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The Shuffle Phenomenon A Technological Fix For a Creative Problem? Print E-mail
Thursday, 10 March 2005
You can’t go to far these days without seeing Apple Computer ads on television promoting their latest buzzword: “Shuffle.” Beyond it being Apple’s latest $99 iPod, the idea of Shuffle is more of a cultural phenomenon than a piece of hardware. The genie is long out of the bottle with downloadable music. The music industry, these days being comprised more of order takers than visionaries, have embraced the download model as their future, despite the fact that it takes their musical commodity and insults it with low profitability and even lower-quality sound. While consumers love the convenience and portability of downloadable music, the idea of selling feature-laden discs that offer high-resolution surround sound, 24-bit stereo tracks, video content and great new music is somehow not much of a priority for the aging baby boomer executives who run most major labels these days. DualDisc shows some hope of offering the kind of value needed to compete with DVD-Video movies, but with less than a few hundred DualDisc titles on the street so far, it is hard for anyone who invested in DVD-Audio or SACD to get too excited about re-buying their collection all over again on the new format.

With high-resolution music in limbo, more and more music lovers are finding ways to legally and rightfully archive their music to use in their lives in ways never before possible. Advances in hardware and bandwidth make it possible to travel from the suburbs of Southern California to Hong Kong and then, via your hotel’s high-speed Internet connection, to access your entire CD collection that you ripped on your music server on your laptop via a wireless connection. Just a few years ago, that wasn’t really possible; now it is reality. A music lover in Manhattan can ride the subway with the top 500 classical albums of all time in the palm of his hand, when just five years ago, he would have needed to call Bekins movers to help him travel with such a vast collection. Unquestionably, technology has helped all of us to find new ways to enjoy our music collections. The question is, are we better off for it?

Shuffle on your music server – be it an iPod, a Sonos, a ReQuest or some form of home theater PC – is an amazing feature. Never before have we been able to take our favorite tracks and hear them in ways that perhaps have never in the history of the universe ever been heard before. Shuffle allows us the ability to give new life to our most beloved music. The random nature of Shuffle allows you to mix songs in ways that are perhaps physically possible but logistically difficult in the traditional album model. Who would keep getting up for hours and hours to pull crazy selections from your vast collection of compact discs? For anyone who has started to collect and archive music on any type of server, the idea of Shuffle is exciting.

But when we look at the music industry as a whole, is Shuffle a copout? Shuffle allows us to pick songs we know and love and make them sound new again. This is in direct opposition to the idea and passion of finding new music to fall in love with instead of sticking with the familiar classics. The download model, which drives the Shuffle concept, has given a vibrant new life to the once-mighty single market. For decades in the classic rock period, you were compelled to buy an entire album, not just a single. Can you imagine just buying “Comfortably Numb” from Pink Floyd’s The Wall when you didn’t own the entire album? Today, the iPod generation does just that. Does the newly-found ability to buy download singles and the major labels’ willingness to sell music in this model help to create great new records? Ask yourself this question: how many truly great (I mean a 10 out of 10) albums have you bought in the last 15 years? How many of those records were released in the last few years? When you do spring for an album, how often do find that there are only one or two good tracks on it? How often do you wish you hadn’t bought that album you thought you would like for $15 when you could have bought a DVD movie for $24 that you are almost guaranteed to like? For me, even the best new records today, such as Velvet Revolver’s Contraband, have only a handful of hits on them. Contraband’s hits are quite good, making it one of the better rock records I have heard in the past few years, but to compare Contraband with Appetite for Destruction from Guns N’ Roses or Core from Stone Temple Pilots would be a losing proposition. The latter two are complete and classic rock albums, with very little filler.

I am worried that the download model and the impressive popularity of the iPod will allow the music industry to continue to lose focus on their core issue, which is the need to sell increasingly valuable products. MP3s are convenient, but because of their disposable and volatile nature, they are not nearly as valuable as an album on CD. At the same time, consumers have spoken on the topic of the CD. It was a great run and the majors made billions of dollars reselling their entire musical catalogues all over again from vinyl to CD. However, six years ago, things changed with the launch of DVD. GenX and GenY consumers want an audio/video experience for their hard-earned money and the CD doesn’t give it to them. DualDisc can, but it has yet to be determined how serious the major record labels are about selling discs that are packed with features, including videos, high-resolution surround sound, 24-bit stereo tracks, archival photos and more. With the first DualDisc going platinum (from Canadian alternative-punk band Simple Plan), let’s hope that the me-too record executives see that the format might have some legs, resulting in some significant support, because as cool as downloaded and server-based music can be, if that is where the music business is going, the incentive to create and develop the next album like Electric Ladyland or Sgt. Pepper’s isn’t going to be there. And that will be when the technology starts to kill off the art.

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