My experience with a crazy person.

crazy-manA man has been impersonating me on Twitter with a spoof account he created to punish me. This has, regrettably, affected a number of friends and professional colleagues, and I am trying to stop it. (Twitter has a policy prohibiting impersonation intended to deceive others, and I have reported the spoof. So far, they are still allowing it.) [UPDATE: On the morning of March 5, Twitter finally suspended the spoof account.]

Several people I know have inquired about the story behind this, so I am publishing the entire wretched debacle here.

It began when this man (to whom I will refer as Crazy Person, not his actual name) sent a message to my Berklee email account. At the time, of course, I didn’t realize he was mentally ill (although in hindsight the clues are obvious)…

Tue, Feb 17, 2015 at 11:06 am

Hi Chad,

I have developed a software which remotely improves any music source and recording. We have tested it between Europe and Australia with the participation of mastering engineer [name omitted for privacy]. He mixed a track after I turned my sound engine on my laptop on, then sent me the original and the bounced tracks. I can clearly hear the improvements made by my sound engine. But, for some reason [the mastering engineer] says he is unable to hear a difference.

I need a second opinion. Could you please visit my website and listen to the both tracks? If you are able to hear the difference I’m hearing, I can post your comment on my site.

We can also conduct the same test at your convenience.

My website link:

[URL omitted for privacy]

Best Regards,

[Crazy Person]

As a publicly visible member of the Berklee faculty, I receive requests like this fairly often from fellow audio professionals and others looking for input, evaluation, or other support for media products and services, textbooks, etc. — so the inquiry was not unusual, nor the specious description of his software.

Although I was dubious, I felt I was in a position to act helpfully as a peer and a representative of the Music Production and Engineering department at Berklee. So I made my first mistake (and not my last): treating him seriously. I visited his website, evaluated the audio samples and replied.

Tue, Feb 17, 2015 at 2:10 pm

I was immediately skeptical (as I imagine most in my field would be) of your claim that your software “remotely improves any music source and recording.” This bears a distinct similarity to the many snake-oil products and processes that have been marketed over the years to magically “improve” audio recordings through unspecified, proprietary processes. Two important principles:

1.) “Improvement” is entirely subjective. (What does the software aim to “improve”? Why is this improvement needed?)
2.) In my line of work, one typically does everything possible to maintain the integrity of one’s recorded work. I would not consent to having anything I’ve recorded changed by some mysterious process, even if it is claimed to “improve” the sound.

I did some critical listening and analyses of the two samples on your site. Although the processed audio is demonstrably different, it shows no signs of subjective improvement that I can detect. I could not reliably tell any difference by listening. An A-minus-B test (I captured the audio from both players, brought the recordings into Pro Tools, aligned the waveforms, and inverted polarity on one) reveals that the two are not identical, but little more of value. There is a rapid modulation in the difference audio that may be indicative of reclocking, or artifacts of the lossy compression, or both…or something else.

My conclusion, frankly, is that the process doesn’t deliver any quantifiable benefit, and that whatever alteration it does perform would be undesirable in any imaginable context. I’m sorry I don’t have anything more encouraging to report to you.

Best of luck,

c.

In my experience, people in the audio profession tend to appreciate critical thinking and research. Truth claims about the effects and performance of audio products are happily evaluated through empirical analysis and subjective listening. Even if the results are not what the developer hoped for, they are usually received with grace and gratitude.

I had done a bit of analysis and a bit of listening, found nothing compelling, and reported back. Foolishly, I thought that would be the end of it.

But…

Wed, Feb 18, 2015 at 4:03 am

Hi Chad,

Thank you very much for visiting my site and testing the two tracks. At least now I have a 2nd opinion on my intercontinental test that it was successful; my sound engine activated on my laptop here in Europe affected the track [the mastering engineer] bounced in Australia.

This itself alone is a huge accomplishment for science. As any scientific invention, I have no doubt this will lead into new inventions in the future, such as communication between computers and phones without the internet connection. I have read in the news recently that Japanese scientists managed to teleport a single electron from one computer to another. My invention is way ahead of them. I managed to teleport (I never liked this word) my entire sound engine from one continent to another and successfully affected a recording in real time. I think this should be in the news and maybe you can help me, because only a few people know about it. Since you are a well know recording engineer and musician, and also a faculty member at Berklee, people of the world will respect your findings. I’m also a musician myself. I compose new age style electronic music.

I will be grateful if you and me conduct the same test at your convenience. This time on a better sounding track in Wave format. Ideally, it can be perfect if you apply my sound engine (I will activate it here and keep it active all day) to a track you are mastering, with the same settings as the unprocessed one. The sound engine I used for our first test with [the mastering engineer] had a parametric EQ. The current version is plain but more powerful. We should be able to get a bigger difference between the tracks.

Best Regards,

[Crazy]

baffledAt this point, I became concerned. Crazy Person had taken the one bit of my message that was interesting to him (an apparent but unspecific difference between the two audio recordings) and declared success, and I certainly didn’t want credit for verifying his “huge accomplishment for science.” His hyperbolic statement of triumph was also my first real clue that I was dealing with someone who might be a little… unhinged.

(In my alarm I failed to realize that he was describing a process that would work between computers not connected to one another over the internet — an idea so preposterous I hadn’t even considered it.)

I replied:

Wed, Feb 18, 2015 at 8:29 am

Let me be more clear: My opinion is not that your test was successful. The success or failure of your test is not an opinion I can render, because you have still not expressed to me clearly what it is that your “sound engine” is supposed to do.

All I can say with any certainty is that the two audio files presented on your site are not identical. It is my professional opinion that this is almost never desirable. I cannot imagine any circumstances under which I would want something I am working on to be changed along the way, by someone else, operating software with no clearly defined function. I repeat: In my line of work, one typically does everything possible to maintain the integrity of one’s recorded work.

Let me ask you directly: What does this product of yours actually aim to do? What function does it perform that is different from existing processes and methods? Why is it needed?

Unless you can answer those questions clearly, revealing a compelling purpose and usefulness of your software that is currently escaping me, I have no further interest.

Thanks,

c.

I was split, you see. I shouldn’t have asked. But the supposed function of the software was still not clear to me, and it seemed to be promising something that was, at best, completely unnecessary. Part of me wanted more answers, while another part was eager to make a polite exit from the conversation.

Thu, Feb 19, 2015 at 6:11 am

Hi Chad,

Initially I developed my software for my own use, mainly to improve the sound quality of my Hi-Fi system. It’s based on my invention in hardware electronic circuits. I have implemented it into a software.

To improve, I mean better. As Naim Audio founder Julian Vereker once said: ”If it sounds better, it is better”.

I have my software installed on my phone and its performing amazing things on my Hi-Fi. In addition to weighty, very deep bass, the treble response is equally extended, detailed, crisp but sweet. The soundstage is also widened. These all are the signs showing me that my software is making my Hi-Fi equipment perform better. That was also my goal. Of course nothing artificial is added, otherwise it wouldn’t sound this good.

Since my software installed on my phone acts like a remote preamp in a way, if people with big systems and active subwoofers use my sound engine, they can benefit greatly.

The benefit for engineers and producers would be that they don’t have to install anything on their computers and they don’t need to open it as an effect in their sequencer window. If they like what my software does (basically it’s an expander), they can activate it on their phone or laptop during mixing and use it in addition to any other effect they use.

If you listen to music at home, in your studio or in your car, You can test it by keeping my software active on your phone for few days. I will give you free membership to my site.

Best,
[Crazy]

I still held the assumption, at this point, that he was talking about a process that would run between two computers connected across the internet. Audio is sent from a user’s computer, is processed by software on a remote computer, and is returned to the original computer. This is perfectly feasible, and products of this description exist.

But Crazy Person’s software process — and what change it would effect — remained undefined and of questionable value. I decided I would try, one last time, to relate a few principles of value to audio engineers, and to make a graceful exit.

Thu, Feb 19, 2015 at 10:47 am

I appreciate your note. Allow to me to voice a few objections, which I intend to be helpful:

1.) When I finish a record, the final product is exactly what I and my clients want it to be. The bass is exactly as deep and weighty as it should be. The soundstage is exactly as wide; the high frequencies exactly as detailed, crisp, and sweet as they should be. Deeper, heavier bass, or a wider soundstage, or more “extended” treble response, would not be a desirable improvement to the work we have carefully crafted — only an arbitrary and unwanted change. “Better” in audio is not nearly so simple to define as you seem to believe.

2.) It’s true that many playback systems have room for improvement. Software processing that aims to improve the sound of a playback system is not necessarily a bad idea (and quite a few products like that already exist). But, again, “improvement” in this regard is completely subjective; what sounds “better” to you might sound “worse” to another listener. “Wider soundstage,” “extended low frequency response” and other such seemingly desirable traits found in the marketing of hi-fi systems and the myriad products that promise to “improve” them, are similarly arbitrary — not objectives that are absolutely and universally valued. Consider the question: Is there a limit to how wide one would like one’s soundstage to be, or is a wider soundstage always better? Can it be too wide? Can the bass be too deep and heavy? (I hope you agree the answer is “yes.”) If your software “improves” any audio, why not process the audio twice? Or 100 times? How much “improvement” is too much?

3.) If in fact there were a digital audio process that could deliver a universal improvement to any audio on any playback system, that might be valuable. But based on my listening, which was done in a proper studio on two different sets of very respectable studio monitors, your software doesn’t cause any noticeable improvement at all. What it does might be best described as damage to the integrity of the original sound. Not a good cost/benefit relationship…

To sum up: You might possibly have a good idea (possibly), but you don’t yet have a product that’s interesting to me.

So I wish you good luck. Thank you for sharing your idea and for the thought-provoking conversation.

Best,

c.

Although I thought my closing sentences clearly indicated I sought to end the conversation, Crazy Person soon replied:

Fri, Feb 20, 2015 at 7:22 am

Hi Chad,

Thank you for your valuable arguments. Of course I agree on most of the points you have raised. I’m a composer and dedicated audiophile myself. That said, I disagree with your claim that my software damages music. It would not even be possible. I explained you already what my software does: it remotely makes the hardware circuits (any circuits or even wires that run electrons in it) perform better. In music the return is more transparent reproduction of music.

In fact, a virtual copy of my software simultaneously exists at every space-time dimension in the universe. It’s working on your hardware as I write this email. If you are monitoring or mixing music, my sound engine is already affecting it, the resulting sound will be permanently captured in your mixes whether you (or your clients) like or it or not (sorry). But, I am sure you like the results, because you are working to make your mixes to sound good. 🙂

So, my sound engine is already universal, optimized to get the best out of any hardware in the world. Ideally, it should be installed on a dedicated server, maintained and accessed by only me. Because, when somebody navigates through the pages of my website, I can hear here that the loudness level (and the dynamic/frequency range) on my Hi-Fi setup is going up and down. I’m sure you will agree with me that this is not desirable and even annoying. Because, if you (or any other engineer) are mixing music, the recording being made at that particular time will capture it permanently.

To prevent this unwanted side effect, I have come up with this solution. I can take my software off my site and install it on a server. I will not distribute or sell my software. Only a handful of people has a copy of the earlier version of my software, such as the Stereophile editor [name omitted] and [name omitted] at the PSP Audio. I can ask them not to use it and permanently delete it.

But, I need a steady income. This is what I have envisaged: Let’s say an international organization such as UNICEF can fund the expenses of my work and the dedicated server which I will maintain, maybe in collaboration with Berklee. On this project, you can also act as an adviser.

Finally, I didn’t see your email as a member on my site. In order to test my software, you will need to signup and enter the Gold Members page. My software will only be active there. So, please give it a serious audition this weekend, ideally on your home audio system, because you will notice if there is a change in the way your system sounds.

Best,
[Crazy]

Businessman-overwhelmedOkay.

UNICEF funding?

Virtual copies at every space-time dimension in the universe?

I finally realized I had been grossly misallocating the benefit of the doubt. I was conversing with a crazy person. He was convinced he had developed software capable of doing something impossible, and I had been engaged in a serious discussion with him about it.

I wrote a final, polite farewell.

Fri, Feb 20, 2015 at 1:57 pm

As I’m sure you’ve heard before, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If you can provide empirical evidence supporting your claims, then I’m certain you’ll have no trouble turning your invention into a successful business.

For my part, I remain unconvinced. So I repeat: I am not interested. But I wish you good luck and thank you for your time.

Kind regards,

c.

I hoped that would do it. Still, Crazy Person persisted:

Mon, Feb 23, 2015 at 4:57 am

Hi Chad,

I appreciate your skepticism about my software installed on my phone and computer affecting you recordings over there. But, it is based on physics laws and I have the tracks to prove it to you.

Yesterday, we repeated our intercontinental test with [mastering engineer]. I turned my software on my phone and PC on. He bounced a rhythm track that I had prepared. This is the link to the Wav track he sent me (Mixdown):

[URL omitted]

Last night, I turned my phone and PC off before I went to sleep. It was morning there when [mastering engineer] bounced my original track, this time nothing affecting it. This is the link to that track (Mixdown 3).

[URL omitted]

I downloaded both files and compared Mixdown, to Mixdown 3:

The difference is not just in the overall loudness. The Mixdown sounds like there is a band really going for it.

In addition to more robust, authoritative and tuneful bass, the string cords are more expressive and each note is clear.

The arpeggiated syth on the Mixdown 3 sounds like computer generic music. On the Mixdown, it sounds like real funky style playing. High hats also sound more realistic.

When I turned my phone and PC off last night, Mixdown 3 became more dynamically flat.

I’m sure you will realize that if my software can make this much difference from Europe to Melbourne- Australia, Boston is even closer to London. It’s where I live.

In other words, my software is affecting your music over there without you knowing it.

Best Regards,
[Crazy]

Strike three.  My patience exhausted, I sent one last message.

Mon, Feb 23, 2015 at 11:42 am

[Crazy Person],

Your last sentence would be profoundly creepy, if it were even slightly credible. Do you understand why?

I will tell you one final time: I am not interested in your technological breakthrough that improves all musical sounds and performances everywhere in the universe using magic physics.

Any further email you send me will be automatically deleted.

Thank you and best of luck,

c.

I admit the mockery in my final message was not very subtle, and that I probably should have been more kind to him. But, I felt, by then he had it coming.

I did not anticipate that he would respond like this:

Tue, Feb 24, 2015 at 3:10 am

C or Chad or whateves,

UR A [expletive omitted] U KNOW THAT. IVE BEEN TRYING TO BE NICE TO YOU BUT I CAN PUT U IN PLACE.
WHAT IS WRONG WITH U? UR DRUG ADDICT [expletive] MOM DIDNT SHOW U ENOUGH LOVE?
U THINK UR A HOT SHOT OR SOMETHING, BUT UR JUST A LOSER. WE ALL KNOW THAT PPL WHO FAIL IN THE REAL WORLD GETS COLLEGE JOBS HAHA
I HAVE SOME SNAKE OIL TO [expletive] DO U WANT SOME? [expletive] IGNORANT [expletive]

This message was followed by several more of similar composition and sentiment, from multiple email accounts, describing in lurid ALL CAPS detail my shortcomings as an audio professional and the specific nature of Crazy Person’s romantic history with my mother, complete with illustrative photographs of other people engaged in the activities described, and who knows what other idiot filth. Happily, spam filters made quick work of keeping further abuse out of my inbox. But the sudden shift of tone and the extreme hostility now on display was breathtaking. The Twitter impersonation soon followed, and I learned that my friends, colleagues and a number of students were receiving idiotic, obscene messages from “me.”

“Don’t feed the trolls” — so goes the prevailing wisdom. It’s tempting to reply to Crazy Person, asking him to stop. It’s tempting to point out that I was exceptionally patient and generous with him and that his invective is unwarranted. It’s very tempting to tell him that the two audio files in his second test are exactly the same, bit for bit, and that the differences he described — “authoritative and more tuneful bass,” “more expressive” strings, “real funky style playing” — are absolutely not there (and not even possible). But I’ve made my mistakes, and I’ve learned my lesson:

There’s just no talking to some people.

Why I will never see the film ‘Titanic’

Apparently Leonardo DiCaprio is in it.

It all started quite innocently.

The twentieth century was coming to an end. James Cameron’s insanely expensive 1997 romance/disaster film Titanic was the biggest thing ever, dazzling housewives and teenage girls everywhere and out-grossing every other perfectly respectable highest-grossing-movie-ever by a comfortable margin.

It was the first film ever to earn more than a billion dollars at the box office. It won eleven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and scores of other awards. Celine Dion had a worldwide #1 megahit (and a Grammy, of course) with that wretched song, and the (mostly orchestral) soundtrack album sold over eleven million copies in the U.S. alone. The TV ads were relentless. People wouldn’t shut up about it. The film was #1 for fifteen consecutive weeks in the U.S. (still a record) and stayed in theaters for the better part of a year. It held the record for highest worldwide box office for twelve years — until Cameron’s own Avatar beat it in 2010.

I didn’t see it.

King? What is he talking about?

At first, that wasn’t so unusual. I don’t always get out to a theater for every “must see” Hollywood sensation. Even when I’m really excited to see a movie, I often wait until it’s released on video, to avoid the high cinema expense and the inevitable annoyances from less discreet audience members. But something about Titanic made it exceptional. A pop culture phenomenon of that size exerts its own influence, its own pressure. Pressure to participate. Societal expectations. Everybody saw Titanic. After a while, it became a genuine curiosity that I hadn’t. It even seemed to bother some people.

And the more Cameron’s behemoth saturated popular culture, the more I resisted. My petulant, rebellious inner youth wasn’t about to let $1.8 billion in box office make entertainment decisions for me. As the pressure increased, I resisted more. (This wasn’t difficult, I admit; despite near-universal acclaim, the film never looked very interesting to me.) I rejected the hype; I defied the pressure to take part in the phenomenon. Finally, I made the ultimate vow of resistance: I would never see Titanic. Not seeing it was such a rare distinction that it became a point of pride, my invisible badge of honor. I wear it still.

I think in the film he has hair.

I’ve seen bits of the film, of course. The trailers and TV ads were inescapable back then, and in the years since I’ve caught the occasional glimpse of it while flipping through channels. Period costumes. CGI water. Billy Zane.

I’ve been assured on many occasions that it’s really a very good movie, and that I don’t know what I’m missing — both points I cheerfully concede. I have no reason to doubt that it’s an entertaining film, probably rather moving, perhaps even inspiring. But I won’t see it. Titanic has taken up a special place in my life — the one film I will absolutely never ever see. It’s a very specific kind of non-participation into which I’ve invested well over a decade, and it means something to me.

Now, here’s something interesting: Upon learning about my special relationship with Titanic, a common response from people is to begin devising a scheme to force me to watch it, or to somehow trick me into seeing it (as if I wouldn’t notice until the end credits). Where this impulse comes from — why even dear friends would have this desire to destroy my special relationship with Titanic — has never been fully explained. Is it envy? Jealousy? The cascading social pressure of the ubiquitous mega-blockbuster? Some people seem truly uncomfortable with the idea that someone in their midst hasn’t seen Titanic. And that makes my petulant, rebellious inner youth giddy with delight.

Yeah, like this.

It works for me, you see. In fact, I think everybody should have a Titanic: one special, exceptionally popular movie you’ll absolutely never see. It’s easy: Two hours, more or less, that you simply don’t invest in that particular title. Choose one and claim it. Stake out your permanent exclusion from that one little piece of pop culture. It takes commitment, and discipline — you cannot un-see a film once you’ve seen it, of course. There will be pressure from others to cave in, and your friends may attempt to subject you to a Clockwork Orange-style forced viewing. But if you successfully defend your non-participation, you’ll have earned something that few others can enjoy. And the longer you defend it, the sweeter it gets.

Who knows? In our media-soaked existence, with practically unlimited entertainment available on demand, we may find ourselves better defined by what we haven’t seen than by what we have. As human culture becomes ever more homogenized, the distinction of personal inexperience might only become more valuable. As of this writing, I haven’t committed any other films to Titanic status, but really, there’s no inherent reason to limit one’s Titanic List to a single title.

I still haven’t seen Avatar

Stop telling me the album is dead.

broken record

end of an era?

Analysts and commentators in the music business are a gloomy bunch. Dogged by devils around every corner, they’ve foretold the death of their industry since its birth. Rapid changes in the way musical product is composed, recorded, manufactured and distributed — brought about by constantly advancing technology — have made the record business a tumultuous one, giving recording companies plenty of reasons to worry along the way. Now, many believe technology finally is bringing about the end of the recording industry, and that its first victim is the album format that dominated the second half of the twentieth century.

They are wrong, again.

Even at their bloated, decadent peak in the 1970s and ’80s, the major labels scrambled for self-preservation against the threat of “home taping” enabled by the insidious Philips Compact Cassette. Convinced that consumers equipped with cassette recorders would simply record all the music they wanted from the radio — or from friends’ copies — and never buy records again, industry consortia RIAA and BPI fought for years to defeat the technology through lawsuits, Congressional pressure, and public campaigns.

Home taping is killing music

it's sort of cute, in retrospect.

We know the story: No one could stop the audio cassette’s wave of destruction. Profits soared anyway. Failure! Success!

Of course, that wasn’t the first time (nor the last) that shrieking publishers of creative works rang alarm bells and fought a desperate war against the perils of sinister new technology. Jack Valenti and the MPAA frantically lobbied Congress in 1982 to thwart the rise of the VCR (Valenti: “We are going to bleed and bleed and hemorrhage, unless this Congress at least protects one industry … whose total future depends on its protection from the savagery and the ravages of this machine.”). That didn’t work, but somehow, the VCR went on to earn countless billions for movie studios. Failure! Success!

the horror!

In the 1970s, the photocopier was the folk devil of book publishers, certain their sales would seize once the public had the ability to Xerox all the books they wanted. Even the quaint player piano and the gramophone, at the beginning of the twentieth century, had their opponents (including John Philip Souza) who worried over the threat of “mechanical music” against real art and its creators. Technology is scary! Still, industry thrived.

In the late 1980s, the music industry was enjoying its greatest-ever boom, with labels re-releasing their back catalog on Compact Disc (and persuading customers to buy their record collections all over again), when a new threat appeared. Digital Audio Tape (DAT) prompted a whole new “home taping” panic, along with a new wave of Congressional pressure from hysterical major labels. The RIAA kicked and screamed and foretold the apocalypse: The “perfect fidelity” of digital recording (a sad fallacy, in fact) surely meant no consumer need ever pay for music again; one could simply keep a library of “perfect” copies on DAT!

eek!

Electronics manufacturers were coerced into a compromise: the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992. Under the AHRA, a substantial tax was levied on digital recording devices and blank media — ostensibly a royalty to be distributed to artists through performing rights organizations and musicians’ unions. (The convoluted distribution structure allots the majority of royalties to labels and music publishers.) The AHRA also mandated the Serial Copy Management System, wherein all but the most expensive “professional” machines were fitted with hardware that disabled them from making second-generation copies. Marketing stalled, confounded consumers balked, and DAT never saw widespread use outside of professional studios, where the copy-protection scheme (among other technical problems) vexed recording engineers. As a consumer medium, DAT was doomed, along with its SCMS-yoked cousins DCC and Minidisc. Success! Failure!

some people dislike the RIAA.

The more recent story of MP3, Napster and the DMCA has more than its share of irony. Industry reactions to the first actual threat of illicit music copying exacerbated the problem at every turn. The 1999 lawsuit against Napster brought such widespread attention to the file-sharing service that many millions of new users joined, and a number of similar services sprang up around it. The inherent copy-ability of digitized music and the Streisand effect of the industry’s efforts to stop it fueled a global explosion of “music piracy.” Meanwhile, consumers who paid for their music were punished by rising prices and unadvertised copy-protection encoded into their CDs. Public sentiment toward the RIAA continued to darken with its wave of lawsuits against hapless grandmothers, children, college students and other “pirates.” The recording industry was alienating its own customers and fighting a hopeless war against uncontrollable technology, ostensibly (as ever) to protect artists and copyright owners (who are usually not artists, but their labels and publishers).

(By the way: As reported by techdirt, the $64+ million the RIAA spent on anti-piracy lawsuits between 2006 and 2008 yielded about $1.4 million in settlements. Great job!)

Steve Jobs

Jobs to the rescue

It was the RIAA’s longtime nemesis — innovation from the consumer electronics industry — that saved it from certain death. Steve Jobs’ audacious Apple iTunes Store launched in 2003 and quickly proved that many consumers would pay for music when given a convenient, reliable alternative to illegal downloading. By 2008, iTunes was the top music retailer in the U.S., a position it still holds. Yet even this effort was partially undermined by industry paranoia: In their initial agreements with Apple, the major labels insisted Digital Rights Management be used in all downloads from the iTunes store, to hinder copying. It didn’t really work, instead causing its own problems, as perhaps best expressed in Jobs’ own 2007 screed against DRM, “Thoughts on Music.” Apple later that year discontinued the use of DRM (although some of their catalog is still encoded with it).

While illegal downloading continues, the success of iTunes and other legitimate download vendors is undeniable. Their sales statistics are increasingly cited as the metrics of music consumption, and they are good enough to provide some reassurance that, although the previous music industry model is inoperable, there can at least continue to be a music industry (with some adjustment of methods and expectations).

They are also the numbers trotted out by those sounding the death knell of the album, and they can be compelling, as shown in this graph from a 2010 Ars Technica article:

RIAA Download Stats 2009

In terms of units, single songs outsold albums in 2009 by an overwhelming margin: 1.1 billion downloaded singles against 76 million albums. It seems clear that, as the article asserts, people “just aren’t buying albums.”

Then again, 76 million is still a significant number, and when you consider that a typical album comprises ten or more individual songs, the data appear rather less one-sided. Moreover, when we take into account the revenue from downloaded albums — and from physical CDs — a very different picture emerges. Here is a more complete data set, from 2010:

RIAA Year-End Shipment Statistics: 2010

If $1.2 billion in singles is worthy of attention, $4.2 billion in albums probably shouldn’t be ignored either. It’s true that recent trends show a steep decline in overall sales, with a telling rise in sales of singles. But is this really enough to pronounce the album dead? 309 million albums (in the U.S. alone) is not a small number. And you can add another 2.8 million to that number for vinyl albums, a market that continues to grow steadily. (Neilsen SoundScan reports an even higher number, 326 million total albums sold in 2010.)

But even if sales figures reliably foretold the total dominance of singles, there’s a more important principle at work here: The creation of art, even commercial art, stubbornly refuses to be driven by demand. Most music is made by artists, and artists like making albums.

The Beatles at Abbey Road Studios

think "Revolver"

The rise to prominence in the 1950s and ’60s of the album format, and its pervasive presence in our culture since then, were not accidental, nor driven purely by industry. The album format makes sense — especially for music creators. Being a group of songs recorded within a specific time frame, by a particular team of people, often in the same environment(s), a proper album has a sonic identity that represents that unified effort. More than a collection of songs, the album is its own form of expression, a portrait of the artists’ lives in the time — a week, a month, a year — that they spent working on it. Many albums go further, weaving thematic threads throughout: lyrical, musical, emotional, even visual. And the fact missed by those watching only numbers is that people who create music really like working this way. The practical, economical, and creative advantages of recording an group of songs together as an album hold undeniable appeal for artists, and for labels. In 2010, according to SoundScan, about 75,000 albums were released in the U.S. alone.

and some people actually like listening to albums.

Numbers people may be quick to point out that this number is down 22% from 2009’s album releases (96,000). Gasp! But while analysts speculate on the devastating implications, they ignore previous years’ statistics: 2009 represents a curious rise in U.S. album releases since 2006 (76,000), peaking in 2008 (at 106,000). Recent SoundScan figures also fail to account for all of the releases marketed by independent artists directly to their fans through newly available self-distribution channels. (Independent releases can be set up for Soundscan tracking, but not all artists do so.) It’s probably too soon to derive concrete meaning from this rise and fall in the wake of the file-sharing explosion, but the fact remains: 75,000 is a hell of a lot of new albums in one year. Remember, too, that most of the single songs being purchased today were recorded and released within albums, and otherwise wouldn’t exist to be downloaded individually. The album as a creative framework remains the primary impetus behind singles.

rock.

I'm gonna be rich!

Music, and the industry that exploits it, have always been powered by the naïve optimism and unrealistic ambition of artists and music lovers. Few teenagers ever picked up a guitar and started a band because they (or their parents) saw it as the pathway to a lucrative career. Nearly every record label ever launched — including those that went on to great success — was founded not by a savvy entrepreneur keen to capitalize on a sure thing, but by an idealistic music fan with just a few dollars in the bank and the urge to share great music with the world. At least 99% of all music is made as an expression of ideas and emotions, not as commercial contrivance to make a quick fortune.

When industry ignores the creative forces behind genuine art and forgets the people who make it, we get fabricated pop pabulum. And we do — all the time (check this week’s top ten). Thankfully, human culture is not built solely on commerce. Thankfully, most artists continue to find inspiration from sources other than sales figures and market demand. Thankfully, they continue creating and producing within and without the system wrought by major labels, with no end in sight. They make albums — and they sell them, in increasingly innovative ways, to hungry audiences.

Until they stop doing that, the album is very much alive.

blog test post

blog.

I have added a separate “blog” section of the site, for opinionated rants, items of interest and other editorializing. These posts will not appear on the home (“news”) page with projects and other professional news items.

After messing around with various convoluted plugin schemes, I found a simple way to do this with just a few theme tweaks. Any post in the category “blog” won’t be displayed on the home page; instead, they appear in their own category section. And the “blog” category link displays blog entries not as an archive (as other categories appear), but in a normal post lineup (like the home page).

All comments and social functions should behave normally, and blog entries will be searchable and appear in archives. Blog entries will also be published in feeds and email notifications. They just won’t show up on the front page.