30 July 2011


On the first LP I ever owned was Tchaikovsky's Serenade, Ravel's Bolero and Smetana's "Bartered Bride" Overture. It was soon joined by many more vinyl discs, but the problem of storing these 12" leviathans soon became a limiting factor. Things grew rapidly worse when I discovered the wonderful if even bulkier Vox Boxes, with their irresistible promise of "complete X", where X might be Bach flute sonatas or Mozart piano variations.

Fortunately, as the floor of my flat was in serious danger of ceding under the weight of hundreds of boxes and LPs, the CD came along. For reasons that escape me, my first CD was Virgil Thomson's "The Plow that broke the Plains", but this was soon joined by hundreds and then thousands of others.

Once again storage - and organisation - became a crucial issue, and once again, I was saved by technology, this time in the shape of the MP3 file. I bought one of the earliest MP3 players, the Diamond RIO PMP300. This came with a massive 32Mbytes of RAM, allowing up to an hour of listening (albeit at lower quality).

It was an important moment not just for me, but also for the industry, as Wikipedia explains:

On October 8, 1998, the American recording industry group, the Recording Industry Association of America, filed an application for a Temporary Restraining Order to prevent the sale of the Rio player in the Central District Court of California, claiming the player violated the 1992 Audio Home Recording Act.

Judge Andrea Collins issued the temporary order on October 16, but required the RIAA to post a $500,000 bond that would be used to compensate Diamond for damages incurred in the delay if Diamond eventually prevailed in court. Diamond then announced that it would temporarily delay shipment of the Rio.

On October 26, Judge Collins denied the RIAA's application. After the lawsuit ended, Diamond sold 200,000 players.

This was one of the earliest attempts by the RIAA to derail the future of music, and luckily on this occasion it lost.

Of course, once music became digital, Moore's Law ensured that things kept on scaling. Silicon storage capacities went up, and prices went down, until today I have dozens of Gbytes of MP3 files of music stored on various media.

And yet I rarely listen to them, because streaming in the shape of Spotify came along a couple of years ago. Although I understand the issues about not owning the music you listen to, I'm lucky enough to have vast amounts of the music that is most important to me available in multiple backup formats - LPs, CDs and MP3s. If Spotify disappears tomorrow - say, as a result of being destroyed by a patent troll - I can just go back to listening to these. In addition, I feel increasingly guilty about owning anything in a depleted world drowning in stuff, so streaming seems like a good idea anyway.

It's of course regrettable that Spotify isn't open source, but it has certainly taken my experience of listening to music to a new level. The ability to leave the complete works of Mozart, say, running in the background for days, or to hear the same movement of a Beethoven symphony played by 35 different orchestras has never been so easy; both change how you regard well-loved pieces because they provide new contexts that allow you to listen to them more deeply.

Moreover, Spotify gives me the unprecedented capability of listening to something - now matter how obscure (well, almost) - the moment I come across even the merest reference to it. It really is like having practically all music instantly on tap, anywhere there is an Internet connection.

As such, it's a foretaste of how things will soon be for all digital artefacts, when every text, image, sound and video ever created will be just as instantly and effortlessly available. The only thing standing between us and that amazing, mind-expanding world of digital abundance is an 18th-century law that replaced earlier censorship with a framework for the "encouragement of learning" in an age of analogue scarcity. Once anachronistic copyright has been abolished, my journey from LPs through CDs and MP3s will be complete, and the ultimate knowledge revolution can begin.

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twitter said...

The revolution has hardly begun and there have been many regressions along entirely predictable lines

Your journey was over more than a decade ago when people were able to cooperate with p2p software like Napster. The most important part of the journey is the ability to share and create the library of the future, something much better than the "selected" works libraries like Spotify.

The copyright bullies tore Napster, mp3.com and several other excellent ventures out by the roots. The companies and their investors were sued. They have done everything in their power to retard the growth of physical networks and impose draconian terms on everyone's connections. Several people have been caught up in show trials designed to terrorize the rest of us with multi million dollar judgments.

Technology gave us a modern miracle of loaves and fishes, the bullies made it a crime. In the case of Arron Schwarz, the copyright maximalist have made clear their intent to fight sharing even of academic works. Aaron did not actually commit the crime of sharing, he simply downloaded more than some arbitrary and unpublished quota allowed and elsewhere expressed a rather popular opinion. That opinion is that science should be shared universally so that more people can work the real miracles of our civilization and bring sanitation, clean water, medicine and other comforts to those who now live in desperate poverty. As Eben Moblen put it, "As many people who have ever existed are living now, How many of the Einsteins that ever existed were allowed to learn physics?" If we otherwise thwart educated genius, the least we can allow a suffering world is the ability to sing and dance in cultural freedom.

In the decade since the bullies killed Napster, more precious works have vanished along with their analog media. One of the most terrible losses has got to be the 2007 looting of BBC recording studios in Jamaica. Had people been allowed to share, that music would be in countless libraries around the world where it belongs.

The bullies have a siren song about money and riches to be had through exclusion but it is generally a lie. Artists have done the math, and both private and public scandal, [2] have shown that more power for publishers results in less money for artists.

Glyn Moody said...

@twitter: great comment - thanks. I hadn't come across the sad story from Jamaica before; as you rightly say, a classic case where sharing would have made everyone richer...

Hi from John. said...

Sadly, Spotify is not available in every country - for instance, my own home of New Zealand. The revolution still has some distance to turn.

Glyn Moody said...

@john: indeed - it's unusual that this one is starting in Europe, but it still has a long way to go...