The Virtual CD

The Virtual CD is a CD quality (.wav file) download, complete with a pdf file, containing all the graphics and liner notes from the original CD. It takes about 30-60 min to download with a high speed connection, being generally 500-800 Mb in total filesize. More details are available towards the bottom of this page, but if you're not in a hurry, take a couple of minutes to read a few thoughts on the predicament of niche market recording companies.

The music industry has been whining for years now about a catastrophic decline in CD sales, blaming the whole thing on illegal downloading. In desperation, the owners of recordings and copyrighted music have been clutching at straws trying to find other ways to "monetize" their increasingly unsellable intellectual property, including the idea of charging all internet users a licence fee, whether or not they download music. To this owner of a small niche-market recording company, (let alone the much less sympathetic general public) this all smacks of desperation. I don't have any answers for the corporate music industryin fact I think they're mostly irredeemable and hoist with the petard of their own excesses. But I do have a couple of ideas as to how smaller, artist-owned niche labels like my own might handle the whole thing, without enlisting the help of bigger players.

...if you want to support the creation of good music, wherever possible buy directly from the artist.

Why should you care who sells you your recordings? Simply because when musicians take charge and reap the lion's share of the profit from their own work, the music benefits. My own label relies on artist investment to produce recordings, and beyond some basic operational costs, all sales go back to those artists. Wherever possible I try to sell directly, either from my website or at gigs. I believe the accepted wisdom that a recording company like mine must ensure that its recordings are widely distributed and sold by third party wholesalers and retailers no longer holds true in the internet age.  Small volume record companies simply can't afford to hand over 40-60% of the retail price to third parties (or 100% when they don't get paid, as happens frequently), and frankly, the promised increased exposure for the "distributed" artist is nothing compared to that provided by internet exposure, including illegal filesharing. Hmmm...there's irony for you. Most of my customers already know the artist and know what they are looking for. It's not hard to find us with a quick trip to Google, and people will usually do that before looking elsewhere. The message for the music buyer is this: If you want to support the creation of good music, wherever possible go to the source. Buy directly from the artist or his/her label. Failing that, go to CDBaby or a similar web retailer that deals directly and fairly with the artist. CDBaby takes only $4 per CD, and pays the artist within a week of the sale.

This year's music becomes next year's landfill.

CD sales have certainly declined for specialty record companies, but not nearly as catastrophically as they have for the mainstream music industry, most of which is built upon the manufacture and sale of essentially disposable music. Most buyers of popular music know that it has a sell-by date, after which they will have little or no use for the plastic disc on which it is encoded, or the packaging which accompanies it and rarely carries any useful information. This year's music becomes next year's landfill. For most listeners to popular, trend-driven music styles, the downloaded mp3 is the obvious solution. it takes up no physical space, requires no packaging and is simply deleted when it becomes "so last year".

...The place for an mp3 is in your rattly old car...

However, there are some downsides to mp3s. The file compression required to make an mp3 involves discarding information the encoder deems to be redundant. Unfortunately when you make a lot of tiny, supposedly imperceptible changes to an audio file, you risk degrading the recording. It no longer sounds quite as it was intended to sound. The place for an mp3 is in your rattly old car, sitting in a noisy traffic jam or rumbling down the highway. In this situation, it's probably impossible to tell the difference. And unfortunately that's precisely where a lot of people do most of their music listening. Furthermore, perhaps the most common use of recorded music is as background to another task. You're not really listening, so who cares whether you can hear the subtleties? The mp3 is just fine.

However, if you like to sit and listen quietly, from time to time, to the fancy sound system you've spent all that money on, why would you choose to download mp3s for that purpose? It's a bit like eating McDonalds take-out off your granny's magnificent antique bone china. Your Bang & Olufsen monument to fine listening suddenly becomes a complete waste of money!

Well, you get the picture. Personally, I don't own a fine sound system. Just a decent one. I do listen to mp3s in my car, and sometimes at home too. The quality is okay, though I often find certain instruments sound a bit different on the compressed files. As a recording artist, I'm used to having many sonic subtleties pointed out to me by my producer who has much better ears than I. However, even I can detect some of these things, and as a musician, it bothers me that I spend all this time and money tweaking the sound on my own CDs, only to have it re-tweaked by the iTunes mp3 encoder. That's why I generally buy music on CD and then rip my own mp3s for my iPod. I want to have the option of hearing the recording more or less as it was intended. And I want to hear the whole album unshuffled, as it was conceived by the artist. I would suggest that many music lovers should consider doing the same. Your ears are probably no less discerning than mine.

...liner notes are important, and you don't get 'em from the iTunes store.

What else is bad about downloaded music? Well there's the issue of packaging and liner notes. These are often just eye-candy and a waste of trees, but in some genres, including my own, they are carefully designed and attractive, and carry important information about the music and its origins. How important? Well, I've realized recently that I generally don't listen to music on the radio. The main reason is not what they play, but that with few exceptions, music is broadcast without meaningful context. I love it when a radio presenter tells me something interesting about the song or tells a story about the singer. Conversely, I hate it when I'm at a live show and the artist doesn't talk to the audience. I want to shout "Arrogant jerk! Do you think you're so famous that we are expected to know all about you and your music?" Suffice it to say that if you can't be bothered to explain yourself, I can't be bothered to listen. So to me at least, liner notes are important, and you don't get 'em from the iTunes store.

...the real rationale for mp3s is impatience.

 It may be that the mp3 and all the other compressed formats will soon be obsolete. Why buy an mp3 if you can download the original full-quality version? Available bandwidth and hard drive storage capacity have both increased exponentially in recent years, and these limitations are the necessities that mothered the invention of compressed music files. In the meantime, though, the real rationale for mp3s is impatience. As with so many of life's potential pleasures, we believe we are too busy to do things properly. We foolishly rely on spell-check to be our editor because we don't have the time to re-read; we don't listen properly to our loved ones because we're always multi-tasking; we speed-read great literature; we ignore, or at best skim the newspaper, relying instead on superficial TV soundbytes to inform us about the world; we gobble our food, which is often not great food in the first place because we bought it prepared or half-baked rather than spend the time to cook it from scratch. We don't have time to walk our dogs, nor walk ourselves. And when we buy music, rather than wait a few days for a well conceived and executed recording in beautiful and informative packaging to be delivered in the mail, we have to have it NOW. So we open iTunes and download a few tracks we've heard about, for 99 cents each (much of which doesn't go to the artist or label), in a sonically inferior compressed file format, with no notes, oblivious to the overall concept of the album and whatever other gems might be on it. Are we completely off our rockers? No, we just think we're too busy. And the really pathetic thing is that actually, we're not.

And the point of this commentary is...?

All this argument is to state a case for the continuing relevance of CDs and to provide some justification for the Virtual CD. There is no technical reason why CD quality .wav files shouldn't be available for purchase by download, at least for anyone with a high speed internet connection and a modicum of patience. And there's no technical reason why good resolution graphics files of the CD packaging, notes and disc should not be provided with that download. So if you're not like me, wedded to the idea of having something you can hold in your hand and read, it makes some sense to exclude the mailman's carbon footprint from this process, to kill fewer trees, use fewer petrochemicals and so on. So, we need to figure out how that can happen in a way that doesn't involve expensive third party involvement. The result is the Virtual CD, and here's how it works and what you get:

We know the Virtual CD is not for everyone, and we have no immediate plans to stop selling CDs. We think they have a good deal of life in them yet.  We just offer this as a possible option, along with CDs and some single track mp3 downloads. Different strokes for different folks, and this is an easy way for us to be accommodating.

"Grass Roots" now available

For now, the only album we're making available by this method is "Grass Roots" by the Old Sod Band, a title that has been "out of print" for a while now. We have been asked frequently to make it available again, so it's a natural for our pilot project. We'd certainly appreciate any feedback you may have about the above thoughts, or about the purchasing and download process. If there appears to be a demand, we may proceed to release other albums the same way. Email ian@ianrobb.com