Let's Dance

You could buy David Bowie's Hours via Internet download. But why would you want to?

from: zikidisc@netvision

to: alt.fan.david-bowie

subject: Bowie MP3

I am looking for David Bowie's new album on MP3 for download.

 

Let's let the record companies in on a little secret: This guy was not looking to pay $13 to $18 on September 21, when Bowie's new album, Hours, became the first major-label, full-length CD to be available for sale via Internet download--at the full retail price of a "hard" CD--two weeks before it came out in stores.

What he and every other Bowiephile on the Internet wanted was a free or advance copy of the release. I, or any of the thousands of others with promotional copies of the recording, could have made zikidisc's dream come true. Simply by extracting audio data from the CD with a program called a ripper, converting it to compressed, easy-to-download MP3 format with a program called an encoder (both available free), and uploading, I could have made the music available--for free--weeks before it came out in the stores.

Free downloadable recordings: The MP3 revolution has conditioned music consumers to expect no less. Bowie and his record company (Virgin), however, are banking that advance digital releases such as Hours--encoded by the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) or the similar Windows Media Rights Manager so they can't be traded later for free--will change all that. If music downloads are the modality of the future, they want to make sure the tollbooth is in place before the hordes come stampeding through.

Let's take another look at the newsgroups...

 

from: iggg@my-deja

subject: DownloadingHours--what format?

I will be downloading the buyable version ofHours for download through the Net. But I will only do so if I am sure that I can burn the music onto a CD to play on my stereo. If I cannot burn a music CD, the download will have to be extremely cheap, as I will only be able to play the music on my computer and not on my stereo (or in my car and Walkman).

 

Good point, iggg! How much fun is it to listen to Bowie's new album exclusively on your computer? Even assuming you have a pro-quality sound card and audiophile computer stereo (Soundblaster-compatibles need not apply), will the music "glitch" if you try to surf the Web and write an article while you're listening? And can you burn a CD to listen to on your home stereo or Walkman?

Before I could get answers to those questions, I had to find the Bowie download on the Net. Virgin Records said it would be sold through established Internet music retailers, such as Tower Records (dot com) and CDNow! But days before the release, I couldn't find promotional information on any Web site, just rumors in the discussion groups. Was this the least-promoted big event in the history of the music business? Even Bowie's publicists sent me boomeranging from site to site without any answers.

When D(ownload)-Day arrived, I still couldn't find any reference to the Hours release on the major music sites, even ones with separate "download" sections. Still another call to Bowie's publicist produced a list of participating companies, but no URLs. Only the Virgin Megastore site had added the download to its front page (for the full price of $17.98), and only in the Liquid Audio format, though it was ostensibly also available via Microsoft's Windows Media (WMP) format. (As I write this article, several more sites have added the download.)

Finally, I went directly to Microsoft (www.msn.com) and Liquid Audio (www.liquidaudio.com), which, in the interests of promoting their playback software, did have links to the download. Oddly enough, most of the Microsoft links took me to a third-party company (amplified.com), which offered to let me buy Hours "from" various retailers at prices ranging from $12.99 (Tower, Rasputin, Barnes & Noble) to $17.98 (Harmony House, Mybytes).

As the Liquid Audio download was more than twice the size of the WMP download (56MB vs. 24.5MB), I decided to try both. Downloading the files was somewhat harder than buying a cheeseburger while easier than building a home cyclotron. Various hang-ups in Web design and performance added several hours to the process, but by the time I got going, the 56.6Kbps download took an hour and a half for the WMP version and just under three and a half hours for the Liquid Audio version of this 51-minute album. Because I didn't want to put the Liquid Audio download on my C: drive, I had to manually specify the location for each track on the disc, which meant I had to hang around for the entire time it was downloading. The Liquid Audio payment server was also down that night, so I had to wait till morning to fork over the cash and actually listen to the thing.

Both versions sounded very good when played through my computer's pro-quality sound system. Liquid Audio has playback software for both Windows and Mac, while Microsoft promises a Mac version of Windows Media Player "sometime next year." There was a slight digital feel to the ocean waves on the track "No One Calls," but as this is coincidentally the download's bonus track, I couldn't compare it with the hard-copy CD.

The last track, "The Dreamers," starts with a soft chimes sequence, which I thought would be difficult for these players to reproduce, but both versions performed quite well, and almost identically. I'd give these players a C at best for download convenience, but an A for sound quality. Given that the Liquid Audio file is more than twice as large as the WMP version and doesn't seem to sound any better, Microsoft also gets an A+ for its advanced compression technology.

It turns out to be quite easy to enjoy the Liquid Audio version, played back on the computer, while pursuing other digital tasks. WinAmp (www.winamp.com), a third-party player that's compatible with the Microsoft WMP files, also performed flawlessly while I put my computer through a series of other tasks. But using Windows' own Media Player, I had a few problems. First was a sound-card conflict. Then a driver problem. My Microsoft Personal Assistant (a real person) spent a week guiding me through troubleshooting procedures, assuring me all the while that the problems were not the Media Player's fault. But after a week of updating and reconfiguring things, Media Player still doesn't work with my Waveterminal sound card, while five other programs, including WinAmp, have no trouble with it. Furthermore, the Windows Media Player was somewhat less "robust" than these other players: For example, if I typed anything into a DOS window while it was playing, the music glitched. The possible cause: Output buffering on the Windows Player cannot be configured.

The Liquid Audio player has a really hot feature that lets you burn a single hard-copy CD of the download, or any other music tracks on your computer, at the touch of a button (of course, you need the hardware). Windows Media Player has no such provision, nor does it encourage conversion of the file to other formats, such as WAV, which could be written to CD (though certain hackware programs such as AudioJacker and Unfuck have already been distributed to get around these limitations). I thought I could play the WMP file through my digital sound card to an external audio CD recorder, but as you'll recall, I never got this to work with the Windows Media Player. WinAmp, however, was able to play the WMP file into my digital sound card for external digital recording.

And the winner is... After all the hassle, I doubt I'd again choose a paid download over a trip to the music store. If the cost of computer-delivered music remains comparable to hard-CD prices, the record stores have little to fear from pay-to-download sites. Most of us have come to see our computers as "free" entertainment, and the whiz-bang thrill of downloading music just isn't there when there's a cash register ringing up charges. But as long as it remains relatively easy for computers to transfer music for free--albeit illegally--the future of all methods of selling music remains in doubt.

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