Download This: Lisa Gerrard, Patrick O’Hearn bypass CDs

Tonight on Echoes, (tomorrow in Philadelphia) you’ll hear an hour of music that you can only buy on-line. This isn’t a new phenomenon and I wrote about it a few months back (Farewell CD), but the transition is happening faster than I expected. MP3.com helped pioneer digital delivery before effectively folding its tent three years ago. Peer-to-Peer networks like Napster emboldened a generation to download music for free and iTunes legitimized the idea of actually buying music on-line, with no physical product. Now musicians are turning more and more to digital downloads as their primary means of distribution, completely forgoing a physical product like the CD.
The techno-geek libertarian in me thinks this is a great idea. Get rid of the middle man. Forget packaging. Make it all about the music. But after the reality has set in and after the joy of buying the complete Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre catalogs off of iTunes, the thrill is gone. iTunes and the iPod are not a great way to organize a wide expanse of music. The lack of physical cover art, whether it’s simply great graphics or informative liner notes, is not creating a mood nor feeding my desire to know and understand an artist more. Rather than make it all about the music, digital downloading denigrates the music, making it seem even more disposable.
It also doesn’t seem to be a great deal for the consumer. At iTunes, you pay $10 for a CDs worth of materiel. If you want to turn it into an actual physical CD, the consumer has to provide the CD, the jewel box and has to print up the cover art. It’s a chore that just never looks as good as a conventionally produced disc and let’s not even talk about the degradation of sound. MP3 and AAC codexes will never sound as good as a CD. There are those audiophile purists who think that CDs never sounded as good as vinyl LPs, but all agree that digital downloads short of full frequency .wav or .aiff files are simply inferior.
Yet, here we are with an hours worth of Echoes music tonight, all from digital downloads. That includes the latest CD from Lisa Gerrard, The Silver Ship. It’s a wonderful disc, full of Lisa’s haunting gothic chorales and impassioned pleas. But you can’t buy it in the store or at Amazon.com except as a 25-dollar import and a pre-order. You can only be purchased from iTunes. Gerrard-Silver Tree
In Gerrard’s case, this might be a marketing ploy and the album will probably come out conventionally. But for other artists, that’s not necessarily the case.
Patrick O’Hearn has been a stalwart of modern instrumental music since his debut, Ancient Dreams 20 years ago. He’s had his own label for over a decade now, but recently he’s turned to digital distribution for a few albums, The Wheelhouse, Simpatico and The So Flow Sessions. All are fine albums and typical of Patrick’s work, but they are only available via download from his website and iTunes.
So if established artists are going the download route, what is a true Indie supposed to do. For someone like the space music band, Sound Commandos, who I discovered on Myspace, digital downloads are the best, most cost efficient way to get their music out there. Seven Things I Daren’t Say is the awkward name of a UK label specializing in contemporary classical music from the likes of ambient chamber composer Hans Richter, to more traditional new music composers like Luc Ferrari. But it’s all only available thru the net.
Railing against this new world is like pissing in the wind at this point. I might as well join the Bring Back Mono movement. But I already miss the physical medium of CDs and vinyl. Perusing my disc drive will never have the same allure as perusing my shelves of CDs and discs, which is still the way we craft each Echoes program. Imagine the future documentary film on a modern artist when they show you what? His old album covers or a computer file name? And the thought of sitting at my computer, trawling the net, auditioning music, and laboriously launching downloads and burning CDs, is not appealing. But as a music junkie, how can I turn my back on it? Even as I write this, i just got an email from Six Degrees records announcing a Digital only series, that looks great. There are more ramifications to this, especially as regards promotion and publicity that I may talk about later.
Echoes On-Line, will run this Thursday night, November 9 in most cities, and on November 10 in Philadelphia. You can find a playlist here with links to most everything.

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