Portability Over Quality: The MP3 Scam

By | April 6, 2006

I happen to be a new fan of Alva Noto, whose minimalist bleeps and hisses may not be everyone’s cup of tea. (My wife thinks we have mice.) Anyway, I’m also testing headphones so I’m sitting outside by the communal pool taking in his second album with Ryuichi Sakamoto (my hero; I once interviewed him in such a grovelling fashion I couldn’t bring myself to watch the recording of it afterwards. I think my toughest question was “What do you think makes you so talented?”) with a pair of Logitech noise-cancellers (I’d have to take them off to tell you which make, and I’m not going to do that.)

But all this reminded me of an interview I read recently between Alva Noto (real name: Carsten Nicolai) and Robin Rimbaud, in which they discussed, among other things, how music is listened to, and treated, differently in the age of MP3. Rimbaud, himself a performing artist, asks Nicolai about the influence of “mobile listening” on him and his audience:

I listen to music more in a mobile situation because there isn’t much time to just sit down and listen anymore. I now have this obsession for headphones, which is probably born from this way of listening! I have a set for every situation!

Kind of interesting, I reckon. Reduced time available, and technology, has made music much more of a mobile activity now. I personally love listening to music or speech when I’m walking, hiking or jogging because I love the subliminal associations the mind makes between what one sees and what one is hearing. Views become associated with songs, or ideas expressed, with whatever you were listening to when you saw that view for the first time.

But there is a downside: Do we ever sit still and listen to music? Do we ever give it our full attention? Worse, perhaps, is that fact that the emphasis on portability has reduced the emphasis on quality — when was the last time sometime stressed the quality of a music device over its storage? As Rimbaud points out:

For digital cameras we are sold a machine that exploits quality — it’s sold on the strength of how many mega pixels each camera offers, whereas with MP3 players it’s never on the actual quality of the music but the quantity.

Nicolai agrees:

I think this shows a problem for our time — compression has taken over the quality in sound. Transmitting and distribution of the sound file is more important than the quality and I wonder if next year the industry will pick up on this and tell us “listen, last year you bought compressed audio, now you need to buy the real thing”. We’ve already re-bought our LPs as CDs, then as digital versions. Now quality will come back as a marketing strategy.

Could be. Perhaps as storage becomes meaningless — when your iPod can store your music collection many times over –  we’ll be told that 128 kbps is not enough and we need to buy all our MP3 files all over again. And so the circus continues.

5 thoughts on “Portability Over Quality: The MP3 Scam

  1. DAvid

    Do we ever sit still and listen to music? – Sure. Try to mix listening Pärt, Stockhausen or Molvaer and jogging. You’ll find that this isn’t compatible. Fortunately.

    Do we ever give it our full attention? – No. :o((

    We’ve already re-bought our LPs as CDs, then as digital versions. – But, from my point of view, there is no reason to re-bought our CD collection. We can rip it and listen in quality we love.

  2. pieman

    Maybe ‘listening’ to music is something you only get to do as a teenager or as a pensioner, when you have to turn the volume up.

    If you’re into minimal stuff like Noto, you might like Roger Eno’s Nightgarden


    and Flatlands


    More ‘organic’ – as the music press might say – than Noto.

  3. Jeremy Wagstaff

    Yeah, Pieman, I like some of Roger’s stuff too. But it’s this idea that minimalism has to to with tonality as well as structure, these wispy little twitters masquerading as sounds. Amazing. Alva Noto tells a story in the same interview about how Wim Wenders’ people called him up to use some of his material in one of their movies, but didn’t want to pay. “They said what I do is not music, ‘We could do the same thing in a minute’.” As he concludes: These people “try to tell you what you do is just noise!”

  4. pieman

    Depends where your head is at I guess. I find music like Noto’s can fit many, even any situation.

    I rarely work with music on, but if I do it’s generally Noto style stuff. It can be both background and foreground music, if you see what I mean.

    Reminds me of an interview with Sonic Boom;

    “I always was very impressed by droning washing machines, heard through the floor on those sick days in bed off school, and more so by the symphony of summer mowers in suburbia, accompanied by various planes (I like the big WW2 bombers). That sounds as much as it feels… I very much believe the Cage-ism of any sound having the possibility to be musical. Almost any sound can be made to enthrall, astound, bore, outrage through simple temporal elongations, pitch transposing and numerous other sound processing possibilities.”

  5. mattbg

    The music industry is playing a dangerous game with this low-quality digital music because the differentiation between the legitimate and illegitimate version is decreasing even more. There’s now no packaging, the quality is lower, and they have DRM, which is a hassle that illegitimate music doesn’t have.

    I haven’t yet bought any digital music because I don’t like DRM, and I can get a better quality sound from a CD. The difference is incredibly obvious on a good home stereo system. I buy CDs instead because they sound better and they’re more flexible. Imagine the thought; it’s completely antithetical to the promise of digital music that a CD would be more flexible that a digital music file.

    Fact: purchased digital music is of lower quality than a CD

    Fact: if you buy music from iTunes, you are limited to the iPod for life

    Fact: DRM-protected music is difficult to manage on a home network

    Fact: if you buy a CD, you resolve all of the above issues


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