I don't want my MP3

Or: How the Internet could kill the album

Label execs talk privately, very off-the-record, about how they despise the format not because it cuts into profits or because of potential copyright infringement, but because it simply sounds bad. They all agree: Nothing in this world sounds worse than a compressed digital sound file played through cheap computer speakers. "They say it's near-CD quality," scoffs one label employee, "but they're lying. And they're fooling people who don't know any better. Besides, you can't listen to an MP3 on your home stereo system or, worse, your car stereo. That alone makes them a novelty." (That's one of Bubba Kadane's favorite ways of describing MP3s -- as a novelty, as something important only because it's new, shiny, intriguing...but only for the moment.)

One day, the technology will exist that allows CD-quality music to be transmitted in a split second; one day, a CD burner will be as commonplace in a computer as a disc drive; one day, computers will be hooked up to stereos like tape decks and CD players. But that day exists in the distant future -- four, five years from now. Until then, even the most vehement supporters of the MP3 admit that we exist in a state of limbo -- caught between yesterday's technology and the promise of a bright and rosy tomorrow.

"We're in purgatory as far as the technology is concerned, because not everybody has the tools to download the music," says Toadies guitarist Clark Vogeler, an adamant defender of the brave new world. Vogeler is a true believer in the compressed format: He talks about the advantages of distribution, the way bands stand to profit without a label or other middlemen collecting their pocket change along the way, the ease of getting music into the hands of a larger audience in the time it takes to boot up a computer. His are the by-now familiar promises of the Internet faithful: The revolution is now, long live the MP3.

Down the John: They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh, left, and John Linnell have a chokehold on the future.
Chris Cuffaro
Down the John: They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh, left, and John Linnell have a chokehold on the future.
Bubba Kadane, left, laments the possible death of the full-length album.
Bubba Kadane, left, laments the possible death of the full-length album.

"That element of control is gone, but it's a trade-off for being able to get more people to hear your music and turn people on to it," Vogeler says. "The way that the technology is becoming, the artist is more in control of the music in terms of distribution and sales," he says. "It's easier to get the music in the hands of the people who want it. In five years, everyone will have this technology -- computers hooked up to their stereos or CD burners that allow them to take their downloaded songs with them. Most of my friends already do. So what if a lot of them aren't downloading whole albums? The theory that just listening to one song takes away from the power of an album is just shortsighted and pretentious."

Yet ours has suddenly become a download-and-dispose culture. With the click of a mouse, you can own the latest single by Your Favorite Band -- and, with just as much ease, you can delete it from your hard drive, never to be heard from again. It's 1953 all over again, a return to the days of the single, only with a few significant differences. Your analog 45 sounded better than a compressed digital file, and you didn't throw away your single in your computer's recycle bin when you got tired of it. More important, you could pass down old singles, which is how so many people learned about great music -- from an older brother or sister's collection. They kept and cared for those black vinyl discs -- they treasured them.

Because the technology does not exist to allow for CD-perfect sound, the audience lowers its expectations. They just accept crap because that's all they know: bad sound, bad bands, bad singles. And so pop becomes more commodified than ever, a gumball chewed up and spit out when it begins to lose its taste. The permanent monument -- the album -- slowly disappears, reduced to bits and bytes, compressed into oblivion.

"Music's already so devalued as an art form," Kadane says. "It's already behind everything else in terms of its respect, and I understand some reasons why. Musicians in the Top 40 are so laughable that it becomes harder and harder to take music seriously. It's harder and harder to find good music, but the same is true of other art forms. The top 10 movies are bad; the top 10 bestsellers are. But the Grammys are much more of a joke than the Pulitzers or the Oscars. Everything about the music industry makes music much more of a joke, much more of a disposable commodity. People who like MP3s are people who order gadgets out of the Sharper Image catalog and never use them. It annoys me to the core."

Then again, They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh would argue that pop has long been disposable -- that today's hit record has always been tomorrow's junk-yard smash.

"I've been in enough junk stores that I think I can safely tell you that pop music is in fact a disposable commodity," he insists. "I've stared at enough Bay City Rollers albums for sale for 10 cents this past week to say that. Landfills all across America are filled with people's record collections. But, that said, what I think is great about MP3 is that it really promotes music beyond the mainstream. That sounds really trite, or really pat, but if you go into your typical mall record store, you'd be hard-pressed to find almost anything that you're specifically interested in.

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