CDs, digital distribution, and how the turkey learned to yodel.

Countless debates have been waged on the subject of the legal/illegal downloading of music and the brave new age of digital distribution. I’ve never really taken a firm position on either side of it. When I sat in on Adam Peltier’s show on CJAM about a year ago for an epic interview/co-hosting experience and he asked me how I felt about the whole thing, I drew a complete blank and said I didn’t have much of an opinion. It honestly wasn’t something I’d given much thought.

A few technology-savvy people have urged me to do away with the “obsolete” medium of the CD altogether and get with the times, releasing my music digitally like all the cool kids do. I nod and smile, listening to what they have to say while disagreeing right down to the core of my vessel.

That’s right — I’ve got me a vessel. A bright, shiny vessel.

I like CDs. I like vinyl even more, but releasing my albums on actual records would be expensive and problematic, and a lot of things would need to be released as double-vinyl sets at the very least. Someday I’d like to put something out on vinyl, but I’d like to do it right, and it’s not something I could make a habit of doing. CDs are cheap, easy, and they may not have the sonic warmth of a well-made vinyl record, but they can sound very fine if the music is well-engineered and you have a decent system to listen on. You can do some interesting and creative things with the packaging, though not quite on the scale of what you can do with records.

CDs are easy to store and transport, and they’re usually easy to replace if they become damaged or if you have a friend who likes to borrow things with no plans to return them in either of your lifetimes. If they stop making CD players and producing recordable CDs, which is what some folks seem to think is around the corner, I will buy up as much stock as possible so I have the materials necessary to keep making CDs. Even if there comes a day when no one else can play them anymore, at least I’ll still be able to.

I don’t like MP3s that much. I know I’m in the minority here. I don’t own an iPod, and I don’t ever plan to. I have no use for one. I like my gigantic CD collection and my growing record collection. I like how when someone asks me if I have a particular album, if I’ve got it I can usually pinpoint where it is without even looking. When I listen to music, I sit down in a room with a good stereo system, I shut my mouth, I clear the cobwebs from my mind, and I commit to the listening experience.

I can’t go through my day with earbuds in and have music happening in the background while I do other things. My brain just doesn’t work that way, as I discovered countless times over the years when I would try to study for tests or do math homework while listening to a CD on headphones. I can do menial tasks like folding inserts and assembling CD packaging while listening to music, but anything that requires me to do much thinking tends to compete with the music for my attention, and this is an area where I can’t multitask or split my brain. I have to devote most of my attention to the music or there’s no point in it being there.

I also don’t like the sound of MP3s all that much. Unless you’re going to deal with gigantic file sizes that are often not very practical, the sound quality is somewhat lacking for my taste. I’m sure it sounds okay on cheap headphones that are wedged deep inside of your ears, and some of the people who own iPods probably already have some measure of hearing loss without realizing it given how loud everyone listens to music these days and how close those earbuds are to your eardrums, so they probably don’t care much either way.

I’m not saying you’re wrong if you like MP3s and I’m right because I don’t. This is just how things sound to my ears.

I realize a lot of people don’t listen to music the way I do. Most of the time it’s wallpaper for them. And I can understand that. It just isn’t the way I operate. I also have sensitive ears. I enjoy things that sound good. MP3s…well, they don’t usually get there for me. When the Radiohead album In Rainbows was first released in MP3 form, I thought it kind of sounded like shit. And that surprised me, because as a rule I think Radiohead CDs sound pretty impressive. The reverb tails sounded grainy. There was some ugly distortion where it didn’t seem like any would have been intended. Some of the cymbal crashes were painful to listen to. Once I got the physical CD the songs took on a whole new life. The reverb tails sounded lush and full. The ugly clipping was gone. The cymbal crashes didn’t make me feel like someone was scraping a knife against my ears anymore.

I’ll never listen to those MP3s again. And really, I never got in the habit of listening to music on the computer too often in the first place. I’ll use it as a reference when I’m mixing songs to see how they sound on crappy speakers with little-to-no bass response, but I try to mix things to sound good on full-range systems, not to compensate for the shortcomings of laptop speakers. I need a good hi-fi or good headphones to enjoy music, and I’m fortunate enough to have both of those things now. If I want to listen to music while walking around, I’ll stuff my DiscMan into my coat pocket, put on bulky expensive headphones, and walk around looking a little funny. I’ve done it before. It’s kind of fun.

I put MP3s up here on album pages and in blog posts because it’s an easy way for people to hear a few songs off of my albums in case they’re interested in getting a bit of a feel for the music, and it’s a quick and simple way to share things. WAV files eat up too much server space. If someone wants to hear a full album, I give them a CD. If they don’t live near here, I mail them a CD (or four or five different ones). Even if they live in Uganda, I’ll mail them a CD. It might take three months to get there, but it’ll get there. I will never send someone an MP3 version of an album through an email or in a ZIP file. It doesn’t matter that you can arrange it so the listener gets the artwork as JPG files and other relevant information or lyrics in a text file. This is my music, and this is the way I want it to be presented — as something tangible you can hold in your hand and look at wherever you are, and not something you look at on your computer. If people want to rip the CDs as MP3s and never even glance at the physical version again, that’s fine by me, but at least they’ve got it there at full fidelity if they want it.

I know there’s been a lot of talk lately about internet distribution being the new thing, especially for independent artists, and there’s some rumbling about how the music industry is failing. But I don’t think that’s entirely true. A lull in sales and certain labels going under is not tantamount to failure. I think as long as there’s shitty music and a large enough audience of consumers who view it as a disposable background addition to their lives instead of something to be absorbed and explored in depth, the music industry will do just fine.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of great music out there. There absolutely is. You just have to work a bit harder to find it than you used to sometimes. It’s great that artists have more options now when it comes to how they’re going to get their music out there, but isn’t the whole point of having these options that you’re able to choose the method that best suits your own personal preference and artistic vision? For me, a physical album is infinitely more interesting and more psychologically satisfying than a compressed, downloaded file.

I’m not resistant to change. I just know what I like.

I got to thinking more about these things over the past few days. Someone added me as a Facebook friend because he wanted to know how to go about getting some of my CDs. I offered to give him a bunch of them, as I usually do. He asked if I’d given any thought to putting full albums up online. I got into all of the stuff about fidelity, presentation, not wanting people to pay for the music, and so on — explaining why I do what I do the way I do, and why the digital distribution thing isn’t for me.

He responded by putting some of my albums up online in full without getting my go-ahead first, after I’d just told him why I wasn’t comfortable with that and why I didn’t want to do it. He told me I could be pissed off if I wanted, but my music needed to be heard by more people, and he knew better than I did how to make that happen. He also said he didn’t think I would hear any difference in the MP3s compared to the way the songs sounded at full fidelity.

It took everything I had not to go ballistic.

On one level, it’s flattering to have someone think the music is good enough that it deserves to be heard by more people. It’s also pretty offensive when you take the time to explain how you feel about the distribution of your music, what you are and aren’t comfortable with, and then someone says, “That’s nice…but I really don’t care what you want. I’m going to do what I want with your music and completely disrespect and disregard your wishes. Eat it.”

There’s only one recent album up there so far, and only three or four albums in all. That doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what I’ve done musically. But now I don’t want to mail or drop off any of those CDs I was going to put together for him, because I know they’ll just be ripped and put up on the internet against my wishes as well.

You’re probably thinking, “What do you care if all your albums are available for download? You don’t want people paying for your music anyway.”

It’s not about money. It’s the principle of the thing.

See, it’s my music. I want it to be presented in a certain way. Dwaine Iler (of the Windsor band The Original Lady Eyes), who I don’t really know but seems like a really nice and genuine guy, is a very vocal supporter of online distribution and digital download cards. He has a very clear idea of how he wants his music presented to the listener. Though I’m not big into the MP3 thing myself, I respect that it’s his music and his choice how it gets to his audience.

It would be nice if people also respected that it’s my choice how my music should get to the listener. I want to give it to you on a CD, with a lyric booklet and no compromises made when it comes to sound quality. It’s not going to sound like a six million dollar studio recording, because I don’t have six million dollars worth of gear (does anyone?) and I’m not a professional recording engineer. But I want you to hear the music the way I heard it when I recorded it, so if you do happen to have an expensive and revealing hi-fi system it might not sound too bad when you listen to it. And if you want to just rip MP3s and listen on your iPod, again, you can do that too, at whatever compression format you choose. But that’s a choice you make once I’m no longer in the picture.

I also really don’t want things to ever get very big. I guess that goes against just about everything everyone else who makes music wants to do, but there it is. I don’t want to get to the point where I have to make so many copies of CDs and send so many out in the mail that I have to start thinking about charging money to cover costs, and I’m not going to go the online distribution route in order to make it easier for that to happen. I don’t want anyone to ever pay for any of my music. If anyone ever tries to charge you money for any of my music and I find out about it, I will bite their fucking head off. Literally. With the teeth that live inside my mouth.

I like being able to have a personal connection with the people who like my music. I like writing people notes and letters, and sending CDs in the mail. I like that people can email me if they want to, and I will try to respond in a somewhat timely manner. If you like my music and you want to ask me questions about it while we both inhabit the same space like people sometimes do, I’ll have a coffee with you somewhere. I’m not some sort of curmudgeon who’s allergic to personal contact. I’m just a guy, and I like coffee — as long as it’s good coffee.

I’m comfortable with the way things are right now. I have a larger audience than I ever thought I would, but it’s mostly local, and it’s on a small enough scale that I can keep it personal and my overhead is still pretty reasonable. I don’t want it to get to the point where I have to look at hiring people to handle distribution or anything absurd like that. I don’t want to have to answer to a larger group of people about why I don’t play live or do the same things everyone else seems to do.

Realistically, my music and appearance are not commercial or swoon-worthy enough for things to ever get very big anyway, and I’m not about to put any effort into changing anything about myself or my music to make either one any more palatable or “ready for the big time”. But when someone starts to take steps toward doing something that threatens to potentially lead things in that direction, I get uneasy.

Let me be clear here: I don’t have a fear of success or making money. I think it’s more that my idea of success doesn’t coincide with what most people are after. Success, for me, is making an album I’m happy with and that reflects wherever my head was at when I recorded it, and then making it available to whoever wants to hear it, free of charge. That’s it. I don’t want or need to be on MuchMusic, or to be name-dropped by some sexy celebrity so I can use that hype to build steam and then use that steam to build even more hype. All of that is meaningless bullshit to me. I want to make music on my own terms, and that’s what I’m lucky enough to be able to do. Therefore, I consider myself to be a success, and no further validation is needed. If anyone else happens to like the music, that’s appreciated, and I’m always interested in hearing what other people have to say. But it’s not why I do this.

I’m aware the visibility I have and the attention I’m getting right now may fade at some point in the not so distant future when people get sick of me putting out a new album every few months. You can’t hold everyone’s interest forever. That doesn’t hold any sway over what I do at all. I was doing this for years and years before anyone cared or paid any attention to me, and I’ll keep on doing it as long as there’s music in my head, regardless of who is or isn’t listening.

The point, if I have one, is this: you don’t need to agree with what I do. You don’t even have to understand it. You can think I’m batshit crazy if you want. But I’d appreciate it if you respected that it’s my music, it’s my choice how it’s delivered and presented, and this is what I’m comfortable with. I tend to put up with more crap than I should from people, but when it comes to my music, all bets are off. Fuck with my music and we’re going to have a problem.


  1. ew, what a jackass. that sucks! sorry to hear someone pretty much raped your art :/ did you get him to take the stuff down? if nothing else you could probably complain to wherever it’s being hosted and get it taken down. that’s just not cool at all. you should have a say in that stuff. it’s your right!

    as an aside, you use facebook?! I was trying to find you the other day and you don’t seem to come up when I search. I would be ever so pleased if you would add me…!

  2. Even despite the art raping and all, it’s old fashioned copyright infringement. I guess he was hoping you’d be so flattered that you decided not to sue his arse?

    Maya Maya Maya – you can facebook-find him under John West, except there’s over 500 of them! It’s under an old email address, so maybe that’s why it didn’t come up for you.
    P.S. I really like your work on Nostalgia-Triggering Mechanism and The Bitter Side of Sweet!

      1. it might have been a little unscrupulous of me to bring my dirty laundry into blog land the way i did…but hey, the whole point of having this thing is that i can babble about whatever is on my mind, right? i guess i’ve spent so long letting people do what they want and step on me that i feel a bit like a dick, now that i tend to stand up for myself and not bite my tongue so much. but it hurts to bite your tongue…

  3. PPS: I don’t understand why people pay for Mp3s. They are junk files, only worth having to sample music but nothing like the real thing. Even with lossless compression (if that really exists), I still need something tangible if I’m going to pay money for it. Until they start making computers that include some kind of teleport device that can materialise a physical album when you pay to “download” it, I think I’ll be sticking with the real thing.

    PPPS: everyone should check this out:

  4. i agree with you wholeheartedly. i like old things, i try very hard not ot buy new things, and i think vinyl is the best musical sound there is. if i had a record player, i’d be buying tons and tons of classical on vinyl.

    i wont lie though, i do indulge in the poor-quality mp3s and digital music, due to a lack of funds and the convenience of it all. free downloads. i’ve heard a lot of artists say they prefer you to download their music for free and go to shows, because that’s where they actually make their money.

  5. Hey John, cool post about audio mediums – We live in sea change regarding distribution – I love that you are sticking to your guns regarding compact discs – they are definitely my favorite medium – especially the editing of a redbook compact disc’s TOC – All of my favorite albums though my life have taken advantage of this to some extent

    I do not own an iPod or any PDA for music playback and I hate flossy mp3’s – I too cannot listen to music in headphones while doing other chores, etc – I’m a lights off, good full range system guy. My biggest complaints about any physical medium for music is that it’s physical – 1000’s of CD’s in my basement – unsatisfactory artwork colors from the plant – spelling mistakes missed by me – fingerprints on jewel cases and glossy paperstock – As the years go on I am growing more and more tired of owning possessions and being surrounded by material things that I am responsible for in some capacity – it’s a character flaw (seriously), but also something that contributes to lowering my anxiety and keeping my proverbial hard drive compressed.

    I’m in awe of digital distribution and it’s potential – I can be heard in Uruguay in 30 seconds from now – and as for sonic quality – I sit and listen to AM radio with my mom and she reminisces about the rise of 60’s British music – they listened to it through massive static and dirty, dusty stylus noise – mp3’s are not the enemy in my book – properly encoded mp3’s are indistinguishable from 16 bit wavforms for the majority of people, myself included – improperly encoded mp3’s are traceable to everyone – Even people who don’t know anything about music will sense something is off with a 96 kbps Michael Jackson song

    Secondly, I believe mp3’s have their bad wrap due mostly in part to the combination of modern mastering techniques and the ongoing loudness war PLUS improper encoding – Nothing is more annoying than a brick-walled song from someone like Ke$ha at 128 kbps – If your dynamic range is left mostly intact and you’ve captured a certain amount of samples (it’s now common belief amongst audiologists that the majority of human ears can decipher a maximum of 220 samples per second) the original artistic integrity of most artist’s work will be upheld – Then again, for some, the quality of compact discs is considered a joke.

    Cool discussion – Ultimately I want to see albums released in hardcover book format with lots of liner notes and photos, etc, etc – The audio is “in” the books (in a computer chip) which is then downloaded to super beautiful full range home music systems with a large HD that stores everything

    I am a fan John – I’m most of all happy we get to make music on our own terms in our living rooms regardless of format.


    Dwaine Iler

    1. very interesting stuff, dwaine…and very well said.

      i hear where you’re coming from, and i feel the same way about typos (i ran around town about a week ago stealing back copies of my new cd and replacing them with new copies because there were a few typos in the initial booklets i somehow missed, and they were driving me nuts) and fingerprints and such…i guess i’m just kind of set in my ways when it comes to cds. part of it is purely psychological. it just feels comfortable to me. but i agree that a lot of the problem with the bad-sounding mp3s is the whole “loudness war” way of mastering things, and i have heard well-mastered, well-encoded mp3s that really do sound good. it’s just that, for me, they need to be 320 kbps or so to really start sounding nice, and with all of the material i have, it probably wouldn’t be practical or possible to keep all those large files around.

      i really like your idea about hardcover book releases…that would probably be pretty expensive to produce, but i’m sure it would be worth it if it turned out well. that would be a pretty impressive and unique musical document to have, too. my problem is that i tend to ramble and develop a case of potty-mouth (as this blog will attest to), so in my hands a book would probably end up being insanely long, and kind of profane. i must resist the urge to turn into the R-rated musical equivalent of stephen king…

      but hey, i always liked stephen king. he never seemed long-winded to me. maybe it takes a rambling artist to appreciate another rambling artist!

      i say keep doing what you’re doing, the way you enjoy doing it…even if i’m more of a cd guy than an mp3 guy, i think the way you’ve chosen to distribute your music is really interesting, and i don’t really see anyone else doing it. and your mp3s actually do sound good, because the music hasn’t been smashed to death at the mastering stage! go figure…

      and it is pretty crazy how far things have come, to the point that we can record things in our homes that might actually stand up to things recorded in proper studios. i’m not so sure i’m there yet myself…i don’t have any sound treatment, and the whole thing is a learning process that never really ends, but i feel like i get better at the whole recording thing everyday. i still can’t shake the feeling that things would sound better if i at least got someone else to professionally master the music, but so far no one else has told me that my stuff is sonically lacking, so who knows…

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