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The Album’s Last Gasp

This article was written by in Consumer. 9 comments.


For a good thirty years or so, starting in the 1950s, musicians released singles on vinyl discs called “records”. You could also buy a full album of music by one artist, and some were worth it, but you also had the option of buying just that one song that you liked, that you kept hearing on the radio.

(You’d also get a second song on the “B-side” of the record. Mostly people just considered that a bonus.)

Vinyl made way for cassettes, and the cassingle was born. Then cassettes made way for CDs, and while I remember seeing some CD singles, they were never as prevalent as those on vinyl or cassette. I believe that’s because the vinyl and cassette singles were cheaper to make than the full album version, since they used less raw material, but a CD single cost as much to make as a full CD.

Consumers, en masse, didn’t complain about the death of the single. I did, because I won’t pay $18 for two or three songs. And let’s face it: the majority of your average pop/rock album is filler material. But for some reason, I was mostly alone in my anger.

Then everything went digital, and all Heck broke loose, people were making lossless copies, yadda yadda, you know this part. Now we’re finally at a place where you can once again pay for just the music you like, for a completely reasonable 99 cents, and there’s nothing stopping you from sending a copy to, say, your wife. (See also this controversial article: “Is it Ever Okay to Steal Entertainment?“.) In the music scene, DRM is dead, and yet somehow, the recording industry still lives. Who’d've thunk it? (Me. You. Everyone without a vested interest in obscene profits from album sales.)

record-needle

Photo by stevecadman

But record companies, bless their pathetic little hearts, are still trying to find a way to sell full albums. There are at least two options in the works, something called “CMX” and Apple’s version codenamed “Cocktail”, which we’ll almost certainly learn more about at their upcoming press event on September 7th. These new digital album covers are meant to be interactive, and include videos and lyrics, and other mysterious “stuff” that has yet to be identified.

It won’t work. If I had an extra $1,000 (or even $1,000 that wasn’t extra), I would bet it all that this won’t work. These efforts will all die. Technical compatibility issues aside, people are simply done buying things that they don’t like. I’m not in the habit of feeling schadenfreude, but in this case, I am happy to sit back, point and laugh.

That all being said, when a music group proves itself to make consistently good albums of mostly-non-filler (in my opinion, people like Ben Folds, They Might Be Giants and “Weird Al” fit this description), I’ll buy a whole album. They deserve it. Also, good movie soundtracks. Music tastes are incredibly subjective, of course, but until music goes non-digital again, you’ll have very few reasons to buy a whole album.

New digital album format doesn’t have a prayer, Matt Rosof, CNET News, August 11, 2009

Cocktail part of Apple’s September event, Greg Sandoval, CNET News, August 14, 2009

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As a part-time producer of creative works that I think are worth something (though I’m not currently requiring payment for anything), I struggle with the urge to acquire my entertainment media as conveniently, quickly and cheaply as possible. My viewpoints on this have changed over time, especially as my disposable income grew, and I’d like to share with you my current ideas / rationalizations on when it’s okay to steal.

Music you’ve already paid for

Depending on when you were born, you may have bought some of your favorite albums in upwards of five formats: vinyl, 8-track, cassettee, CD, and MP3 (if you lost the CD, or it got too scratchy). I’ve never actually held an 8-track tape, but I’ve owned albums in all the other formats, and I’ve decided I’m not re-buying anything.

When I bought my first CD in 1989, (Faith No More’s “The Real Thing”, which still rocks really hard), the people who produced it had no intention of tracking its sale for more than a couple of years, not to mention that conventional wisdom at the time considered the new Compact Disc format to be practically immortal.

Practical concerns aside, I paid for it once, and music isn’t meant to expire. So, even though the CD itself got lost somewhere along the last twenty years, when I decide I want it back in my music library, I won’t be paying for it. It was already paid for. I’ll just acquire it somewhere.

Shows your location won’t allow you to watch

My wife and I deeply enjoy a few shows that are produced and released by the BBC. We have BBC America, but even the shows that make it over to this country are delayed, usually six months or more, and they’re often edited, censored and shown in standard definition (as opposed to HD).

So I download those shows as soon as they’re available online. This is not the same as downloading, say, “True Blood” without being a subscriber to HBO. I feel a little more justified in yanking “Doctor Who” down to my hard drive because BBC content is produced without regard for sponsors or subscription fees, as we understand them.

Movies and TV from used/rental stores

I’m a little more iffy on this one; sometimes it depends on the quality of the movie, but after a DVD is bought once, the studio got paid as much as they were ever going to. If the DVD then ends up in a used/rental store, I don’t have a moral problem with copying the DVD to my hard drive, and then taking the DVD back to the store.

There’s also the case that I saw the movie when it was new in the theater, and I’ve rented it at least once. In that case, I can’t bring myself to pay for it again, and I’ll just make a digital copy.

Frankly, if it were easier, and a little bit cheaper, to legitimately buy and download (and keep, forever, free of DRM… otherwise it’s leasing, not buying) a movie. I’d probably do that instead of “stealing” it.

The flipside

On the other hand, when a show originates online (e.g. Homestar Runner, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog, Ask a Ninja), I’m more than happy to support the creators by buying DVDs and merchandise. Why? Because they don’t bother me with commercials. They can’t keep making the show without me, and that’s a business model I can get behind.

Your ideas

Do you have similar rules for yourself? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

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When DVDs (and before them, Laserdiscs) were new, I really used to enjoy listening to the commentary tracks. Granted, some were better than others, but I couldn’t seem to get enough of the “behind the scenes” talk, and to hear the cast and crew telling funny stories about each other.

Those don’t interest me as much as they used to, and in fact these days I’m more likely to rent a DVD than buy it, but there is a kind of commentary track that I still enjoy: the kind made by people who weren’t at all involved in making the movie.

The gold standard for these is Rifftrax, from three of the people who made Mystery Science Theater 3000. When it comes to making fun of movies, few people have had anywhere near as much practice. It’s a pretty ingenious system that manages to avoid conflicts with copyright law. Here’s how it works:

  • Find a commentary track for a movie that you have a copy of (or want to rent, or buy)
  • Pay $3 or $4
  • Download the .mp3 file (free of DRM, of course)
  • Play the movie and the .mp3 file simultaneously (the commentary will come with instructions for syncing and a guide to help you get back on track if they drift apart)

Here’s an example from the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie:

This is a great way to spend a few dollars and make new again some of the movies you probably already have on your shelf. Some of my favorites from Rifftrax go with movies that honestly, nobody should own (Troll 2 comes immediately to mind), but among those you’re likely to have lying around, these are good, too:

Do you know of any other good “alternate commentary” sources? Tell us in the comments!

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University of Phoenix LogoIf you’ve been following Consumerism Commentary, you may know that I recently completed my Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree at the University of Phoenix Online. I’ve been writing a series, which is basically a review of the University of Phoenix.

The choice to take this nontraditional route was not a difficult decision for me due to my previous experiences with online education, but many people I’ve talked to have considered it without making a decision due to lack of information.

The question asked of me most often is simply, “How does it work?” Here’s how. Read the full article →

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