Kindle 3 and Science Fiction Short Stories

My Kindle 3, the wi-fi model, arrived Friday, August 27th.  I had bought a Kindle 1 when they first came out, but sold it a few months later to a lady friend who reads and travels more than I do.  At the time I was mostly listening to books and discovered I didn’t read much with my eyes any more.  Well, this year I joined four online book clubs and I’m doing far more eye reading.  Many of the books we read are out of print, with no Kindle editions, but a few are, so I thought I’d try another Kindle.

After unpacking my new toy, I was immediately struck by the Kindle 3’s elegant design.  The Kindle 1 had been clunky to hold, and much bigger and heavier.

kindle

kindle2

The new Kindle 3 is very light.  I couldn’t tell the difference between it and the weight of two books I’m comparing it to above.  The Catcher in the Rye is a trade paperback on the small size, so the Kindle is just a tiny bit taller and wider than the mass market paperback on the right, but much thinner.

My main purpose for the Kindle 3 is to read free science fiction short stories, especially free ones off the internet.  The first short story I loaded was “The Island” by Peter Watts, which I found in .PDF format.  I plugged in the Kindle 3 and found the documents folder and dropped it in.  It appears very sharp on the Kindle 3, even though it had a very tiny font.  Readable, but not font resizable.  If you read it online, the text looks larger, maybe 10-11 pt, but on the Kindle 3 it looks like its 8-9 pt.  Of course on, my 22” monitor, the page is much bigger.

This brings up the whole problem of getting content on the Kindle.  Books bought at Amazon are breeze to load and read with all the options.  These books have a DRM that protects them.  DRM free ebooks in the .MOBI, .TXT and .AZW formats can be copied directly to the Kindle with the USB cable, or with networking via Amazon.  With .MOBI or .AZW all the reformatting features work, but not with .PDF.  You can magnify the page, but that’s not very reader friendly.

Most .PDF documents are formatted for 8.5 x 11 paper – but if people wanted to create .PDF files specifically for ebook readers they should create a custom page size to fit ebook readers.    The Kindle screen is roughly 3 and 5/8th by 4 and 3/4th inches, which explains why the words are so small when reading a normal .PDF.

So I will prefer to avoid PDF stories if I can unless they have larger typefaces.  There are converters for PDF to MOBI but I don’t want to mess with a converter if I don’t have to.  I’d like to plug in my Kindle and just do a Save As to its documents folder.  There are websites like ManyBooks and Feedbooks that offer a variety of ebook formats that are directly Kindle compatible.  That’s nice.  So the second short story I got, “The Altar at Midnight” by C. M. Kornbluth, in .AZW was font adjustable, unlike the .PDF story.

In my online book clubs we’ll discuss short stories in addition to the novel of the month if they are available online and free for anyone to read.   (It’s too much trouble for everyone to track down a paper copy.)  I wanted the Kindle so I could read these stories not at my desk, but in my reading chair.  Now that I have the Kindle, I’m trying to find the easiest way to get these stories off the computer and onto the Kindle.  If they are too much trouble I won’t get around to reading them.

It’s a shame there isn’t just one format that all ebook readers to use.  Amazon really should support the unencrypted .EPUB format.  That would save a tremendous amount of work for web sites putting free ebook content online.  .MOBI seems to be the go-to format for free Kindle ebooks and it’s easy to get novels that way, but free short stories online tend to be in .HTML or .PDF, which if I want resizable fonts would require going through a converter.

It’s going to be a while before there’s enough people with ebook readers before a popular format will emerge to replace .PDF online.  Sorry Adobe, but .PDF just isn’t ebook friendly.  I tend to think .EPUB will be that universal format, but we will need Amazon’s help.

Besides the free content, there is a wealth of science fiction short stories to buy for the Kindle.  My first purchase for my new Kindle was The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois, which turns out to have “The Island” by Peter Watts.  The annual Hartwell collection is available for the Kindle, but not the Horton and Strahan, but I expect that to change.  Amazon offers several years of previous editions of these anthologies too, so my Kindle will become a short story reading machine.

I can also get Analog, Asimov’s, F&SF, Interzone and Lightspeed magazines for the Kindle through Fictionwise, and Analog, Asimov’s and Lightspeed through Amazon.

Finally, Amazon offers a many reprint, theme and original story anthologies for the Kindle too.  The Kindle 3 will hold 3,500 books, which could mean 40,000 short stories.  That’s pretty nifty, when you think about it.

JWH – 8/29/10

Update: The 2010 Rich Horton collection is available at Lightspeed Magazine Store for $7.95.  Unfortunately, I see no sign of what formats are available.

Special thanks to Ignacio, whose comment below convinced me to try Calibre.  It solved the PDF conversion problem.  This elegant program does wonders with dicing and slicing ebooks.  http://calibre-ebook.com/

Ebook Ethics

Everything we do in life has ethical considerations, even something simple as buying books.  Ebooks represent a change, and that change has good and bad consequences.

Bad

  • Ebooks will put a lot of people out of work.  Bookstores may disappear like record stores.  This is a horrible consequence in these bad economic times.  The digital world is just more efficient than the analog world and that kills jobs.
  • Ebooks will also kill competition, reducing the number of businesses in the marketplace.  Amazon and Apple could theoretically take over all the book and music business from tens of thousands of small businesses.
  • Ebooks are anti-social.  Instead of buying books at a bookstore and meeting other people you order books directly.  Instead of sharing books with friends, readers are locked into a closed world of DRM.
  • Ebooks could damage cultural heritage and history.  Printed books can last for hundreds of years, and people value them, but ebooks probably have no lasting power at all.
  • Bookstores might become extinct which would be a huge cultural loss.
  • Book ownership is probably a deceptive concept and sellers like Amazon shouldn’t describe their ebooks are “for sale.”  To be honest, sellers should claim they are long term rentals until DRM copy protection is removed.

Good

  • Ebooks are extremely environmental.  Wood pulp technology uses lots of water, energy and chemicals, and those chemicals get into the environment.  Printing takes both energy and chemicals.  Distributing books creates lots of carbon and other pollutants.  The carbon footprint of ebooks is almost zero.
  • Ebooks could mean more money for writers, editors and publishers because ebooks could do away with the used book market.  As long as DRM technology is successful, more readers would actually buy books, instead of borrowing them or buying used, which is more ethical for the writer and publisher.
  • Ebooks might encourage more reading and literacy because of their convenience and possibly make reading more appealing to young people because ebooks are available on smart phones, an essential device for kids.
  • Ebooks could enhance cultural heritage and history.  It’s quite easy to load up an ebook reader with the great books of the western world.  Every child or family could have their own library of thousands of free books.

Ethically, the primary conflict is jobs versus the environment.  But that will be true of all industries and businesses as time passes.  If all books, magazines and newspapers were read on digital readers it would have a positive impact on the environment, but at a terrible cost in jobs.

The secondary ethical concern is which format is better for promoting literacy, knowledge and culture?  This is much harder to judge until after ebooks have taken over.  We won’t know their full impact for a very long time.  But consider this:  What if you could hold a device that had every book you ever bought or read in your entire life with annotations, notes, and supplemental reference essays and reviews?  Would such a superbook library have a positive social impact?

I already miss record stores and LP album covers, but I don’t miss LPs.  I don’t even miss CDs, but I do miss shopping for music at record stores.  I have a subscription to Rhapsody Music and can listen to as many CDs as I can cram into my month for $9.99, but the fun of discovering new albums is gone.   From about 1965-1995 I bought 2-4 albums a week.  I loved going to record stores, but that activity is as ancient as horse and buggy rides. 

I’ve been going to bookstores 1-2 times a week since 1965.  It’s about the only shopping I still like to do recreationally.  I’ve bought far more books than I have ever read, or will ever have time to read.  I will truly miss bookstores if they disappear.

On the other hand, I discover all my books and music now from the Internet.  I’m in four online book clubs.  I’m far more involved with books, authors and readers then when I only shopped at bookstores.  Most of my friendships are based around talking about books or music.  I never really went to bookstores or record stores to socialize with the staff, or ask them for recommendations, although I’ve always liked meeting other book and music fans.

Amazon, with its supplemental content and customer reviews has been a quantum leap in helping me discover new books to read.  It’s far more social in helping me make book buying decisions than bookstores ever were.  Web 2.0 technology is a different kind of socializing.  It’s intellectual over physical. 

JWH 8/21/10

How Kindle and Nook Can Better Compete With The iPad

Last weekend I wrote “To Ebook or Not To Ebook” and I’m still agonizing over which ebook reader to get.  There are two main issues I’m still worrying over.  First, which book is the most comfortable to read for long periods, and second, which ebook reader is the most universal in terms of buying ebooks.  I imagine the light E-Ink readers, the Nook and Kindle, are easier to hold for long periods of time, but it’s obvious the iPad can read books from Amazon, B&N, iBooks, and many other smaller ebook sellers.  The iPad is almost the universal ebook reader and I’m leaning towards buying it.

My need for reading comfort might put me in a limited market so my buying desires are of less concern to ebook engineers, but I wished they’d consider them.  I have bad eyes, and back problems that make it uncomfortable to sit long in one position, and an arm problem that makes holding a book pain inducing over time.  I’m getting old and wimpy.  I’d love to sit and read for hours like I used to, but it’s a struggle.  That’s why I fear the iPad – many reviewers have complained its difficult to hold for lengthy reading sessions.

And, besides that, I don’t want Apple to just crush the competition, so how could the Kindle, Nook, Kobo and Sony ereaders better compete with the iPad?

Universal Reader

First off, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders should make a cross license deal to display each other’s DRM material.  That way any Kindle, Nook or Kobo owner could buy and read books from all the leading booksellers.  The obvious solution would be a universal ebook format and DRM, but that might take years to hammer out.  It might be easier to add competitor’s software to each others readers.  Obviously, the iPad does it with ease.

The reason why I’m leaning towards the iPad is because I can buy books from all the major ebook retailers and read it on the iPad.  If the E-Ink readers want to compete they need to do the same thing.  It was foolish of Amazon to start the trend for proprietary readers.

Add a Handle with Trigger

The second way to compete with the iPad is make the E-Ink readers even more svelte and easier to hold.  I wished they came with a detachable handle so the ebook reader would look something like a church fan.  A nice handgrip with a trigger to page forward would make holding an ebook reader nicer, and make the page turning more convenient.  You can leave the back page button on the reader because it wouldn’t be needed that often.  I don’t know this for sure, but I imagine a handgrip handle would be more comfortable to hold than holding the ebook reader like a book. 

I’m talking about making the device comfortable for reading 8 hours at a stretch.  This is where the iPad is weak.

The Third Option

I’ve even thought of another option, but this one by-passes the E-Ink technology.  Keep the books in the handle and beam the content to a pair of special glasses via Bluetooth.  I wonder if it’s possible to make a pair of glasses that displays words that are even easier to read, something that helps the reader tune out the world and become one with the word.  In the music world we’ve moved the speakers into the ears, why not move the page right in front of the eyes?

Why Reading is Specialized

iPad fans lord their gadgets over the E-Ink readers claiming its a universal solution.  They ask why anyone would want a specialized device when one device, the iPad, can do so much.  I think the iPad is a revolutionary device, it moves the computer screen off the desk or lap and into the hands where it makes a big functional difference.  But is that the ultimate location?  And is it the right weight and form factor?

Bookworms like to read for hours on end, and the ultimate ebook reader will cater to that need.  I tend to believe the lower weight of the E-Ink technology gives it a chance to compete with the more glamorous and universal device of the iPad if they are optimized for streamline reading of text.

Many bloggers and journalists have written about the approaching doom for the E-Ink reader, but I tend to doubt those predictions.  That doesn’t mean I won’t buy an iPad any day now, but it also doesn’t mean I won’t buy a Kindle 3 when it comes out.  The new Pearl E-Ink technology is appealing.  It just galls me to think about buying ebook reader that can’t read all ebooks.

The Deciding Factor

To be honest, the universal ebook reader of the iPad sways me more than comfort of the smaller E-Ink technology readers, and I’ll probably buy an iPad for now.  That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t buy an E-Ink reader too, especially if they become a universal reader.  I’m greatly disappointed that most books I’m reading right now aren’t available for any ebook reader.  That sucks.  But we’re living in transitional times for books and times will change soon.

JWH 7/4/10

17,081 Songs

I finally finished ripping my CD collection, a task I’ve been meaning to do for years.  I put it off, time and again, but I finally made up my mind that it had to be done, and when I did, it only took a few weeks.  What I did was set up two old computers to be a ripping factory.  The results were 17,081 songs contained in 125 gigabytes.  I immediately copied them to a USB hard drive and took it to work and backed up the library to my office computer.  I figured after that effort I didn’t want to loose my new digital music library to a crashed or stolen computer.  The question now:  How do I maximize the use of my song collection.

As I write this I keep an iTunes window open with a single long listing of my songs sorted by artist.  My collection represents decades of collecting covering centuries of music history.  One lesson from holding every CD I’ve bought while putting them into the burner is learning how many I’ve forgotten I owned.  On CBS Sunday Morning today they profiled Shelby Lynne, and I checked and found I had six of her CDs, but not the one they talked about that I wanted to hear the most – damn!  Just now I noticed I have four CDs of John Lee Hooker and clicked on Chill Out to play as I type.

Other than just random gazing at my list I have no real idea of what’s in my collection.  I can remember my favorites to a degree, but I’ve discovered its easy to find forgotten favorites, albums I played regularly years ago that I’ve since forgotten I even loved, much less owned.  Can you name all the movies you got excited about during the 1980s?  Susan, my wife, told me to go through all 17,081 and rate them.  Sure thing, Susie.  iTunes tells me I have 48.3 days of 24×7 listening.  I wished iTunes, Windows Media Player, or Firefly Media Server would tell me how many albums I owned.

Since I started this project I’ve been playing music a lot more and loving the rediscovery of old friends, but I’ve also been bummed by how many songs I own that I just don’t dig – not in the least.  Some songs were filler to begin with, but in other cases I guess I’ve just changed.

How To Be My Own Disc Jockey

What I need to do is organize the playing of the best songs and musical genres in a way that educates me about my own collection.  The traditional way to organize playing digital music is playlists, but that assumes you know what you want on your list before you build them.

Another option is shuffle play.  The random jumping between 17,081 songs can lead to some weird song combinations, but it does get me to hear songs I would never try from just memory.  And it can be surprisingly surprising.  “Sleeping in the Devil’s Bed” by Daniel Lanois just started playing.  Hell, I didn’t even know I had a Daniel Lanois CD, but it’s from a soundtrack to movie called Until the End of the World, a film I only vaguely remember.  The next song is “Sunflakes Fall, Snowrays Call” by Janis Ian, which is just as good.  I knew I had several Janis Ian CDs, but never remember even hearing this song, but I’ve played the album several times I know.  The next song is “No Surrender” by Bruce Springsteen, from the Live 1975-85 album.  Again, another song I like but didn’t remember.  Either I have a terrible memory or most music is not very memorable.

So far, I can say that random play succeeds the best to teach me about my own record collection.  However, I just discovered I can’t rate the songs as I hear them because I’m using the Firefly Media Server on a separate computer server to feed them through iTunes, and to rate the songs would require my library being in iTunes on my Vista machine.  This brings up another huge problem for having a digital music library.

Where Do I Keep the Master Library?

Right now my collection is on an old Dell server, ripped and stored under Windows Media Player, but distributed throughout the house by the Firefly Media Server.  I can play songs through iTunes on any machine, or I can play songs through my stereo using a Roku SoundBridge M1001.  I can remotely manage the SoundBridge with VisualMR, so I can use my laptop to select which songs to play on my stereo.  Supposedly, I can use Windows Media Connect to share songs between any Windows Media Player on any of my machines, or use Windows Media Center to distribute songs throughout my house with Windows Media extender devices like the Xbox, but I haven’t figured out how to use them yet, and I don’t own an Xbox.  The Roku maybe an extender, but I haven’t explored that angle either.

I could put a copy of the library on each computer I own, and on my iPods, but what if I decide to delete a song, I’d have to go to each machine and delete the file to keep all the libraries in sync.  That would be messy.  Ditto for adding new songs.  I could buy a 160gb iPod and make it my master library, but that means being tied to iTunes.

I’m thinking about buying a larger hard drive for my main Vista machine and putting the library there and installing Firefly Music Server on the same machine and taking down my extra machine.  Why burn watts on two machines with work that could be done by one?  This would also allow me to backup my library with Mozy.com, which I can restore to my work machine occasionally – so work and home will stay in sync.

Now that I have a master library, I want to clean it up and delete all the songs and albums I don’t like.  And with the master library on one machine I can catalog it in both Windows Media Player and iTunes because I have yet to decide which I like best for browsing songs and making playlists.  And if I ever get a Windows Media Center extender I could browse album covers from my HDTV and play songs on my living room stereo.  Both Windows Media Center and iTunes have the nice cover flow browsing feature.  Let’s hope in the future that cover flow can be expanded to include all the CD jacket data and editorial content.

Another advantage of having a single master library is collecting ratings.  If the files are on the same machine I can rate songs in both iTunes and Windows Media Player.  I have no idea how this information is stored, or whether it migrates well to new computers and new operating system upgrades.

Yet, another advantage to saving my music library on my main home computer is when I buy new songs.  They will be added immediately to the master library.

Where To Play Music?

Most people think the iPod is the sole venue for playing digital music but I don’t.  I maybe an old fuddy-duddy because I don’t like separating myself from the world by plugging the white buds into my ears.  I have nice speakers on my computers at work and home, and I also have a nice stereo system in the den with comfy La-Z-Boys for truly devoted music meditation.  Sure I have iPods to carry around, but strangely, I prefer to listen to audio books on the go.  My wife does like playing music in the car on her commutes, but it’s easy to sync songs to her iPod and play them through the car’s stereo.

I share my music collection with my wife.  We can play music in the den that’s heard well in the kitchen and breakfast room, meaning we can do dishes and groove at the same time.  Eventually I think I might like to pipe my music library into my bedroom too.

Ripping music to MP3 has made it easy to play songs anywhere without the hassle of finding CDs and filing them back afterwards.  The key will be maintaining the master library.  It will be annoying if I delete a hated song one day and then be listening to music the next and that deleted song pop up again somewhere else.  Or conversely, if I buy a song at home but can’t find it on my work computer later.

Buying New Music

Now that I have my nice digital music library and my CDs are all filed alphabetically away, how do I add new music?  Over the past few years I have occasionally bought digital songs that are now trapped in ancient DRMs and stuck on the computers on which they were purchased, and in some cases lost on dead computers.  So no more buying DRM shackled music.

If CDs are about the same price as digital downloads, should I get CDs or files?  I’m tempted to get CDs, but digital downloads are a better deal for the environment.  As long as I keep my master library backed up and migrate it from new computer to new computer digital files should be safe.  If my house burns down I have my backup on Mozy and my work computer.

Yet, it depresses me to think that I’m limited to the sonic quality of 256kbps rips.  With CDs I could re-rip my collection to a new standard in the future, or even rip them to a loss-less format when I have enough main storage.  The Shelby Lynne CD I referred to above is $9.49 as a download and $9.97 as a CD at Amazon.  Which would you buy?  Of course I can listen to it for free on Rhapsody.

I am a subscriber to Rhapsody Subscription Music and I don’t have to buy new music for the most part since I rent.  However, if a CD goes out of print it disappears from Rhapsody.  I have Shelby Lynne CDs that Rhapsody doesn’t offer.  Strangely it seems for a service that offers unlimited plays from an almost unlimited library that you’d think once they offer a song it would never be deleted.  But it appears if it isn’t for sale somewhere it gets dropped by Rhapsody.  That’s why I ripped my large CD collection.  I have many out-of-print CDs that aren’t always on Rhapsody.

If Rhapsody offered everything, and promised to be a business that would last forever, I would have just packed away my CDs without ripping them and lived by Rhapsody alone.  It’s easy to play Rhapsody music from any machine attached to the Internet, and I can send Rhapsody music to my stereo via the SoundBridge, and if I owned a certified player, I could carry it around too.  But right now, Rhapsody is only good for new music – the kind you can buy from Amazon.

I’ve been playing 17,081 songs on shuffle play all afternoon and through the evening and I’m delighted by what it brings me.  Taking the time to rip my music is paying off fast, I should have done it long ago.  It’s like having the most eclectic radio station ever.

Jim

The Joys of Technology

Today, the title of my post is in all seriousness.  I’m having a very good technology day.  Other days, the title would be sarcastic.  For years now I haven’t quite figured out how to live with MP3 music.  I don’t like listening to music on my iPod – instead I want to play MP3 music on my living room stereo.  To that end I bought a Roku Soundbridge M1001 last year.  This nifty gadget plugs into my receiver and listens to my WiFi network and watches my computers for iTunes, Windows Media Connect, Rhapsody and other UPnP AV MediaServers where I store MP3 files.

What the Roku does is display a list of songs stored on my computers in other rooms that can be played on the connected stereo system.  It displays lists by artists, albums and songs via a small LCD readout and lets me select and play them with the aid of a palm-size remote.  The trouble is I have over a thousand CDs, and flipping through their titles one LCD line at a time is a pain.  I thought at the time I first set up the SoundBridge it needed a TV output which would let me select songs through a TV interface.  There are media servers that also fetch video and photos from your computer, as well as songs, which are controlled through your TV screen.  The SoundBridge is just for songs.  By the way, the newest Roku is for Netflix online films and does work with your TV.  It’s too bad they didn’t combine the functions for a single product.

This morning I jumped on the web because I just knew there had to be an answer to my desires, and I found an excellent solution, Visual Media Remote.  Installed on my laptop, which normally sits in the living room, this program lets me to control the SoundBridge.  I know this sounds weird.  My music is stored on a machine in my library/office.  The SoundBridge is in the living room.  The laptop could be in any room but it controls the SoundBridge.  If I had SoundBridges in other rooms, it would control them too.  This screen shot taken from the VisualMR site best illustrates why the software is so useful:

visualmr_pc_jukebox

This display shows a listing of artists on the left, their albums in the middle, and the songs from the highlighted album on the right. And I can filter too, by genres. This very quickly lets me drill down into my collection and find songs and add them to the player queue. I can sit in my La-Z-Boy with my laptop on my lap and just lean back and play songs about as conveniently as I could ever imagine, other than using telepathic mind control over my computer.  VisualMR has been around a long time, but I didn’t have a laptop for the task before.  VisualMR will also work with PDAs.

Searching through Google shows a lot of people use this same setup, but I don’t think it’s a massive crowd.  My guess is most people give up on stereo systems when they get an iPod, or they buy a cradle that attaches to their receiver that lets them use their iPods as CD players.  And I thought about reducing my music world down to one handheld device, like the iPod.  I could reduce my equipment footprint if my laptop had a large enough hard drive to store all my music.  Or I could just buy some high quality headphones and listen to the music directly from the iPod.  Hell, no one seems to like to listen to music together anymore, although I got my wife singing and dancing last night while we made dinner when I was showing off my SoundBridge setup.  But I had to play the songs she liked.

I’m happy with this present setup.  I wished iTunes and Windows Media Player used the same three-pane approach to selecting songs like VisualMR.  I can pack up my CDs and store them away.  Now that music is sold as DRM-free MP3 songs, this kind of equipment might become more popular, because it’s very easy to just shuffle these tunes from machine to machine and room to room.  Microsoft has sold Windows Media Center for years hoping the idea would catch on, but it hasn’t – not big time.  Linksys, Dlink and Netgear all have media servers that work with their wireless equipment.  The tech is there, I just don’t know if they are popular solutions.

Like I said, the iPod has changed everything and I think people have just adapted to it.  It makes me wonder if sales of CD players and receivers have fallen since the success of the iPod?  Well, duh, if people aren’t buying CDs, sales of CD players must be tanking.

All of this reminds me of the fat people in the movie Wall-E – they don’t notice the world around them because everything comes through their video screen, inches in front of their faces.  Now that iPods have added cell phones, movies and television shows to the music lineup, as well as photos and audio books, there’s all the more reason to stay plugged in to your iPod 24×7.  Who knew that electronic gadgets would bring so much fun and joy to people.

Jim

What Does the Demise of the CD and DRM Mean?

Yesterday I went to my favorite Borders bookstore and was shocked to see that they had removed their entire music shopping area.  Life is getting mighty hard for record stores and High Fidelity type dudes.  Now, it’s been awhile since I bought any CDs at Borders, so I won’t miss it, but seeing that big gapping space in the back of the store made me realize that the era of the CD is over.

If you go to Google News and search on DRM, you’ll see all the announcements about how Rhapsody Music will now sell DRM-free songs and albums.  I’m in the process of ripping my old CD collection, which is very time consuming.  From now on, whenever I buy a new song or album I’ll just get the digital edition.  The last CDs my wife and I bought were a few Beatles titles we didn’t already have.  Beatles For Sale might have been our last CD purchase.

It’s a whole new world for music fans, that’s been evolving since the advent of the MP3 player, and especially since the iPod.  But what does this paradigm shift mean?

Cover Art

When music albums shifted from LPs to CDs, cover art moved from major galleries to refrigerator art.  Going from CD to MP3 we lose the art altogether.  I think a marketing angle record companies should pursue is adding cover art to sales of digital albums.  I’d recommend setting up a free standard for desktop art gallery software, like I envisioned in Inventions Wanted #4 – The Desktop Art Gallery.  Or at least back existing desktop software like Webshots.  Then if buyers select a whole album to buy, reward them with several desktop scenes of music related pop art.

Liner Notes

Another feature to be missed is liner notes.  I loved the liner notes on the old huge 12″ record jackets, but hated the microscopic booklets that came with CDs.  It’s time to bring back good liner notes with lyrics and band/fan info in elegantly designed Acrobat Reader files that size to the computer screen.  Maybe music lovers don’t buy albums because they aren’t the art form they used to be.  I know aficionados that still buy vinyl records because they miss the whole experience that was once part of buying an album.

Shopping and Listening

Hanging out in records stores used to a great way to waste time and even a prime activity for dates.  No wonder sales are down.  Without the word-of-mouth recommendations gained from social record buying there’s not a lot of incentive to shop for music like there used to be.  See my post, “Why Has Listening to Music Become as Solitary as Masturbation?”  Record companies need to invent software for FaceBook that puts people together for song listening parties.

Also, online record stores like iTunes, Rhapsody and Amazon need to create a virtual store experience that enhances the shopping experience beyond searching a database for new music.  One feature I would like to see is accurate discographies that list which songs are in print and are for sale and which are out of print.  There’s no reason in our digital universe that all an artist’s work should not stay in print.

Peach Crates

In the old days people stored their albums in wooden crates that made it easy to flip through the LPs one by one and easily see the covers.  When you met a new friend you’d go through their LPs to see what kind of person they were.  An album collection, with their beautiful artistic covers, were as revealing as a deck of Tarot cards laid out.  Kids today can give each other their whole collections, but what good is that?  Stolen music is indiscriminate.  And long iTunes Library lists are just rows and rows of black and white words.  No personality.  Record companies should allow music fans to decorate their blogs with songs, cover art and lyrics.

Ownership

The downside of digital music is ownership.  Protecting your digital collection is going to be a hassle.  Sharing is iffy.  Selling used albums on eBay will be weird.  Handing down your fabulous collection to your children probably won’t happen.

Personally, I think MP3s are not the ultimate format for music, and even wrote my opinions in “Are MP3s at the End of Their Lifecycle?”   My prediction, people are going to discover that owning invisible intangible objects will be a pain, lacking in style and glamour.

Unless music is freely traded, it’s going to be hard for songs to become hits.  If songs are freely traded, nobody will want to buy them.  Thus, the value of subscription music.

Playlists

Playlists will be the sharing medium of the future.  Everyone will be their own DJ – creating musical mood experiences, showing off talents for discovery, and defining identity.  Send your favorite playlist creations out to your friends, and if they have a subscription to the songs, they will play.  Or build blog pages and web sites around playlists, so when surfers drop by that are subscribers, they will have instant background music.

Next

I expect music to start disappearing from Targets and Walmarts.  Not everyone has a MP3 player yet, but the tsunami is bearing down on us.  It will be interesting to see what an all digital music world will be like.  Won’t it be strange to live in a world and never to see a LP or CD?

Jim

Living with Music Technology

The options of how you played music used to be rather simple.  You bought a record, put it on the turntable and played the songs you wanted.  Sure, you had to manually pick up the stylus arm and move it carefully to the exact track you wanted, and if you loved a particular song you had to jump out of your chair over and over again to keep that cut playing, but that technology required little thinking because there was little choice.  Of course if you were an eight-track or cassette user, the whole job was even more complicated and time consuming, but the tech skills were still pretty low.  In the twenty-first century you need to be a skilled computer operator to listen to your favorite tunes.

I am a fan of the Rhapsody Music service where I have no stylus arm to maneuver or cassette tape to position, and I no longer have to worry about scratching records or dealing with skips and pops, but it’s not all snap of my fingers easy.  I got so mad at Rhapsody that I almost canceled my subscription last week.  My browser kept disconnecting from the service, interrupting the songs I was playing, which was very annoying.  And I’ve yet to get the Rhapsody client software to play nice with Vista, even after being patient and giving Rhapsody a year to work out the kinks.

Luckily, the browser client has gotten better and better reducing the effort to listen to music down to being able to remember the name of the artist and track I want – not quite that easy as I get older – typing said information in the input box – again, not perfectly easy because I have to be able to spell those bits of data perfectly – but after that the only required effort to play a song is the physical exertion of a mouse click.  Just now I was in the mood to hear live versions of “Eight Miles High” by the Byrds.  Within seconds of thinking of this whim I discovered a newly released live CD on Rhapsody and was playing the song.  After that I remembered the live cut on the (Untitled)/(Unissued) CD, just a couple mouse clicks a way.  This is a breeze compared to the good old days.

This is not to say everything is perfect in tune heaven.  Ease of use depends on how closely tied I am to my computer.  If I’m writing like I am now, the work required is very minimal.  I have to keep a browser window open and pick out songs I want by typing their names and clicking on the play button.  If I want to play music away from the computer it gets more complicated, a lot more complicated.  My life would be easier if I just accepted I had to buy a compatible MP3 player to match Rhapsody’s requirements and pay the extra $5 a month, but I don’t like listening to music through earbud headphones.  What I’d like to do is go out to the living room, sit in my La-Z-Boy and play songs on my big stereo without having to get my lazy butt up whenever I think of a new song to hear.

Before I switched to Vista I had a nice setup with Windows XP, Linksys WiFi, Rhapsody, a Roku SoundBridge M1001 and Firefly Media Server.  I collected my favorite music by downloading files from Rhapsody, ran a system service called Firefly that talked to all my music libraries on my computer.  The M1001 was installed in the living and attached to my receiver via an optical cable and talked to my computer via WiFi.  I was in music nirvana except for all the clicking I had to do on my Roku remote to find songs I wanted to play.  And it was annoying I couldn’t stay in my La-Z-Boy to pick out the music either because the LCD readout on the Roku was too small to see across the room.

For months I dreamed of finding a small device that would allow me to control everything from my chair, with the ease of selecting music just like I was at my computer.  I thought of laptops, PDAs, and the emerging tech like the Nokia N800 Linux handhelds.  Before I could make a decision I upgraded to Vista and my lovely setup stopped working.

I wanted to give Rhapsody the benefit of the doubt and allow them time to catch up with Microsoft, however they never did.  I don’t know if it’s my HP computer, Vista or the Rhapsody software client, but they have never worked together.  Without the Rhapsody software, its DRM would stop Firefly from sending songs to the M1001.  Now I could have easily solved this problem if I was willing to spend a $1000 and buy a Sonos system.

Sonos talks to Rhapsody directly over the Internet, bypassing the computer, and even offers a handheld song selector device that would allow me to keep my fat ass in my chair and play music through my big stereo, or any stereo in my house if I that I was willing to purchase another Sonos connector.  Very cool tech but the price is too hot for me right now.  I keep hoping Sonos and Rhapsody will become a huge iPod level success and come down in price, plus give me some assurance that they have a long future before I invest even more money in my music system.

My wife recently got a new laptop and gave me back my laptop she had appropriated, so I decided to set it up as a Rhapsody music play station.  I reformatted the drive and put a fresh copy of XP on it, and then loaded the Rhapsody client.  I then took a patch cord and plugged the mini-headphone jack into the laptop’s headphone jack and the the split left and right channel RCA connects on the other end into my stereo’s CD input jacks.  I do believe the optical connector from the M1001 to the optical input on the receiver provided better sound, but I decided to leave the M1001 out of the mix right now.  My plan is to use a very long stereo cable so I can sit in my La-Z-Boy and put my laptop in my lap and use it as a music selector.

This isn’t a perfect setup.  The laptop is much bigger than a Sonos remote, and it gets hot on my thighs, but it does the job.  However, I can imagine a fair number of improvements.  Rhapsody provides an extremely large library for $120 a year, but it’s not complete.  It appears to offer almost everything in print – there are a few holdouts like The Beatles and Led Zepplin, but that’s not the big problem.  I have hundreds of CDs in my library that are out of print and no longer offered by Rhapsody.

Now I could consider Rhapsody’s millions of songs all I need and ignore my older CDs, or I’ll have to develop a dual music library system.  I’d have to rip all my old albums to supplement Rhapsody.  That would be a huge job that I’ve avoided until now.  I’d need a newer laptop with a larger hard drive, and I’d have to make backups and keep them off site, and all of that becomes a long job list that bums out thoughts of my future free weekends.  It makes me wonder if the old days were better, even if I could only play one LP in a sitting, and had to leap over to the stereo every time I wanted to skip a song.

I can understand why young people love the portable players like the iPod.  If only Steve Jobs would bless the concept of subscription music.  I could buy an iPod Touch and call it quits.  This past year I finally got rid of all my LPs I had been dragging around the country for forty years.  What a relief that was.  My wife and I still struggle with storing and shelving all our CDs.  Susan hasn’t embraced subscription music because she believes music should only be played in the car where God and 1950s America intended.  Susan recently discovered the powers of the iPod for music, a device she previously only used for audio books, and has began ripping her favorite CDs and taking her iPod for rides and leaving the CDs at home.  Sadly for me, she’s refused the job of becoming our MP3 librarian though.

Even if we did rip 2000 CDs, I can’t imagine using iTunes with so many songs.  Nor can I imagine protecting all those hundreds of gigabytes from now until eternity.  In my quest for finding simplicity in my old age I’ve considered following two musical paths.  One would be to give up digital music and go back to CDs.  The second would be to give up all physical music and live completely with subscription music.  There are even portable players out there that will talk directly to Rhapsody over WiFi, but can you imagine what the world will be like when iPhone 3.0 has subscription music?   Can you see the future where you have a device that goes anywhere and allows you to just name a song and it plays.  That’s pretty damn Sci-Fi to daydream about.

Why choose CD only?  Well, they’re paid for, and if I retire to some nice little town and never relocate again until it’s time to move into my coffin, taking care of all those CDs wouldn’t be too bad.  However, if I make several more moves before I retire, it will be a blessing to go all digital because my old back doesn’t like humping all those boxes of CDs.  To be honest, it’s no choice.  Since I’ve been a Rhapsody subscriber I’ve seldom even touched my CD collection.  I would make the decision right now if I knew subscription music had a solid future.  But except for one blogging friend, I don’t know anyone that enjoys subscription music.  All my music fan buddies prefers to buy digital songs or CDs.

No one seems to understand the Valhalla of digital subscription music, so I have to wait to make my decision.  If the concept of subscription music goes the way of the 78, LP and SACD, I’ll have to rip my CDs and start buying tunes from Amazon one at a time and figure out how to schlep those gigabytes around for the next thirty years.  If only Steve Jobs would give his kiss of approval, owning music would be over.  Why has he embraced subscription movies but not music?

I’m in a holding pattern with music technology.  I’ve heard that Rhapsody and other subscription music services can be had through Tivos and cable TV boxes, but I haven’t played with such devices.  What would be better than Sonos is selecting tracks to play through my HDTV that’s connected to my receiver in the living room with the same remote I use for selecting video to watch.  Now that would be converging technology!

When I’m working at my computer I could play Rhapsody.  If I was in my living room I could play Rhapsody though my TV.  For those people with portable players they can get music over cell phone technology.  And when the Internet comes to the car, music subscription could follow me there.  What more could I ask for from technology?  A chip in my head that when I think of a song it plays in my brain and I hear music like I had a $100,000 stereo system in my head?  Would people call us songheads, and look down on us like we’re dopeheads?

Jim

The Problems with DRM Free Audio Books

[Update 12/26/9:  Newer MP3 players have come a long way since I wrote this post below.  Many now support resume and/or bookmarks on plain MP3 files, making them excellent choices for playing audiobooks.]

DRM (digital rights management also called copy protection) has been a big topic among music fans for years.  It’s the software that tries to keep users from illegally copying songs from iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster and other download services.  The same technology is used  for audio books that come from download sites like Audible.com, iTunes and AudioBookStandDL.com and library services like Overdrive and NetLibrary.  Audio books that come on regular CDs can be ripped just like music CDs to make MP3 files.  MP3 files are the lowest common denominator of sound files and do not have DRM attached to them.  In some cases like library checkout software OverDrive and NetLibrary, DRM can not be removed for obvious reasons. 

In the past year the big music publishers have moved away from using copy protection, allowing music buyers to have their music unencumbered by DRM.  Now audio book publishers are starting to free downloadable audio books from the same chains.  This gives users easy-to-manage MP3 files to own – but at a cost.  MP3 files are not the best format to listen to digital audio books – unless the player is programmed with features for the audio book listener.

All things being equal people will want DRM free files but until all the producers of MP3 players get onboard with making their players audio book friendly you might find such files an aggravation to use.  The key is to find the right player.  Most iPods work well as audio books, but there is a vast array of other players competing with Apple that are cheaper and potentially better products.  If you buy a Creative Labs, Sandisk, iRiver, Samsung, Cowon, etc., player you need to make sure it will work with MP3 audio books.

Right now audio books purchased from Audible.com, iTunes, and sites using the OverDrive technology come with DRM encased files, but they are also customized to handle certain features you need to enjoy playing audio books.

Resume and Bookmarks

MP3 audio books are different from music even though they are stored in the same file format.  Audio books can run many hours in length and users want to remember their place whenever they stop listening.  The MP3 file format has no built-in feature to do that.  Files from Audible.com are stored in a format that works with specific digital players that automatically remember the user’s stopping place, plus they are designed to also remember bookmarks with some players.  Those features need to be required of all MP3 audio book players.

Many MP3 players have been designed with a resume feature – that is, the player will start up on the file you left off playing last.  But if you are listening to a book, switch to listening to music, and return to the book you will have lost your place.  Some MP3 players have a bookmarking feature.  This is usually a menu choice that sets a return-to-point in the file to help you find your way back.  It’s not the same as resume.  Audible.com files have multiple-resumes and with some players bookmarks. 

Users of iPods can set their MP3 files up in iTunes so they will have multiple-resumes which makes that player among the best for audio book listening.  However, iPods are expensive and it would be easier on the user if multiple-resume was built into the player itself.

Multiple-resume feature means if you have five audio books and you switch between them the player remembers wherever you left off in each book.  This is the gold standard for audio book listeners.  Single resume is the feature that allows you to pick up where you left off on the last file played.  This is the minimum feature needed to play audio books without a great deal of aggravation.  Imagine trying to find your place every time you return to your book when it’s twenty hours long and has no pages numbers.

A bookmarking feature is a system that allows users to manually tag one or more places in a single audio book, and its a big plus, especially if you want to study or review a book and want return to specific passages.  It also allows the user to remember her place if the player does not have resume.

Plain MP3 files have no notion of resume or bookmarks – they are an add-on features to the player you buy, so it’s important to buy the right player.  If audio book publishers standardize on the MP3 file format without DRM, then digital audio player manufacturers need to catch up.  Apple does the job in software, and users must make the settings in iTunes before they copy their files to their iPods.  Other players handles things differently.

There are car CD players that will remember the user’s place when they turn off their car.  Such hardware resume control should be added to all portable MP3 players.  In fact, the hardware should support resume on every file and not the last played.  And if the manufacturer really wants to endear themselves with audio bookworms they should build in bookmarking.  Some players do this but it’s hard to find out if a particular model has these features because new models don’t always follow the standards of previous models.  Below is a couple recent links that can help.

File Size and Number

I’ve seen audio books as long as 80 hours.  A typical 15 hour book can be one 300 megabyte MP3 file or ten 30 megabyte files or even 200 small files, depending on how the seller breaks them up.  Audible.com tends to break books up in 7-8 hour chunks.  eMusic.com sells their MP3 audio books in a collection of many small files.  They do that because they know people do not always have resume or bookmarks and expect people to remember what track they left off on.  That also encourages people to finish a track before stopping.  This is a very poor way to listen to audio books.

If you rip a CD audio book or buy an audio book from eMusic the best thing to do is merge the tracks into fewer larger files.  This makes managing your book much easier.  If all players had multiple-resume I doubt booksellers would market audio books with 200 tracks.  When I rip a CD book of 15 CDs I make it into 15 tracks, rather than 150-200.  But I’d rather have the book in 2 parts like Audible.com and iTunes sell.

I use CDex to rip CDs with multiple tracks into a single file, but iTunes can do it too.  MP3Merge is the utility I use to merge MP3 files into bigger files when I buy a book that comes with lots of parts.  This is also useful to merge podcasts – because many sites like to make their longer downloads as a series of files.  With MP3Merge you can put them back together into one file, which is easier to manage in your library.

One reason why publishers want to give up DRM on audio books is the hassle they face with supporting players.  If they make their audio book plain MP3 files then the hassle of support is up to you, the user.  Selling the books as MP3 files with multiple tracks is marketing the book to work on the widest possible range of players.  Anything that can play a MP3 file can play the book.  That doesn’t mean the book will be easy to use.

It does mean people can go buy cheap $25 MP3 players and start listening to audio books on the go.  The cheapest current players tend to offer 1 gigabyte of space with no display.  The best way to listen to an audio book on such a device is to load it with one large file and expect it to have resume.  Thus it becomes a single-function device – an audio book – you turn it on, listen for awhile, shut it off, turn it back on and start where you left off.  When you’re finished you delete the book and load another.

If you get an audio book from eMusic.com and it comes as 200 files and you’re trying to manage them on a player with no display and you lose your place, you’re going to get very pissed off.  Another reason why publishers are now wanting to abandon DRM is because they want to sell audio books outside of iTunes/Audible because they know that most people have iPods and this would allow more audio book merchants to compete with Apple.

PC versus Mac

The PC-Mac dichotomy spreads over the digital audio player world.  Microsoft promoted its DRM and non-iPod MP3 manufacturers followed behind their lead.  If a publisher supported Microsoft’s DRM then that book wouldn’t play on an iPod because Apple uses a different DRM.  Many people can check out digital audio books from their libraries through the Overdrive or NetLibrary systems.  These systems use the PlayForSure DRM designed by Microsoft.  People with iPods go to their library and are told they can’t participate.  Conversely, people with Creative, Sandisk, iRiver and other players go to iTunes to buy songs and books, and they are told, sorry, but you don’t count.

This is why publishers want to abandon DRM.  They may have to deal with pirates, but they don’t offend their users or handhold them while supporting numerous devices.  This is a good things, except like I’ve been talking about above, plain MP3 files aren’t ready for prime time audio book listening.

Right now I’m sticking with Audible.com and its DRM system.  Audible.com has made deals with many hardware companies, including Apple.  Some players will even work with Audible and OverDrive/NetLibrary.  Because they also play plain MP3 files too, they will work with DRM free files.  Audible.com is also the cheapest way to buy audio books, but Audible.com sells DRM files.

Amazon, now that it has bought Audible.com, may change things because they are in the DRM-free music business.  They may make buying digital audio books a breeze, but without Audible.com’s extra effort to make digital audio books practical, I’m not sure if Amazon will improve things.  If they do end up selling DRM-free audio book downloads, lets hope they promote the best players to use for listening to these books and use their clout to get all DAP (digital audio player) makers to support audio books.

Digital Media Libraries

Ultimately we do not want to mess with ripping CDs or merging files.  We want to just buy a digital audio book and download it.  From there we will have two options.  Some people like having a media library program like iTunes or Windows Media Player to manage all their files and other users like to store their files in folders they control.  MP3 works with either option so that should make most people happy.  Some DAP players only work with a media library to transfer files to the player’s drive, other DAP players work like flash drives and you can just drag and drop books onto them.

I tend to think the majority of people will want a media librarian.  Such library software can track songs, audio books, podcasts, videos, photos, etc.  However, libraries break down when the user gets too many files, but I expect that will be fixed by Apple and Microsoft in the future.  I would like to advocate that a file structure be designed to work across platforms and design them so any media librarian can use that structure without altering it.  That way you can switch librarians as the years progress without screwing up your file folder of songs, books, photos, podcasts and videos.  But this might be too much pie in the sky idealism.  Imagine:

\Library

      \AudioBooks

           \Author1

                 \BookTitle1

                 \BookTitle2

      \eBooks

      \Music

            \Artist1

                 \AlbumTitle1

                 \AlbumTitle2

      \Photos

      \Podcasts

      \Videos

Another reason to desire standard folder structures for media is the emerging wireless media servers.  These devices allow you to play songs, books, videos and photos on your big screen TV in another room, or channel sound to a bedroom stereo system.  Companies like Sonos even make remotes that allow users to select what they want to hear and play it in any part of the house without being at a computer.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a system near the bed and tell your computer to play a book and set it with a sleep timer?  Standardizing on DRM free files and standard folder structures for storing those files help these media servers. 

Right now you buy a media server to match a particular system and DRM, like iTunes or Windows Media, but they try to be as compatible as possible.  My RoKu SoundBridge can get DRM songs from Rhapsody and its folders, and DRM-free iTune songs from the iTunes folder, and songs from my Windows Media folder.  It’s a pain in the ass to try to remember where I put a song though.  Did I get it from iTunes or Rhapsody?  See why I want a standard folder structure?

For now we must campaign and even protest to get DAP makers to delivery on multiple-resume and bookmarking features for us bookworms.  We can work on media servers later.

Jim

Update #1: I’ve heard back from several online friends and there is no consensus as to which player to recommend. The Cowon and Creative Zen Plus were both mentioned. All I can recommend is the iPod with a screen. I don’t recommend the Shuffle for audio books.

Update #2: OverDrive announces it will sell DRM free audio books to consumers. This is huge. Digital audio players (DAPs) and audio books are changing the way people read books. OverDrive’s is advertising their MP3 files will play on virtually any DAP, including the iPod, Zune, Creative Labs and smart phone devices.

Are MP3s at the End of Their Lifecycle?

I have a lot of LPs I’m about to give away but I’m torn about whether or not I should try and save them as MP3 files first. Nowadays I prefer to listen to music through Rhapsody Music, which has a giant library of music. Even though there are several million songs in their collection they don’t have everything. Not by a long shot. Music albums are like books, they go out of print, often to become forgotten, sometimes to become rare lost gems.

When CDs became the new music format decades ago people waited for their favorite LPs to be re-mastered as CDs. A lot of LPs got new lives as CDs, but probably only a small fraction of all LPs. Now with digital music, a fraction of all CDs are reborn as MP3, WMA or AAC files. I’m talking about legally published music – if you count illegal, then probably a greater percentage has been reprinted on the net by fans. If would be great to have a music database like Internet Movie Database that tracked all the various incarnations of albums and how to find them now.

Most of my albums don’t even inspire me to replay them much less spend the time to record them to MP3. I even have a Sony turntable designed for use with my computer. I’m pretty good at using Audacity to record MP3 files, but even if I did it the sloppy way of making one MP3 per LP side, it takes about an hour an album to convert. Dividing the side recordings into individual song files and entering the song data into the ID3 tags would add even more time. It would be easier to see if they are on Rhapsody and just record those that aren’t. Buying would also be cheaper than wasting my time.

Doing some spot checking shows me just how many albums Rhapsody doesn’t have in its collection. Rhapsody seems to have every Bob Dylan album back to his first one. For Buffalo Springfield they have their third and a couple hits albums, but a year or so ago I could have sworn I played the first two albums on Rhapsody. In other words, there is no guarantee that Rhapsody will have any specific album in the future. I’ve often wondered how Rhapsody acquires music. I assumed if they had a deal with the publisher they would offer everything that publisher had in its library. I’m now guessing publishers control access to parts of their collections. It almost appears if a CD is in print and available for sale it might be included, but if the CD is pulled from the market it’s also pulled from Rhapsody.

Future of Music: Owned Or Subscribed?

The music world sits at the crossroad of many possible futures. Ian Rogers points out in his blog “Convenience Wins…” – the music industry has been fumbling around for eight years and finally AmazonMP3.com beta points to a practical future. I, on the other hand see a different future as described in my blog entry, “DRM and iTunes and Rhapsody Music” that the subscription model should be the future of digital music. If Rogers is right then I need to record my music. If I’m right eventually everything should show up on a subscription service. Most people want to own music – and buying MP3 songs from Amazon is perfect for that mindset. It baffles me that subscription music isn’t the obvious choice because it’s so damn cheap. For the price of 10 songs I can listen to as many songs as I can squeeze into my month of musical enjoyment. To me it’s worth $120 a year just to preview all the hundreds of new albums that I try out. And playing music through a subscription service makes music listening so convenient that it’s about like switching from normal TV to DVR TV watching.

I don’t mind paying .89 cents a song, that’s cheap enough. What I hate is managing all those files I must save for the rest of my life. If you study science and science fiction you’ll know that technology is moving towards machines with fewer moving parts. Digitizing the world means moving information off of physical formats and onto binary documents. An iPod like device that instantly acquired songs off the net in real time would be the ultimate Music Mecca for listening to songs. This is about as simple as I can imagine for the final form of music storage and distribution. 78s to LPs to CDs to MP3s to Subscription music.

However, if I’m wrong I’m giving up a lot of treasured songs when I give away my LPs. And since I’m also thinking about thinning out my CD collection, I’ll be losing access to even more songs. Betting on the subscription music future might be dangerous, but it’s the one I want. I readily admit the ownership model might win out. However, Rhapsody is moving subscription music on cell phones, Tivos, and cable TV services, and music publishers are talking about selling subscription libraries to internet providers. Music everywhere might be more powerful than music hording.

The Past is a Heavy Weight to Carry Forward

It would be great if Rhapsody and its competitors became the Library of Congress of music history so I could always depend on finding the music I want to hear with just a few keystrokes. Since I can’t, I worry that I should save my old LPs and CDs, or at least convert them to MP3. But I don’t want the burden of becoming a digital librarian. I’ve spent a lot of money over the last forty-five years buying this music so I should want to hang on to it, but I don’t. My music collection has become a heavy weight on my shoulders. It’s connected to a lot of memories too. I could put my albums in the order I bought them and create a timeline of my life. On the other hand, I’m getting old and running out of future years, and life is busy and I don’t have a lot of free time, so managing these physical tokens of my past has become time consuming work.

Several times in my life I have had to give up my record collection and years later I always regretted that and would hunger to hear long lost albums. Sometimes they would be reprinted as CDs, or I’d shop with rare record dealers and re-buy vinyl treasures. Many though, are even forgotten by my memory. I seldom play my LPs anymore. Every couple of years I want to make space on my shelves and I get them out and find that I still love them and put them back. This time they are going. I met a young woman that collected 78s and LPs but lost her collection to Katrina. I figure she will give them a good home.

Letting Go of the Past Makes Room for the Future

I always loved discovering new music so my collection really is a form of external memory. I’ve known a lot of fellow baby-boomers that never got past the 1960s or 1970s in their music tastes. Evidently they reach a point where they had enough music to cherish and that was good enough. When I go onto Rhapsody each day I have the choice of looking up something old or trying something new. Feeding my nostalgic moods keeps me spinning old songs. Hunger for new rushes pushes me to find new songs. I probably own 20,000 songs now, but Rhapsody allows me to try 4,000,000+ new songs.

Giving up my LP collection, and even my CD collection frees me from the physical world and lets me live in the non-material digital world. I can’t help but wonder if that’s a higher plane of musical existence, a more spiritual state of mind beyond the crass world of ownership and hording and living in the past? The time I would spend being a music librarian could instead be spent on being a music fan.

The Ultimate Playlist

Let’s play the old stranded on a desert island game. Let’s imagine I can’t keep everything, but I’m allowed to keep my all-time favorite songs. That might be an interesting project that wouldn’t require too much work and time and even fit on a memory stick or flash memory player. Such a collection could be a hedge against Rhapsody going out of business. Even if I decide to keep my top songs, what format should I save them in? The music industry is moving towards 256kps MP3 files, but audiophiles prefer FLAC or lossless recordings. I could buy an Olive OPUS Nº5 and start feeding my CDs to it and then pack them away in the attic. Then over time I could delete the songs I don’t like and I’d end up with my perfect playlist. That takes a lot of work, and what happens if my OPUS dies? I can’t imagine owning a stereo device for thirty more years.

How long will Rhapsody or iTunes last? CBS, NBC and ABC have been around my whole life providing me with TV entertainment. Is there any chance that Rhapsody could become a music network with their staying power? Geekboys on the net like to talk about the MP3 revolution changing the music world and how the old guard better get with the new paradigm. What if MP3 is already old hat? Net music might now be the new MP3 and they don’t even know it.

I’m giving away my LPs and I’ve already packed up my CDs and put them in a closet. I’ve stopped buying CDs except for gifts. I will only buy MP3s from Amazon for songs Rhapsody doesn’t provide, but I’m leaning towards not even buying MP3s at all. I’m wondering if AmazonMP3 isn’t just as backwards as the DRMed iTunes?

Final Format

Subscription music could be delivered on MP3 but its WMA now because of the DRM restrictions. It doesn’t have to be DRMed any more than songs sold one at a time. And it could be broadcast in FLAC or whatever current technology is the best suited for the network technology of the time. The burden of formats and storage would be pushed to the broadcaster. Why should there be millions of copies of Feist’s “1234” sitting on hard drives all over the world when it just needs to be on a few servers? The net should trump hard drives. I don’t buy DVD movies anymore because Netflix is too damn convenient and cheap. Why should I own songs when net music like Rhapsody is available?

The real questions are still: What happens to all those forgotten out-of-copyright albums? Can subscription music services ever be allowed to be complete like a Library of Congress? Will copyright and publishing rights limit subscription music to marketing whims or fracture it into too many services to be practical? Technology allows for the network delivery of anything song you can think of – but will legal and marketing issues destroy that potential? If you consider illegal P2P trading, the reality is almost here. Can the music industry find a marketing system that satisfies the publishers, the artists and the music fans? Will AmazonMP3 become the legal front-end to a vast distributor of stolen shared music? One reason I would buy a song from AmazonMP3 now is to give it away. I would prefer my friends would all use Rhapsody so all I had to do was hit the Share button, but if they aren’t a member and I want them to hear a song I like, I have to find an alternative way. What if I hear a great song and buy it from AmazonMP3 and give it to seven of my friends? And this becomes the norm, how long will that sales model last? Any ultimate music system has to account for music sharing. Subscription music has that built in as long as all users are subscribers. Is that practical? What if I’m a Rhapsody subscriber and three of my friends are Napster users and four are Zune users?

We have a long way to go before we have a stable music system. Maybe this is just another reason why most people of my generation stopped buying music. See my blog, “Why Has Listening to Music Become as Solitary as Masturbation?

James Wallace Harris 10/10/7

DRM and iTunes and Rhapsody Music

With all the recent discussion of EMI and other music companies releasing their music catalogs with DRM-free files, I had to wonder what will happen with subscription music services like Rhapsody Music, Napster, Yahoo Music!, Urge, Virgin Digital, etc. Subscription services offer unlimited access to giant catalogs of songs, and they use DRM systems to make sure the music is locked down from thieves. You can boogie just as long as your monthly payments keep coming. Could subscription services work without digital rights management (DRM) systems like so many are campaigning for the buy-by-the-song businesses?

I’ve been using Rhapsody for awhile now and I’ve essentially stopped buying CDs. I have a collection of a couple thousand CDs and LPs but I’ve stored them away. Digital music subscriptions are just too damn convenient over both getting my lazy ass out of my chair and tracking down CDs I never re-alphabetize or ripping and maintaining digital collections on my always changing computers. I can’t believe anyone would be buying digital music from iTunes or any other pay-by-the-song services. Ownership, whether digital or physical means work – librarian type work of organizing, filing and preserving. Buying files without DRMs will mean easier backups, but you still have to manage your tracks – and after awhile iTunes gets unwieldy with large collections.

Physical CDs are great for playing anywhere, lending to friends, and getting the maximum sound quality. MP3 songs are great for making compilation CDs to share with friends or for emailing single songs to distant friends. Rhapsody allows for sharing songs, but your friends need to be members of Rhapsody. Rhapsody just started selling MP3 DRM-free music – so now it’s possible buy a song and share it – although I don’t think that’s the purpose of the new feature. It’s doubtful the industry wants Rhapsody to transmit all their subscription tunes over the net via unencrypted MP3 files, but would that be so bad? If everyone subscribed to music would it matter? The key to subscription music is the convenience of not worrying about owning files.

Rhapsody does all the work for me. I think of a song or album or artist and type in the name in the Rhapsody search box. If it’s there, and most of the time it is, I just play the music. When I’m tired of listening I close the window. Rhapsody does allow me to download the song files to my computer, but I don’t use that feature. First, I don’t use a portable player. I play songs through my computer or my stereo system via Wi-Fi and Firefly Media Server. I do have an iPod but I use that for audio books. When I’m at work I play Rhapsody through Internet Explorer and my computer’s speakers. If you do have a compatible player you can download files to your player. If you want, you can download thousands of albums to your computer, as much as it can hold, and as long as you pay your bill the songs will play. But is that the ultimate way to experience music?

When I was a kid I used to have this Sci-Fi fantasy that I could mentally play music in my head and it would sound like I was listening to a loud stereo. Just think of the song and my neurons would dance. Rhapsody is close to that. Rhapsody even has players that use Wi-Fi to connect to its services. I doubt I will ever have music transmitted directly to my brain, but if Rhapsody (or competitors) were available anywhere I went, then that will be good enough. Once you hear music in that light you realized that DRM locks aren’t needed. I don’t want to own the music. I don’t want to store the music. I don’t want to manage music files. I just want to listen.

Right now if Rhapsody took the locks off its songs people would steal them blind. That’s because some people can’t see the utopian view of listening to subscription music. Why horde songs when you can listen to what you want when you want and where you want? I do all of this for $120 a year – Yahoo and others even offer cheaper deals. Rhapsody currently charges more to people who want to download songs to put on compatible portable players, but if they ever perfect Internet everywhere on portable devices that wouldn’t be needed.

Finding Music v. Buying Music

I was just reading an interview with Daniel Radcliffe who told about where he was and what he was doing when reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. At one point he mentioned he was listening to a group called Takk and their album Sigur Rós, a band I’ve never heard of before. So I fired up my browser, typed Takk into Rhapsody search box and began listening to it. That’s how I find out about music now. Oh sure, I could have zipped over to the iTunes store and bought it for $9.99, but why? For the price of one album I get to listen to them all. I’ve gone beyond how to afford music. And I never wanted to be in the business of stealing music. For my ten bucks of legal rental payment, I’m now in the music finding business. I can’t believe kids steal when legal music is so damn cheap.

If the music industry could acquire X million subscribers worldwide they would probably make as much money as they used to make selling physical albums but without the costs and overhead of actually making, shipping and selling CDs. Once you get past the part about owning music you realize the problem becomes finding great new music. And Rhapsody has many features that help there too. One of them is the ability to send songs, albums or playlists to other Rhapsody members. If I discover a great new album, I can hit the share button and send it to my friends. They don’t get the actual song, but a link to where to play the music. That’s all that’s needed. The holy grail of musicians and music publishers is to get millions to people to start playing a song. Having easy access makes that much easier.

This will be a major paradigm shift in the world of music. Why listen to radio? Just request a playlist or music channel if you want surprises and randomness. This allows everyone to become music programmers by building playlists. No more mixed tapes and CDs. Create a playlist and email it to your girlfriend. When you meet new people you won’t flip through their CD collection, you can request their favorite playlists and listen to the music. You can make friends by having your playlists analyzed and compared to others. It’s a whole different world.

The greatest thing about subscription music services is discovering new music. You can try anything you want. On Tuesdays when new music comes out just play as many new albums as you can. You aren’t restricted. When Stephen King lists his top 25 rock songs in Entertainment Weekly, just pop over to Rhapsody and listen to them.

Subscription services will have to maintain their DRM systems until the mass of people realize that owning music is a pain, but eventually DRMs won’t matter.

Where Subscription Music Fails

Since 1964 I’ve been buying music, and even though I’ve had to sell my collection a couple of times since then, I’ve gathered a couple thousand albums – far more than I want to rip and preserve on hard disk. Rhapsody is great for the new stuff and the famous stuff, and crappy songs from artists that only their mothers would buy, but it is far from complete. I have a lot of albums that Rhapsody doesn’t. And if I want to play, “Fresh Air” by Quicksilver Messenger Service, I have to dig through my closet. That really puts some holes in my musical heaven.

For subscription music to really work it needs to be complete. Every online retailer should have access to everything imaginable – and publishers should allow the various online subscription libraries to promote music in whatever fashion they want. No need to have a big brother monopoly, but it would defeat the idea if I had to subscribe to a bunch of services just to get the variety I want.

The next big problem is sound quality. Compressed music is pretty damn good, but it ain’t stereophile quality. In my ideal dream music system I don’t want to own and store music, so it doesn’t matter how big the files are just as long as the music can be piped to me in real time with no interruptions. My assumption is technologies will only get better and transmission speeds will only get faster, so music libraries should have no trouble improving the quality.

A side effect of all this should be the end of the format wars. The wizards behind the Internet curtain will worry about such details. We might have to upgrade our browsers, sound cards and drivers from time to time, but that’ll just give computer companies reasons to sell us new computers. A few years ago when SACD music came out I expected to repurchase all my favorite albums – the ones I first bought on LPs and then later bought again as CDs. I didn’t because SACD music didn’t catch on, but under my dream system, instead of buying all new albums I’d just need to buy a new sound card and speakers.

Another music related fantasy I have is all the black boxes and wires will disappear and music will magically come from nowhere. It would be great if they could put SACD quality surround sound in tiny little speakers built into my monitor. I love the look of those new 24″ iMacs – and what a thrill it would be to have one if it worked like the Apple sales photos without a rat’s nest of wires docked at the back and produced Bose Wave audio quality sound without any visible speakers. Oh, drat, Steve Jobs doesn’t believe in subscription music.

What’s Playing Right Now

Rhapsody is good enough now that I very seldom get out a LP or CD. Right now I’m listening to Joe Cocker from 1969 and 1970. I’m listening to albums I haven’t owned or seen in years. Rhapsody is one great trip down memory lane. I often play albums that I remember flipping by in stores years ago when I was a teenager and my bagboy job at the Coconut Grove Kwik-Chek wouldn’t allow me to buy everything. And 128kbps WMA is probably better sounding than my old $199 stereo I bought in twelve payments from the Columbia Record Club in 1968 – my first experience in credit. I play my music through a sound card plugged into a Sony amp that’s connected to Bose bookshelf speakers sitting on each end of my computer desk, so I sit in the sweet spot. Rhapsody’s web based interface has become so good that I often skip the full client version. I just flip through the library and click the little plus sign to add songs to the playing queue. I can’t believe people actual pay for songs 99 cents at a time and then have to worry about saving them. Hell, I would have already run up a $20 bill just writing these last few paragraphs

What Happens If Subscription Music Fails

My worry is the music industry will decide to call it quits on subscription music. If they do I don’t expect to start buying DRM songs for 99 cents. I might buy a few $1.29 DRM free songs, but what I’d do is rip my CD collection, create a pool of favorite songs I’ve discovered over the last fifty years and go musical Rip Van Wrinkle and time travel through my tuneverse. Which is what I think many people have already done and explains why CD sales are down – they’ve just checked out from the system. If Apple has sold a 100 million iPods and one billion songs, it sounds like selling digital songs isn’t that big of a business since on average people are only buying ten songs. I wonder how many rental songs have been played in that same time?

I’m not sure about the health of subscription music. I know few people who use it. I show it to friends all the time. I think most of my baby-boomer music friends are content with their small collections of CDs which they ripped with iTunes. But real music fans should try subscription music so they can try new stuff. It’s nothing at all to try out several new albums of unknown artists each week. If subscription music goes the way of SACD then I doubt I’ll be trying as many new groups as I am now.

Can Artists Make Money From Subscription Music

I’m playing “In A Big Country” and I wonder if the old group Big Country will make any pennies from my few moments of nostalgic pleasure. With enough subscribers it’s possible for the music industry to generate the same billions they used to earn by selling CDs, but will any of that moola reach the deserving talent? Are there accounting systems that let the artists see how many times their songs have been played? That could be pretty cool info to track. If I pay $10 for a month of music, that’s 1,000 pennies. If I play 33.33 songs a day, that would equal to 1 cent per song per play.

To earn a buck a group would need 100 plays – to earn a million bucks would require 100 million plays. At a royalty of 10 percent, a group would have to sell 1 million $10 CDs to make a million dollars. Since most fans play their favorite songs over and over again, groups wouldn’t have to reach 100 million people, but get 10 million people to play the song 10 times or 1 million people to play the song 100 times. Thus it’s quite possible to make money at a penny a play, but I doubt the music industry is that generous to artists with their subscription income. At a tenth of a cent per play it would take a billion plays to generate a million bucks. I bet I played Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” at least a thousand times, maybe a good deal more.

I also figure the $10 a month fee Rhapsody charges won’t always stay that low. It used to be $9.95 a month paid monthly, but the by monthly fee has since gone up, so I have to pay by the year to get that low rate. If the subscription services could get 100 million users world-wide they would be in the 12 billion dollar annual revenue range and we know at least 100 million people world-wide love music enough to buy an iPod. If everyone paid the $15 monthly fee that goes with having a portable player, that industry figures grows to 18 billion. It’s quite easy to see the music business making plenty of money via the subscription model. Whether they pay their artists any more than what they paid when they sold music as LPs or CDs is another issue.

Conclusion

If the music business could get the majority of their clients to support the subscription model there would be no need for DRM systems. No one would want to clog up their drives to horde music or waste their precious free time trying to acquire and manage files. If my record collection were digital files I’d have 20,000-25,000 of the little buggers to deal with. What a pain it would be to protect all those gigabytes. The only data on my computer should be the data I created. The only data I should worry about backing up is the data I created. Music should be store elsewhere play anywhere.

Update: 12/24/07

I can now play “Fresh Air” through Rhapsody.  Several music services have closed or limited their efforts.  The big ones are still Rhapsody, Napster and Zune.  Rhapsody is expanding its services by partnering with hardware companies like TiVo and cell phone services.  Denon is even making a table top radio that has a dock for an iPod, plays XM music, is compatible with MP3 CDs and connects directly to Rhapsody – thus offering the Rhapsody library without a computer.  Rhapsody has also made marketing deals to give away songs with hamburgers.  They are making a valiant effort to push the concept of subscription music.

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