5.8.16

How Music Got Free: Stephen Witt


In spite of its emotive strap line Stephen Witt's book is actually an analogue to Nicholas Negroponte's now twenty one year-old milestone "Being Digital". It's about the ramifications of what happens when you digitise audio.

I was never particularly preoccupied by the issue but sometimes, thinking back to "Being Digital" [1995], I wonder how I was so slow to see how the media landscape would evolve. Because once one grasps the fundamentals about data packet sizes and the ramifications of networked computers it's completely obvious. Certainly it was obvious to the very earliest innovators at Frauenhofer:
"That same year [1982], Seitzer applied for a patent for a digital jukebox. Under this more elegant model of distribution, consumers could dial into a centralized computer server, then use the keypad to request music over the new digital telephone lines that Germany was just beginning to install."
Seitzer had immediately grasped the concept of streaming and the necessity of smaller file sizes to deal with network bandwidth. Spotify uses Ogg Vorbis, not mp3, and computers rather than telephones, but apart from that there's today's conceptual model right there. Funny to think though that Edison too imagined people would listen to music over phone lines!

It's a great book, is thoroughly readable and comes highly recommended but there were for me a few snag points. Firstly there's Witt's, basically amusing, but at once irritating prose style. The whole thing, all 265 pages, are written in the form of a bar yarn: "A guy walks into a room. He's six-foot, informally-dressed in black jeans." Witt also leaves one with the feeling that in his blatant mythologising of a very small handful of people: Brandenburg at Frauenhofer, Morris at Universal and Glover at the RNS Pirate clique that a bigger, more nuanced (even if perhaps less amusing) story is there for the telling. There's sometimes something silly about this Marvel/DC vision of masked men and caped crusaders. Finally, I believe there's something of a fudge in his description of Huffman coding which made me wonder about other things. Still, it's a lot of fun.

From 1996 (when mp3s first started appearing - I remember my friend Hugo's prehistoric mp3 player) till 2016 (with Spotify's pre-eminence, TIDAL and the birth of Apple Music) we've been on a journey. With this extraordinary shift from CDs to streaming there is a sense that we are now at the destination. What's next?

One of the interesting things which has affected my business is that the speed of the web has made compression less and less important. Around 2000 there was a real drive in animation to be able to master vector packages like Flash - because vector animation produced much smaller file sizes and lower data transfer rates. In 2006 when I made Woebot.TV I didn't host it at YouTube because you couldn't upload films longer than (and thus files as big as) 10 minutes. In 2016 file sizes are almost not an issue at all and data rates with broadband are extremely quick. Consequently the emphasis has shifted to improving image quality and providing less compressed files.

With music it does seem harder to make people care about sound quality. Neil Young has been widely mocked for his PONO initiative in audiophile digital. However, trust me, there is a difference between good quality and poor quality digital audio. In hardware terms a good DAC really is an amazing thing - as are, in software terms uncompressed audio bitrates. The industry has till now poo-poohed this as something not worth worrying about (largely, I believe, because it has been impossible for them to market it). However with TIDAL's heavy emphasis on high quality audio the signs are there. I would imagine that eventually we will see things like Apple buying Apogee Digital, and probably even companies like B&W and a new marketing emphasis on high quality audio. Then everyone will regret selling their CDs.