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October 26, 2006

A Much-Needed Stick

Ipod In case you missed it, which is hard to imagine, this week marks the fifth anniversary of the iPod's introduction. One Newsweek writer asked, "How did we ever live without the iPod?" Another one has written a "biography" of the iPod entitled The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture and Coolness.

I leave it to you to decide how much, if any, Apple-flavored Kool-Aid these guys have swilled. Me? Let's just say I'm ambivalent about the whole thing. I own an iPod shuffle that I bought refurbished for around $50. While I happily use it on airplanes, trains and while I'm exercising, I wouldn't dream of using an iPod as my primary or even secondary audio system.

That's right. I'm one of those: an audiophile. And, to put it succinctly, the iPod's audio quality creates a partial vacuum with its mouth. It's not so much the downloads, although they are sonically compromised (in particular at the standard 128 kbps bit-rate) as it is the miniature tin cans on a string that pass for iPod "headphones."

But even if you used these or even these with your iPod, you would still be missing almost everything that makes good (not to mention great) music production and recording as much of an art as it is a science. I don't only, or even primarily, mean classical music. Listening to the high-resolution, surround-sound version of albums such as The Flaming Lip's "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," Bjork's "Vespertine," these Moody Blues classics, or, of course, this one, it's hard -- no, make that nearly impossible -- to understand our willingness to so readily and completely trade quality like this for convenience.

On the proverbial other hand, the iPod and the rest of the digital music phenomenon poked a much-needed and well-deserved stick in the eyes of the record industry. In the November issue of Stereophile (like I said: I'm an audiophile), columnist Robert Baird wrote that "what lit the fuse of downloading and the ensuing disaster [for audiophiles] were the high prices of CDs -- the gouging we all endured for too long at the hands of the record labels."

While the gouging doesn't justify the violation of copyright law, in a market where "Giant Steps" and other classic jazz albums retail for $19 decades after the artists' deaths and long after every expense associated with the albums' creation, few of which were borne by the current copyright holders, have been recuperated, downloading or something like it was predictable.

Thanks to the iPod, iTunes and similar technology, music is more affordable: I can buy a single song instead of a whole album. I can even download it in a higher-quality format and burn it to a CD.

More importantly, the stick has helped to break the record companies' near-monopoly over the distribution of music and helped deserving artists get a hearing they wouldn't have gotten otherwise, which brings me to my favorite record label: Magnatune, whose motto is "We are not evil."

To call Magnatune's catalog "eclectic" would be an understatement: jazz, classical, choral, folk, world and, yes, that rarest of birds, Christian music that you wouldn't be embarrassed to share with your non-Christian friends.

Case in point: Atomic Opera. I've been listening to their album "Penguin Dust" more or less constantly for the past few days. But don't take my word for it, you can listen for yourself.

Another Christian artist on Magnatune whose music you should give a try is Trip Wamsley. His unlikely take on "How Firm a Foundation" alone is worth the price of the entire download, all of which is excellent.

Like I said: ambivalent but for helping to make music like this possible, I give Jobs' creation 2.333 cheers.

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I bought a song on iTunes a few weeks ago, and was freshly reminded of the poor quality of music we've come to accept. I'm not talking about the lyrics, instrumentation, production, or any of that -- I'm talking about [Read More]



Although I've not yet put it to use, another place to skirt high CD prices is www.lala.com, where you can get rid of CDs you no longer want and get the ones you do. And they have Atomic Opera.

Roberto Rivera

Yeah, there are other places like that: Second Spin comes to mind. I buy most of my music and DVDs used and buy from places like this, although I seldom, if ever, trade in my CDs, which is why I'm always buying new shelves.


These are interesting times, not just for the music industry but the publishing industry as well. Artists and authors can get global distribution through the web, and don't have to go through the almighty industry giants. I doubt they'll ever disappear entirely, but they're definitely going to have to adjust to no longer being the only gateway to global distribution.

And with increased broadband connections and better faster computers, the cracks are starting to show in the television and movie industries as well...


Yay for audiophiles! I have always refused to get an mp3 player because of quality issues. I also don't like the way that mp3 players contribute to us thinking of songs as standing alone, instead of as part of an album. (Although I'm certainly guilty of downloading on a song by song basis!)

I would highly recommend a legal website, www.allofmp3.com. You can download CD quality music there for practically nothing-a whole CD, depending on the file quality you choose, would probably be under two dollars.


Oops, sorry guys . . . I just read in the newspaper that allofmp3.com is not legal. Apparently their music is sold so cheaply because they copy the songs of of CDs and don't pay the wholesale costs for the songs. I'm very bummed about that. Should've known it was too good to be true.


Hey Roberto, as a bit of an audiophile myself (although I don't subscribe to Stereophile magazine!) I agree with you. There are something like 11,659 brands of MP3 players. Ipod is not the best by in any category except market share.

I've been examining the marketing success of Ipods a bit on my blog from a Christian worldview. http://thesearchforpurpose.com/

In my posts "Marketing to Baby Boomers" and "Ipods and Coffee (Part 2)" I commented on how Ipod's success has been driven in large part by Apple's ability to create communities (Itunes). Apple is simply feeding off the need our Creator instilled in us for experience and community.

However, I don't think that's the whole story. This week I also posted on the "demand for anonymity" in our culture. It got me thinking that the true appeal of Ipod may be in its ability to create experience and community while still fulfilling this demand for anonymity, in that it gives people a way to disconnect from the world around them. They get their community through Itunes, safely behind their computer screens and then in turn use the Ipod as a way to isolate themselves from the world around them.

I'm stating an extreme case here to make a point, but is the new "winning" market strategy for our secular culture: Experience + Community + Anonymity?

I posted an article about the website Second Life, "The Next Missions Field?" a couple weeks ago that follows this same formula. Am I off base here? Heck, even something like blogging could fit this criteria!

(And I'm not saying Ipod or Second Life or blogging are inherently bad. As part of God's creation, they are not. They can however be used in ways that do not glorify God or that even replace a relationship with God.)

Any opinions?

Ted Slater

The bass on that Atomic Opera song sounds nasty (I mean that in a good way)! Full instrumentation, nice use of the stereo field, yada yada. Haven't really listened to the lyrics too closely. I bet it sounds good loud.

Of course, the cymbals and high hat sound like crumpling tinfoil because of the MP3 compression. Ouch.

I do like their sound a lot, Roberto.

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