mp3rd Rate

Why the RIAA should love us

As the digital music conflict (read: the RIAA v. post-Napster file sharing) continues to pick up steam in the mainstream press, one key issue seems to be frequently omitted or forgotten: Quality. We all remember Neil Young’s attack on the compact disc format in the early ’90s. Let’s not revisit that argument—that CDs have inferior fidelity than good old fashioned records—as it’s now a moot point; CDs have triumphed and even record snobs have succumbed to the format’s convenience. (My record collection went into storage in a friend’s basement this year.) But what of mp3s?

It’s a fact: At common encoding rates, mp3 files have inferior sound reproduction than do CDs. Don’t believe it? Rip an mp3 of your favorite CD and play it next to the original on a decent stereo—you’ll hear the difference. For me, this came clearly into focus when I bought Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot after having lived with a copy burned from mp3s for eight months before the album was officially released. Yet it is this inferior format the RIAA claims is hurting CD sales, threatening the very viability of the record industry. At first glance its logic seems sound—why would someone pay for that Wilco CD when they already own a copy of it?

Yet I (and a hell of a lot of other people) did buy it, just as we bought records of music taped off the radio in our childhood, just as we bought CDs after friends had taped us fuzzy copies on boom-boxes. Do we always buy something we pirate? Of course not—some, perhaps even the majority, of this “stolen” music is garbage, destined to be taped over, forgotten, deleted, never to be listened to again. But the good music, the stuff that we want to listen to again and again—it is crucial to get the real thing, to own an original. Of course, we’re probably not the average music buyer. We’re music geeks; the RIAA would probably maintain that we don’t count. After all, we’re listening to Wilco, not Nickelback, and music conglomerates are usually disinterested in artists of the non-multi-platinum variety.

So does the typical music consumer care that mp3s are inferior to commercially distributed CDs? I’ll agree with the RIAA here: No, I’m sure most people are perfectly satisfied with their lo-fi digital copies. But why? Is it because the music industry has trained consumers to treat music as a commodity to be used and thrown away? After all, there will be another Britney, Celine Dion, or Linkin Park sitting in the endcap at Wal-Mart next month. The real threat to the music industry isn’t coming from the serious music fans—it comes from the casual radio listener who buys an album to listen to that one heavily-rotated song a few dozen times before losing interest and moving on to the next Top 40 hit.

Of course the problem with this is that all that junk, those cotton candy mega-hits, the songs most likely to be ripped and traded and then not purchased, they are what pay the bills for the rest of the music biz. Digital music is going to force the recording industry to rethink their business model and that’s what scares the fat cats of L.A.: Change. If the typical music consumer can freely obtain the disposable music that forms the foundation of the recording industry, the RIAA isn’t going to have anyone left to sell CDs to. Except us.

14 thoughts on “mp3rd Rate”

  1. Wow. Great article, great point… if mp3s captivate that crowd of non-discerning, non-audiophile, “disposable” music listeners, but at the same time, the mp3s don’t win over the audiophiles and the people with taste, it’s almost like mp3’s are this “magic bullet” that wounds the worst aspects of the music industry. notice I didn’t say kill. forgive me for the overgeneralization but can anyone else see this effect of mp3s?

  2. Woohoo! Good writing, Sabu.This RIAA-versus-the-world melodrama is getting more than a little stale, but I appreciate that this points out in no uncertain terms the very important differences in music listening/purchasing habits.

  3. Right on, Jeff. If you ARE interested in making high-fidelity mp3s of your music, check out this site: It’s got instructions and software recommendations (and software setttings recommendations) for making the best possible quality mp3s. Granted, they take up twice as much space as 128kbps mp3s, but who cares when you can buy a 80GB hard drive for $150, right?

  4. Sab, I say right on – you hit the nail on the head nice and square!I quote: “Digital music is going to force the recording industry to rethink their business model and that’s what scares the fat cats of L.A.: Change.”I couldn’t agree more. The irony that the disposa-pop listeners, that army of zombies shuffling around the mall ala’ Dawn Of The Dead, are only doing what the RIAA trained them to do in the first place is a wonderful come-uppance for those bastard weasel-fucks.BTW, you also explained the mystery of how Micro$oft succeeds as well…

  5. See, now that’s the one point that Sabu made that I disagree with. Music listeners weren’t “trained” to do anything. They vote with their dollars and their radio listening time, and they freely, willfully choose to listen to “disposable” music. The music industry was/is just capitalizing on pre-existing zombie stupidity.

  6. Come sit in my media-insider shoes for a month or two and tell me that anyone “freely, willfully” chooses anything. Even if you manage to evade the brainwashing of the marketers, I will tell you what to “freely, willfully” choose and you WILL do what I say. Case closed.

  7. A bit haughty, no? Great article, sab, but I would be shocked if you admitted to being manhandled by marketing like the teeming masses. What makes the music geek different? I don’t think they are, just lucky. They come from every geographical, social, economic, ethnic and taste subset one could imagine. A “media-insider” may occupy a different space from the typical consumer, but we’re all human.This thread of thought brings up many images of the late 50’s, early 60’s era for me. The original heyday of bubblegum with it’s Ricky Nelsons, Pat Boones and Paul Ankas. Anyone remember what happened shortly thereafter? I bet the only reason the crush of great music from (roughly) ’65 – ’72 or so occurred was that society was changing so much, and the record industry was just trying to keep up. In other words, with their dollars (good point, Ryan) they took back their vote from the gutted version of Good Golly, Miss Molly and gave it to Let’s Spend The Night Together. Events outside the control of Hollywood and Vine gave listeners more impetus to seek out meaningful music. At present day, the explosion of music swapping/sharing – another force the industry has been utterly inept at preventing – may just lead to a renaissance of sorts. If, eventually, the people who truly care about music and about hearing it properly are the only ones buying it, what choice will they have but to release the records their only remaining customers desire? That’s taking a couple of flights of fancy (the RIAA won’t eventually figure out how to clamp down on copying music, it will remain basically legal, good musicians will still be able to earn a living making music), but I’m hopeful.

  8. What I mean to say is that if the marketers don’t get you, the media will. As a member of the media, I see just how powerful our message is in creating public opinion. It’s far worse than the marketers, especially when used on their behalf. For example, the car magazine I write for does a poll every year. This year, one of the cars that won a category has not yet arrived at dealerships. Only about 25 people on the planet have driven it, yet our readers picked it as the best. See what I mean?And BTW, I am *completely* “manhandled.” That’s why I own a sports car and two motorcycles, despite having a car provided to me through my job for the last year and a half.

  9. When you get your mp3s from some dumbass who doesn’t know what a proper encoder is or how to rip properly, then yes, they’ll sound like shit.CDs ripped with EAC and encoded with lame VBR -alt preset standard sound flawless.

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