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The Internet is all abuzz today about this Financial Times piece. In the article, it’s put forth that Apple (AAPL) is talking to the four largest record labels — EMI, Sony Music (SNE), Warner Music (WMG), and Universal Music Group (EPA: VIV) — about bundling interactive liner notes with albums purchased from iTunes. But they’re missing something big…
Ironically, music fans have reverted to the buying habits of their grandparents. There was a time when 45s -- small vinyl records with a single and a B-side track -- ruled the day. This was before full-length LPs became the norm. Today, people buy many more single tracks from iTunes than they do full albums. Apple and the record companies' hope is that they can get more folks to buy whole albums (read as more money for labels).
The story comes with a semi-confirmed rumor that Apple will be releasing a tablet computer before the holidays -- a giant iTouch basically. The tablet would be an entertainment platform for iTunes purchases: movies, shows, albums, etc. The new liner notes would be full booklets, with lyrics and artwork. And they wouldn't just be PDFs, they'd be interactive. The user could click on a song title in the artwork, for example, and it would begin to play without having to go back into iTunes to select the track.
Much has been written today about "reliving" the vinyl album experience: reading through the booklet, seeing the artwork in full size, and apparently for some people, sharing it with a friend on a beanbag chair. There's no doubt in my mind that these companies have seen the uptick in vinyl LP sales and want to cash in. It does at least sound like they listened to why people like vinyl so much.
But Apple and all the record companies are forgetting something huge: the sound quality of the music. Yes, all the aforementioned experiences make albums great, but awful-sounding MP3s or AACs will never suffice. Vinyl records and CDs are full-quality recordings. MP3s are compressed, lifeless shells of what once was music.
Maybe this will convince you. Forget about the "vinyls just sound warmer" arguments you've heard from audiophiles. Here's a better one. Music is not only heard with your ears, it's felt by your body. In fact, your ear is like an instrument that sound waves "play." The vibrations affect your eardrum and your brain translates the signal back to music. This works in other parts of your body, too. Ever feel the bass thumping in your chest from a car system, for example? Ever wonder why there are deaf ballet dancers? Compressed music cuts the higher and lower frequencies that your ear can't hear but your body would have felt. Erase those frequencies and you're erasing the music; you're damaging the listening experience.
Yes, art and liner notes are great, but if these companies really want to re-create the experience of an album, they'll start offering full-quality downloads. Granted, storage is an issue. Full-quality records take up a lot more space on a a drive than compressed tracks. But where's the option? At a time when we're syncing our iPhones and iPods nearly every day, it makes perfect sense to keep four or five full-quality albums on hand, maybe the most recently added, and leave the rest in a compressed form for casual listening. I don't need the same quality to enjoy a Misfits album as I do a Madlib record, for example. Hard drives are getting quite large these days, too. It won't be long before the idea of compressed music seems silly.
Also, not everything comes on vinyl. If I want to hear the full-quality recording of Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury, my only choice is a CD. At this point, that's worthless -- is it even necessary to recount the reasons why CDs are dead? Downloading an interactive booklet isn't going to persuade me to drop the cash on iTunes for the album. But for a quality listening experience...I just might.
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