Monday, June 29, 2015

The Best Way to Listen to Music

What's the right music format?  What's your format of choice?  Do those questions have any meaning?

A lot of things have converged around the area of music format for me, lately, crushing my measly brain in the process.  I spoke with someone with whom I work (who has no idea at all of the other hats I wear in regards to music) who was surprised to find me recognizing some Zappa lyric he quoted.  When I mentioned that I'd been listening to Zappa's You Are What You Is just this weekend, he said he'd never listened to that one but hoped to some day.  I offered to send him some mp3s, to which he responded no thanks, I don't listen to mp3s.  He explained that he was an "old dog" and just didn't have something on which to play them.

This was just the latest in a series of conversations and occurrences in which I've been involved related to the question of how, exactly, people, including myself, most enjoy listening to music.  When I told one of my internet pen-pals that I was going to send him my band's music, he asked that I send only those available on replicated CDs.  He's a huge collector, from what I can tell, and isn't someone who doesn't listen to other formats, but it seems that as a collector he only considers that he "has" something if it's on replicated CD (no CDRs, please!)  At least that's how I understand his request.

I've also been trying to organize my music collection.  It's taking a long time - I started off just trying to move all of my vinyl from the desk where a lot of it was fitting, but was very much in my way, onto a shelf in a closet where it turns out that only some of it fits.  I didn't bother doing much organizing beyond that yet - nothing's sorted, really, other than the fact that there are clumps of things (old favorites like Jethro Tull and Fleetwood Mac, plus random maybe-rarities at the top, Progressive stuff around eye level, stuff I probably don't care that much about at the bottom) - so it's still difficult for me to know exactly what I have, let alone go find something specific. I went a very long time without having access to any record player that I used for pleasure listening, but during that time I would still buy the occasional piece of vinyl.  Most often I was looking for things I might sample, but I'm always more likely to find something I'd like to have for listening than for sampling.  So I bought things, brought them home, put them in boxes, and never listened to them.

Then my CDs - I've got CD cases without CDs in them.  All over.  A large number of them (maybe 40) were stolen from a car years ago - the CDs were in a CD wallet.  I got some insurance money for that if I recall, but not much; I didn't promptly replace very many of them (at the time it wasn't as easy to do that as it is now, for the most part, and some of them were hard to come by.)  I kept the cases, I guess so I could remember what I'd lost and maybe be reminded to replace them if I got around to it.  Unfortunately time passed - other CDs moved into other wallets or other cars, did some dances around the house, crept into corners, flew from windows out in the wild, blue, beyond - I don't know, really, all I know is that there are at least as many newly CDless cases that were not involved in that theft.  I've been trying to sort my collection alphabetically.  I've got some decent shelves, enough to store, if not all of them, then most of them, but the one-time alphabetical order has deteriorated over time into a haphazard mess.

All of these things have converged, as I mentioned, to get me really thinking about what must be, in the grand scheme of things, some of the least important questions I've ever spent any time wondering about - what media is the "right" one, and what does "right" mean in this case?

That, as may be obvious to anyone who's read this far, is a gibberish question.  It has to be broken down further.

As a listener - how do I listen to music?  What format works best? Is it more about ease of access than other considerations?  For me, as busy as I feel that I am, it often comes down to this.  What's the most convenient thing?  Beyond being convenient for me, I have a lot of reason to share my collection - I've got a wife and two kids who are not music collectors, and I like to be able to share things with them.  For my kids it's about "teaching" them about the music I've enjoyed throughout my life; for my wife it's usually about trying to avoid the frustration of finding out she's bought a bunch of mp3s from Amazon that I could have just made for her from a CD we already own.

For the convenience side of my music listening life, I've settled into the realization that I'm an mp3 collector.  It's even gone further than that - my family now has two subscriptions to spotify, because sometimes the thing is I just want to be able to listen to whatever it is I want to listen to. (Oddly, of all the things in whatever this is I'm writing, this "Spotify confession" is the only one that I somehow feel ashamed of.  It seems like a bit of an extravagance.)

In addition to subscribing to Spotify, some years ago I made an effort to go through all of my CDs, rip them to mp3, and then upload all of that to my Amazon cloud drive.  It turns out that this is a bit of a compromise for me, between my listening self and my collecting self.  Like I mentioned above, I lose CDs.  I HATE that I lose CDs, but I lose CDs.  I remember a time when that kind of thing was unheard of for me, but that time is long gone.  Having these things on a cloud drive gives me some peace of mind, in addition to a (second, since Spotify is usually first) convenient way to listen to them.  Many of the empty cases belong to CDs I might not be able to find now, but whose contents are, at least, out there in the mythical Cloud (i.e. on a hard drive attached to someone else's computer, as the bumper sticker says.)

While writing this I've remembered again that there were a few years where I was a paying member of eMusic.  I forget how that worked, exactly, but I ended up with a lot of albums that I "own" but only on mp3.  I burned some of those to CDR, but I've never managed to find a way to successfully integrate those things into my collection.  And there was enough of a stretch of time between the end of my eMusic years and the start of my Amazon cloud collection that I think possibly many of those albums didn't make the transition (although honestly I'm not sure of that.)

Ease of access is important to me - I've become utterly ruined by computers.  The disarray and disparity of my collections means that my PHYSICAL music collection has been, recently, more of a method of helping me find some random piece of something to listen to than it has been about giving me access to something I decide ahead of time I want to hear. If it occurs to me, for example, that I want to hear The Call's 3rd record, Scene Beyond Dreams, which I own on a cassette that I keep buried in a box with other cassettes, beneath a desk, behind a tool box, it's very unlikely that i'm going to feel like I have the time to go dig down in there until I find it (risking, of course, discovering that the tape has deteriorated or broken,) and then hunt around for a functional cassette listening device.  Instead, I will probably just see if it's on Spotify, and listen to it in my earbuds on my phone.  And 3 or 4 songs in, I'll stop again.

Why is that?  I've found, in all of this drift towards convenience, that something got lost. I'm not just talking about all the cases without CDs in them, here. I don't know if there is even a causation here - but there's certainly a correlation. I've lost a lot of the enjoyment I used to get out of listening to music as I've gotten older. It hits me in spurts now, but it's nothing like it used to be.

There are a lot different answers to the question of why this has happened floating around out there. There's the audiophile's cry of "ear fatigue," that dreaded, horrible thing that happens to us because the sound quality of these convenient, ephemeral non-things that we listen to now just doesn't cut it. This wholly digital presentation of music leaves spaces in between those zeroes and ones which, while we don't necessarily consciously recognize, affect our listening experience nevertheless.

Is this true?  I have no idea.  I have not done any studies, nor have I read any. I don't discount it - while there's a hint of holier-than-thou, to me, in all things audiophile, I think this could very well be true. And it may effect different people differently. Of course, too - the lower bitrate mp3s are obviously of lower quality to even casual listeners, I would say.  There's no mistaking that swirly, shitty sound of 128kbps cymbals.

But there are other possible answers. Maybe as I've aged, or settled into adulthood, I've just lost some of those biochemicals that burned so strongly in me and caused me to connect so deeply with music. Recent experiences in my life lead me to believe there's something to that, too. Additionally, though - there's some piece of my listening pleasure that used to come from the physicality of the thing I was listening to. I used to keep the long boxes the CDs came in. I love a gatefold LP jacket, digipak CDs, strange liner notes, mysteries to keep my eyes occupied while I hear the music. Each physical piece of music-containing media is an artifact. An mp3, on the other hand, is not an interesting artifact. It's hardly anything at all.

So as a listener, there's a conflict between what is easy and what sounds good, and somewhere maybe there's a line on one side of which the act of listening loses its joy. And it's possible I've gotten to the point that I've very nearly thrown the baby out with the bath water.  By forgetting the magic of holding these things in my hand, I've lost some of the joy of listening to them.

From the side of the collector, though, there are different considerations. I am not a shining example of a collector. The recent attempts to alphabetize and organize my vinyl and CDs have made that clear. I lose things. And my collections are incomplete. When I have something in one format I rarely (though certainly not never) replace it with another.

There are problems with CDs as a collector, too. I hate jewel cases, those fragile plastic shells that come ready-broken at least 25% of the time, and which, if they weren't broken to begin with, very easily get broken in short order. The plastic nubs used to hold the CD in the case always break off, the tabs on the front piece that hold it to the back piece snap off. You put them vertically on a shelf and half of the CDs are flopping around inside there, and if you're really lucky the case has broken tabs, too, and so when you pull it off the shelf the CD comes bouncing out separately.

Then there are the digipaks and strange hand-made CDR packages and things that I LOVE so much as a collector of artifacts, but which I HATE as a collector of what are supposed to be a whole assortment of identically shaped and labeled carriers of music, easily identified and accessed. The paper sleeves (we make those for many Halaka releases, and I think they're great!) suck ass when you have to put the thing in with all the jewel cases. There's no "spine" to read, no side label.  Digipaks, while they very often have a side with a label, also conveniently very often come in different shapes and sizes. Some of them barely fit on shelves made for CDs, and some of them don't fit in such a way that the label is visible (I'm talking to you, Peeping Tom.) These cases are great when I first get them, but once it comes time to put them alphabetically in with all the others, I am inevitably torn. Do I take it out of the digipak and put it in an empty jewel case, maybe use a label maker to print something on the side? What is this, a library?

There's something else about listening vs. collecting - some music is hard to find. Some music I would never hear if I were just "shopping" to buy an artifact.  As I write this I'm listening to a self-titled release by a band called Big Lost Rainbow. I downloaded this from a link provided by a blog, years ago. The blog creator takes the time (I think he's still going) of digitizing works of vinyl that are not readily available otherwise. It goes without saying that the record industry is fickle. There are pieces of music that I love but which have not, for whatever reason, been reproduced in a format that I can buy, like the good consumer that I am. Some of them never make it to CD, Spotify, or Amazon, or anywhere.  How do I "collect" those things? Don't get me wrong, I'd love to have a nice vinyl copy of this Big Lost Rainbow album, but in the meantime it's very nice to be able to listen to it occasionally, and conveniently.

Another consideration as a collector is longevity. I won't live forever but I like to imagine that my collection will; that when I'm dead my kids will be able to go through these CDs and records and tapes and find a few things that remind them of me, and then sell the rest. Or put them back in boxes and dump them somewhere.  Damn kids. Some of these things are better from that perspective than others. Cassettes do not have a great life span. Even if they don't outright break, the magnetic signals tend to bleed, and after they've sat for a long time, especially if they've been subject to high temperatures, the quality of the music is degraded (although my music CREATOR side loves those strange, pre-echo repeats of lines that you get from the way the tape picks up things from the piece of tape that is laid against it in the spool.) CDs seem to last a while, though I'm not sure how long. I've read that vinyl, when treated well, could last longer than all of the others, but of course "treated well" is a big caveat there. While they may be no worse than CDs at handling abrasion (hell, obviously CDs are practically useless when scratched,) CDs are much easier to keep unscathed, in my experience.  Vinyl warps, dust gets embedded in the grooves, things get into the slip cover and scratch them. ALL of these things are hard to keep nice. But mp3s, duplicated, kept maybe on hard drives, CD backups, and cloud drives - once you get the music into that format, it's a lot easier to keep it around. At least it is for someone as disorganized as the me that I inhabit in between times of caring about this most inconsequential of subjects.

But IS IT inconsequential? I come at this as a producer of content, also. And that's what ultimately led me down the path of asking these questions. What, exactly, should I be doing with the music my collective creates? As it stands now we are unlikely to ever sell a lot of any particular thing. And by "a lot" I mean "more than 3 copies if we're lucky." But there's a lot of it, and I'm just self-important and delusional enough to think that one day, after I'm senile or dead, there could be a demand for full collections of this stuff. Suppose some collector somewhere decides he (or she) has to have every album we've created. What should we be doing now to prepare for this mythical hero?

Let's assume professionally duplicated vinyl will outlast professionally replicated CDs, which will outlast (even high-quality) self-replicated CDRs, which may or may not outlast professionally duplicated cassettes, which may or may not outlast self-duplicated cassettes. In a perfect world we'd just pay someone to remaster and replicate everything on vinyl, and then CD. But this world is far from perfect, and that shit's expensive, and possibly it's purely vanity.

So we could do what we've been doing lately, which is making most of the things available in high quality digital formats. But even given that we spread these things around, so the hypothetical collector is forced to put in some digital leg work to track everything down, there's still that loss of artifactness to consider. And then if we continue, as we've done, creating interesting artifacts, often hand-made CDRs and interesting cases for them, how do those fit onto somebody's CD shelf? How does someone stick the Halaka CDs in between the Maher Halabi CDs and the Halali CDs? I assume our cassettes still end up in a box under somebody's desk.

(And while I'm at it, wtf is up with Alan Parsons vs. Alan Parsons Project. Clearly one goes in the P section and one goes in the A section but clearly also they should be in the same section. Same with Ben Folds vs. Ben Folds Five. Do you guys care about collectors at all?)

Anyone still with me: where do you come down on this stuff? Should collectors buy CDs from Amazon with autorip, and then keep the actual CDs unopened on the shelf while they just listen to the mp3s (I started down this road at one point, too.) Does having something to hold in your hand help you get more enjoyment out of listening? Are we collectors first, or listeners? Do you lose your CDs under the seat in the car and end up with a transparent plastic disc when you find it two years later? Do you have a record player in your Cadillac? Do you like CDRs? Have you found that they last a long time?  What about things by real malcontents where the format is given as much thought as the music on it - releases on ripped apart cassette, USB-stick only releases that you have to climb a tree to find. Is that about listening to music or is that taking the media-as-artifact thing too far?

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