extending play: from lp’s to mp3’s and beyond

One of the benefits that record companies enjoyed when albums were the prevalent packaging for pop music was the upward pressure this scheme placed on song prices.

In a typical pop* album, there will be a few hit songs as well as some songs that never really catch on. Yet even these less popular songs have become best-sellers thanks to the album format.

At face value, an album that costs $10 and has 10 songs would appear to be pricing each song at $1 per. In practice, consumers and producers are negotiating a more complex pricing structure where some songs are worth more than others.

If I feel that at least two of the songs on a $10 album make it worth buying, then these two songs are worth around $5 each to me. In some cases, one truly great song is worth the full $10. (Dexys Midnight Runners, I’m looking at you.)

During the heyday of pop album sales, labels would have had a hard time selling very may copies of a single for $10, yet that’s often what they accomplished. Alternately, it allowed them to sell songs that would have been priced at a dime or a quarter each for at least as much as a hit single would fetch.

It’s important to remember, though, that albums owe their existence not to clever business plans (though those never hurt) but rather to the greater pleasure this format – this device – created when it was introduced.

The invention of the LP or long-playing phonograph by CBS Laboratories and Columbia Records gave consumers the new pleasure of buying, storing and being able to experience more music. This pleasure is what drove consumer demand for albums. That albums also allowed record companies to make more revenue per purchase or to drive up the price of pop tunes was a side effect.

Albums were dominant for so long because of a gap in technical innovation – most likely due to a lack of competition. There simply wasn’t a more attractive format for listening to a series of songs, without interruption. Until there was one and consumers moved on.

The compact cassette format, which electronics company Philips first developed in the 1960s and then licensed for free, certainly made it possible for consumers to escape the bounds of the album via mix tapes. But it did not make it easy to do so. Thus, home taping never killed the music industry while home computing practically did. Thanks to the optical disc.

It is perhaps ironic that the optical disc was first developed by the Music Corporation of America. Just as the MCA was giving up on the format – eventually selling it to the electronics firm Pioneer – Philips and Sony were working with the same principles to develop a new audio format. The two companies soon combined forces to popularize the Compact Disc, ushering in the era of digital music.

Every new or back catalog song released in the CD format meant another song digitized for digital playback and, in short order, ready for digital distribution.

If Sony can be credited for setting off the digitization of music, it had significant motivation to do so. As an integrated media company, Sony could make money when a Sony CD player was sold and when a Sony music CD was sold. The more music was made available on CD, the more consumers would be motivated to buy CD players. The more CD players sold, the more convenient CD’s became.

The CD quickly became the first mass market digital music player, enabling such shifts in behavior as the “shuffling” of songs on individual and multiple albums. By the late 1990s, personal computers equipped with CD drives, the mp3 file format and the internet provided even more pleasures and changes in consumer behavior as well as consumer expectations.

Part of what made Apple’s iPod and iTunes products so successful in the 2000s, is that the company tapped into considerable consumer demand for the ability to store, play and buy songs individually rather than as part of albums as well as the already established pleasure of listening to many songs, of the listener’s choice, in a row, without interruption.

By providing consumers with more pleasure, those who develop new formats and technology have been able to negotiate new terms and prices, rent-seekers be damned.

The trend continues as cloud computing and the mobile web permit businesses like Spotify to renegotiate what consumers are willing to pay for music – not just for access to songs they already like but also to songs they have yet to discover. (Sounds a little like bundling, don’t it?)

*Pop is a genre defined not by a series of songs played in a set sequence but rather by standalone ditties. If artists, consumers and labels shifted towards other genres, the album could make a natural comeback.

previously: David Simon on HBO, pricing as signaling in television programming

next: video in the age of digital singles

funny, related: using lasers to cut vinyl records to make sample-based music.

Noise as signal: overdetermined music from The Jesus & Mary Chain through My Bloody Valentine and Autechre to I Break Horses

music videos on YouTube:

I Break Horses Hearts (2011)

Crystal Castles Celestica (2008)

The Field Sun & Ice (2006)

Autechre Gantz Graf (2002)

Fennesz Shisheido (2001)

Kid606 Catstep (2000)

Nobukazu Takemura Icefall (1999)

Atari Teenage Riot Anarchy 999 (1999)

Queens of the Stone Age: Regular John (1998)

Oval Do While (1995)

My Bloody Valentine Soon (1991)

Dinosaur Jr. Tarpit (1987)

Sonic Youth Schizophrenia (1987)

The Jesus and Mary Chain Never Understand (1984)

related concepts discussed on Wikipedia: headroom, impressionism, white noise, gloss, distortion, overdetermination, cognitive load, harmonic distortion, psychoacoustics, auditory illusions, overtones

About a year of tweets, archived here for posterity.

I began this current journal, XSML, with the intent of reducing my own notes to extra small, XML-friendly updates. Increasingly, I have been drawn by the allure of the 140 character limit of Twitter. I may get a round Tuit and synchronize my use of Twitter with this blog. For now, here’s a dump of about a year’s worth of tweets in a single post:

  • Xavier: Glowing at the OK Corral http://bit.ly/f8NCX8
  • “Books don’t become best sellers because they are ahead of their time.” Stephanie Coontz on Friedan via Louis Menand, http://t.co/ZEeKRgK
  • Belgian students riot on Ryanair flight: http://bbc.in/epBVc3 Was civility a victim of more bad price signaling? http://abcn.ws/gu1HOK
  • A juicy, meaty, tasty read on football, concussions, televised sports, journalism, money, race… etc! http://t.co/JtjR6yO in The New Yorker
  • on dictatorships harnessing “self-pitying, bullying shitheads.” http://bit.ly/idxANe cf. Cuba’s “actos de repudio,” via Matthew Yglesias
  • “Three takes on JP Morgan and Madoff” http://reut.rs/f3oZEN is also a fresh take on how online competition is sharpening analysis in news.
  • yellow is the next purple. i’m pretty sure it’s not but i’m going to pretend it is and hope things break my way.
  • UCSB prof. on Egypt: “a return of very powerful and vastly organized labor movements, principally among youth.” http://bit.ly/hZB47J via TPM
  • “As pro-Mubarak demonstrators roam Cairo, Egypt’s Internet roars back to life” http://bit.ly/f2NEHW – Foreign Policy’s Passport
  • A history of ideas: In the 19th century, scientists pointed an elaborate telescope at distant societies. In the 20th, they turned it around.
  • The Internet is not enough: Matthew Yglesias chimes in on stunted technological progress and economic bubbles. http://bit.ly/hLHZBe
  • The U.S. is often criticized for its military aid to illiberal regimes but with Egypt it’s been a progressive tactic http://nyti.ms/ece00P
  • Why do we say “my God” and not “our God”? #foxholes
  • want to bite your nails to the raw? watch the astoundingly tense The Verdict with Paul Newman: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084855/
  • Magical. Chris Matthews grilling Tea Party Express co-founder Russo on Rep. Bachmann’s slavery denialism: http://on.msnbc.com/fRJnCg
  • Did the Obama White House, as headed by Michelle and Barack, just launch what will be their legacy? WalMart goes healthy and localvore?
  • If heterosexuality is the key to raising healthy children, time to close every school and home run by asexual priests and nuns.
  • 10,000 species. Most of us can’t even keep eight things in mind.Climate Threatens Birds From Tropics to Mountaintops – http://nyti.ms/i6Pcr1
  • Pro tip to high schoolers: consider a career in http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geotechnical_engineering & profit from global warming floods.
  • Lazy food service analogy: linear TV is omakase. Video on demand is buffet.
  • When all cars have smartphone jacks, how will broadcast radio (antenna and/or satellite) compare to personalized radio via mobile web?
  • Morbid coincidence: ill person shoots embattled healthcare access advocate, others. Are victims externalities of a patchy health safety net?
  • i love the days when everyone jokes “see you next year” or “see you in [currentYear+1]”. it’s like a big carnaval for the fiction of time.
  • In Hollywood and then Highland Park, passed two billboards en español for American Idol. The great brown hope.
  • El Bulli or Marinetti? Pieces of olive, fennel, and kumquat are eaten with right hand while the left caresses sandpaper, velvet, and silk.
  • Google Ngram for “father, mother” http://t.co/N4gnvoV
  • Hunter climbs into bear’s den, kills bear, boasts about it. Controversy ensues: http://bit.ly/eZJA8U
  • Rainy weeks are first disorienting in Los Angeles. Then familiar. We are returning. The water drenched clouds envelop the earth like a womb.
  • Thoughtful, fun read on computer languages – really, on computer programmers and their dogmatism: The Semicolon Wars http://bit.ly/hBzLAU
  • Can the curiosity of different cities be compared by the length of delays caused by rubbernecking on its highways?
  • The ending of American Psycho the movie is even better than I remembered. The commercials that followed it were creepier.
  • Russia as the Baltimore depicted in The Wire, only with nukes and vast energy reserves: NYT on leaked cables http://bit.ly/fTEeQK
  • Some heavy, fun ish: Why Farmers Are Flocking to Manure | Atlantic http://t.co/7D5vO4o
  • “Are you ready for an uneventful flight?” the passenger asked the captain. Wouldn’t it be better if he were ready for an eventful one?
  • One of the major political movements of our time is an effort to redefine selfishness as patriotic. Maybe that’s nothing new.
  • check the angle of repose: feeling awfully like this “fat monkey made of flip flops” http://bit.ly/bwCC9O
  • so very sad, Google StreetView images curated by Jon Rafman via @waxpancake http://9eyes.tumblr.com/
  • The majority of the audience at the Foals show was born after Nirvana’s Nevermind. #recalibrating
  • The more Spanish language TV shows Whitman’s former maid bawling, the more Whitman’s campaign has to pump money into Spanish language TV.
  • The singer for Junior Boys sounds a little like Don Henley after a swallow of helium.
  • Rita Indiana name checking Minor Threat into the merengue canon.

    Thanks to our friend Joni Daher I have just learned about Rita Indiana Y Los Misterios

    The song Esqueibol (Skateboard), is pure gold. Starting at 9m30s, Rita breaks it down:

    Cuando yo tenia 12 años
    Yo tenia un primo que se llamaba Alex
    El vivia en Orlando per venia todos los veranos

    Alex se cortaba los cabellos de manera rara
    Se ponia unas botitas azules hasta la rodilla
    Unas Dr. Martens que aquí no las había todavía

    She then name checks Minor Threat. “Straight edge, ya tu sabes.” This is the tribute to Tony Hawk I always wanted to make for my parents but was too uptight and/or American to make. Superb.

    It makes me hopeful that 2011 will be an even better year than 2010.


    The instrumentation on Da Pa Lo Do should make the ears of Vampire Weekend fans perk up. (While the first 12 seconds sound like they’re from the Tron: Legacy soundtrack.) No matter how much you think you can outsmart the bass guitar slide on Bajito A Selva, it will eventually take you by the waist.

    The entire album, El Juidero, is taking future retro to its logical conclusion.

    Pop chopped and screwed.

    I often wonder if a single song can inspire an entire genre.

    Certainly, there are combinations that are so influential they turn up again and again. Consider 10cc’s Not In Love and Hall & Oates’ Can’t Go For That, followed by The Avalanches’ Since I Left You and Boards of Canada’s Aquarius and most recently by the acts Toro y Moi, Memory Tapes and Passion Pit.

    With each generation, the song is more chopped and screwed.

    Eleven years ago, five years ago, playing The New World. Also, the video.

    True story. Our band Pepito began in San Francisco, California on a Thanksgiving day in 1999, with a brand new Blueberry iMac, a cracked copy of Reason and a then four year old copy of SoundEdit16. That night, we had dinner at the Indian Oven in the Lower Haight. I was 26 years old.

    Ana and I played our last show as Pepito on November 16 in 2005 at La Casa Encendida in Madrid, Spain. Here is footage of us performing our last song – recorded, I believe by Celeste Carrasco:

    Our last line: “The New World is a tense, it never goes away.”

    Here is a video of those concert visuals, dubbed with the album audio track:

    This music video is downloadable.

    Finally, some production notes for the video from our now shuttered web site, courtesy of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine:

    Made with an iSight camera, Apple Final Cut Pro, Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, Macromedia Flash, GCam, a Canon Powershot still camera, a shower, paper, pencils and plenty of time. Filmed on location in our apartment in Madrid, Spain and El Buen Retiro. The “wad-of-paper” effect used after the lyric “waiting for a name” was shamelessly lifted from Charles Stone’s 1992 video for the Black Sheep. The still images of Super NES glitches in the final section were extracted from Johny Rogers’ collection of NES glitches at Archive.org.

    I will try to find and post them all in the coming months.

    Stuck in the 70s, 80′s, 90′s, 00′s: the iTunes Genius playlist generator can’t make associations across decades.

    One of my favorite things about music is how clearly it adheres to the dialectical mode of thesis (let’s use more synthesizers!), antithesis (no, let’s use more guitars!) and synthesis (LCD Soundsystem). For that reason, some of the most exciting mixtapes or playlists are those that make connections across time and space, revealing how musical artists quote one another, whether consciously or not, approvingly or as a critique.

    I’ve been impressed with the Apple iTunes Genius playlist generator lately which I assume uses software sound analysis along with social or human filtering to generate associations between recordings. But it fails utterly at creating playlists that span across time. It’s a failing that once revealed all but completely undermines the “genius” moniker.

    Sony, 30 years of headphone music and psychoaccoustic tomfoolery in Wham!’s Everything She Wants

    Josh Marshall notes that Sony is retiring the Walkman and what a revolution that product represents. I couldn’t agree more.

    Just now I was listening to Everything She Wants by Wham! (1984) and for the first time picked up on its use of psychoaccoustic trickery.

    In the chorus that begins at 5m24s, you’ll hear a few angry exhortations to “Work!” mixed behind a synthetic hand clap in the left channel. It’s so subtle most people may not notice it even though they may be hearing – and thus, feeling – it.

    It’s a clever technique and one that has become commonplace in contemporary music as pop producers mix for headphones. Thanks, in part, to the success of the Walkman.

    LCD Soundsystem vs Pavement

    As they’re back in the news for a reunion, I have been listening to and thinking about Pavement recently. Their songs are still as fresh for me as they were 15 years ago when I last listened to them – at that time, obsessively, for months on end. But they are not as rewarding – not after listening to LCD Soundsystem.

    While playing in different genres and a product of different decades, both groups explore fundamentally similar angles. Both are droll and earnest, obscure and precise, layered and clear. Yet only one of these two epoch-defining projects transcends their own contradictions and thus their time and place.

    For me, it’s LCD Soundsystem for the win.

    A total guess on Pandora’s “random walks”.

    My guess is that when you first launch a Pandora station it begins at the dead center of the Venn diagram created by all the people who have also endorsed/requested the artist / song you have requested. Pandora then begins to wander further and further away from that core. When you validate a song it presents in this outbound arc, you create a new center for it to branch out from.

    Absorbing energy transmitted by sound waves.

    It had been two years since I last heard music so loud for so long as I did tonight. Before that, I’d done it very often, as frequently as several times a week, for years, going back to my late teens.

    Despite the ringing of inner ears and the exhaustion of absorbing so much energy, recorded music sounds clearer, more purposeful. It would be a nice feeling to fade away to.