back catalogue proviso on their record-label contracts manage to escape the Napster scourge. Intellectual property legal precedents and economic concerns (as in free music) aside, why do most of us music lovers – even me at some point – put up with the film-noir like rigmarole of illegal on-line digital music downloads?

From a hi-fi enthusiasts’ perspective, our hi-fi rigs – with front ends that range from a humble lathe 20th Century era portable MP3 player, i-Pod, snazzy vintage turntable and for the fortunate few a state of the art CD player that is as expensive as a South Korean made family sedan that can play your CDs sounding like vinyl LPs – is the primary tool that allows us to hear music as it was recorded. The better the hi-fi rig, the closer the approach or the sound quality to the master tape. Heck, even women’s fashion magazines Glamour and Cosmopolitan featured articles back in 1999 and 2000 about how Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera all used to record to big-ass open-reel analog master tapes in their way of spreading the concept of sound quality as a way swaying the hoi polloi away from Napster and their ilk. Sadly, it didn’t work.

Somewhat reminiscent of the adage of saving your hard-earned cash until you can afford to buy that particular tool that would do the job right, it is also the rationale of making the most of your investment in vinyl LPs, CDs and those hi-resolution digital formats like SACD and 24-bit 192-KHz sampled DVD-Audio. Play a full priced CD – at around 15 US dollars – on even a good Mainland Chinese manufactured boom-box and at the very most you’ll hear only 7 US dollars worth of fidelity. Spend a little more on a decent entry-level hi-fi separates – usually start at around 500 US dollars these days and is usually composed of either American or Japanese made universal CD/DVD player, an integrated amplifier and some speakers at around 150 US dollars each item and the rest on interconnects and speaker wire - and you’ll soon get 10 US dollars worth of fidelity.

Sadly, those supposedly “free” music downloads that are illegal from the music biz’s perspective is not exactly “free” from our perspective. I mean that is our very own money that we spent in buying our home computer set-ups – may it be portable lap-tops or desktop work stations. Our own money used to pay to the internet service provider or the hourly rates of your local internet café.

My most nasty encounter with those music download sites of dubious legality are not only virus/malware related, it can also prove to be a waste of time. Given that our friendly neighbourhood music store has never been “adventurous” enough to stock expensive rare and audiophile-quality CDs that range in price from 25 to 50 US dollars even though quite a number of locals can easily afford it. I asked a net savvy friend back in 2002 for a site offering the Queensrÿche remake of Simon and Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair that’s only available on a 50 US dollar Japanese CD pressing of Queensrÿche’s Empire album. All I got downloaded to my first-generation portable MP3 player was 4 minutes 30 seconds worth of digital silence. Talk about a waste of time.


Heidi Gail said...

Despite of supposedly having a much lower carbon footprint than shipping physical media - i.e. CDs, vinyl LPs, DVDs, SACDs, etc. - getting maximum fidelity from your legally and illegally downloaded digital music downloads can be expensive these days despite Art Dudley telling us that the computer-delivered version was rhythmically sharper and voices had a little more presence and texture on his Stereophile Listening column back in September 2005. I mean software for improving the sound quality of your digital music downloads like the Burwen Bobcat software are still priced at 500 to 600 US dollars a pop, while an ex-dem 2003 era Pioneer universal DVD / SACD player now sells for 90 US dollars each and our local garage sales are now flooded with used 24-bit 192-KHz sampled DVD-Audio discs and SACD discs at about a buck and a half each on average.

Ringo said...

Hi-fi as a hobby may be shrinking due to the recession, Heidi Gail - but as you said - fortunately, to the advantage of us unabashed bargain-hunters. Despite being supposedly free from jitter that comes from CD / DVD based transports, I do find in my personal listening sessions that digital music downloads - even supposedly high-rez ones claiming to be better than 16-bit Redbook CD spec - are inferior sound quality wise in comparison to their physical media counterparts.

May Anne said...

Speaking of great formats, have any of you still remember that open-reel prerecorded tapes by Barclay-Crocker?

Ringo said...

Barclay-Crocker stereo - probably 2-channel stereo - open-reel tapes died "silently" back in 1986 May Anne. I've heard one back in 1998 of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue - and Barclay-Crocker open-reel tapes have a high frequency response that is simply to die for.