Switchfoot, Microsoft, and Sigur Ros

September 30, 2005

And just when I thought the recording industry might be waking up to reality….

Sony Music used a Microsoft technology called “second session” on the new CD by Christian alt-rock artists Switchfoot. If you insert the CD into a PC that is using Windows’ Autorun feature, it will only let you access a second set of tracks on the CD, not the traditional CD Audio files. This second set of tracks are encoded in DRM-protected Windows Media Audio. That means you can’t copy the CD to iTunes or put them on your iPod.

Of course, it’s really easy to bypass. But the funny part: the band itself posted instructions on how to do it. That’s right–the musicians want you to make copies of their CD for legitimate purposes.

The suits are not only happy to anger consumers, but they’re working against their own employees. They seem to have forgotten that they wouldn’t exist without a product to sell.

Microsoft’s complicity is equally frustrating. Here they are, supposedly attempting to position the Windows PC as the center of home entertainment. Yet, they’re happy to provide technology that stands in the way of customers doing exactly the kind of thing that a PC is made for–making copies of your music so you can take it anywhere. I suppose their reasoning is that this will encourage users to buy one of the different portable players that support WMA instead. Wrong–all it will do is solidify Microsoft’s reputation as an unfriendly company whose products are hard to use and don’t work right.

Of course, as the good fellows in Switchfood pointed out, Macs don’t recognize second session at all–they let you access the regular CDA files. Apple’s by and large been pretty good about not alienating consumers, although I hate their stealth-DRM on iTunes.

So I can only wonder what happens in three years when Apple comes out with its Intel-based Macs. Will they allow a port of OS X (or its successor) to regular Intel-based PCs? Sure, if the price is right. And I’m sure the hardware makers would be happy to escape Microsoft’s yoke: look at how angry they were when Microsoft bucked them on high-definition DVD formats.

A $1,000 Dell running OS X? There goes the Windows consumer market.

Meanwhile, the mainstream record industry continues to slide along toward irrelevance. I went to see Sigur Ros the other night. Talk about out of the mainstream: they don’t have a song shorter than five minutes (most are between six and eleven), their songs are very slow with lots of weird sound effects and noises, and they sing in Icelandic or a made-up language that sounds like space people. And yet, there were 3,000 kids there, all of whom not only dug the music (and amazing light show–one of the best I’ve ever seen), but who knew the songs well enough to cheer when certain old favorites started.

I suppose there have been successful experimental bands in the past–the Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth sold out thousand-seaters for many years. Even Pink Floyd was pretty radical in its early days. But this gave me hope for the next generation–it’s not all about MTV and fashion. Some people actually like listening to music that sounds good.

A good reminder that the technologists and the suits and the retailers and the lawyers and the distributors and the concert promoters have only one job: help musicians deliver music to a hungry audience. There is absolutely no–zero–other justification for their existence.

If the record industry and the sharks trying to capitalize on their fear (like Microsoft and Apple) don’t recognize this, they’ll all fail.

Future of Music

September 23, 2005

This Future of Music Summit is the kind of event that would have made me crazy in person–too many pretentious indie-rock know-it-alls faced off against soulless suits–so I credit Pitchfork for doing a great summary.

Everybody seems to the CD is dead and that few people sit and listen to an album straight through. So what comes next? Apparently there was talk of three possible futures:
1. The “celestial jukebox” model, in which all music ever is posted somewhere in the sky and users pay a subscription for access to all this great stuff. The problem here is figuring out the complicated chain of rights for remuneration–who gets how much of a cut?
2. The “money in the kitty” model, in which everybody pays some sort of tax on every computer, iPods, piece of audio software, and any other device that potentially helps them copy or listen to music created by other people. An even bigger problem here: not only does everybody have to agree how to split the kitty as with model one, but there needs to be some sort of tracking system to know who’s “selling” the most (since nobody’s selling anything).
3. The old-fashioned model in which artists make all their money from playing live, and product (including albums) are an add-on.

I’d sort of like to see model 3 return. It’d be nice from a cultural perspective–people would be encouraged to consume music in a group rather than in isolation on headphones. I remember big rock concerts in the 1980s and all the colorful weirdoes you’d meet. You can still get some of that in smaller venues, but big concerts are now filled with security and overpriced to keep the riff-raff out. As a result, you get a lot more “down in front” than “want a hit off this?” Deadheads and metalheads are things of the past. Plus, as a musician, it sounds great–players are rewarded for the amount of craft they put into their live show, not for how good they look on TV and whether they have access to a multimillion dollar recording facility and engineers who can polish turds.

As a fan, #1 sounds ideal. I think of how much money I spent on vinyl and CDs, and now spend on hardware and software to get that material into a convenient portable form, and I think a couple hundred bucks a year would be reasonable for accessing a service like this.