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Digital, Our Song for the Ages

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, October 22, 2006

Five years ago tomorrow, a computer company with no history of selling music devices released a portable media player that cost more and did less than much of the hardware already on sale. Naturally, this gadget and its successors sold in the millions, all but defining the entire digital-music industry in the process.

That's not to praise the iPod so much as to point out that the demand for such a thing was there in 2001. Had Apple Computer stuck to the Mac, somebody else could have come up with a simplicity-plus-coolness formula to vault the MP3 player out of the "early adopter" ghetto.

Why, for example, Sony didn't seize this opportunity is a question for the ages. But it and other companies did not, and so airplanes and subways teem with people wearing white headphone cords, not the silver or black of competing players.

This trickle-to-mainstream transformation allowed some trends that had been confined to enthusiasts and tech pioneers to become everyday practice. And the ways we discover, buy and enjoy music haven't been the same since.

Some of these changes have been obvious and immediate: If you can pluck the one or two good songs on a full-length recording off the Internet instead of buying the complete CD, you're going to wind up with fewer albums but, quite possibly, more music overall in your collection.

But others have taken their time to unfold.

Consider the effects of carrying every song you own on a handheld device. It's a lot harder to be bored by music if your choices aren't confined to the CDs that fit in a carrying sleeve. And it becomes bizarre to not have access to your complete music collection at all times and in all places -- even when your portable player's battery needs a recharge.

The downside of losing the gizmo that holds All Your Music: It's far more upsetting than the loss of a mere Walkman.

The search, shuffle and "smart playlist" features of music-management software, in turn, ensure that you can't get stuck listening to the same relative handful of songs. Your digital-music collection will surprise you repeatedly with songs that you'd forgotten ever owning -- or ones you'd wish you'd forgotten about.

(Likewise, you can learn all sorts of interesting things about your friends' tastes anytime you share a ride with them: "You listen to that? Never woulda guessed it.")

When anybody can find and buy the most obscure song imaginable, you can't show off your good taste simply by adopting music that nobody's heard of. That honor is reserved for the most creative and clever playlist builders. Digital music has made everybody a DJ, but not everybody fully grasps this curatorial opportunity.

The shift of music from discs of polycarbonate plastic to digital files has brought two other transformations that still leave some music fans uneasy. First, almost all compressed music formats -- MP3, AAC, Windows Media and so on -- abandon a little sonic fidelity to keep file sizes down.

Just about every other format shift in the recorded-music industry has increased sound quality, but with digital music, we've been content to yield some. Witness the irrelevance of two would-be successors to the audio CD, the DVD-Audio and Super Audio Compact Disc formats. Both formats capture more detail than the CD, much less the average MP3, and both have tanked in the market.

At some point, convenience trumps perfection -- something that the developers of high-definition video discs should ponder as they compete with DVDs and the nascent video-download market.

The other digital-music trade-off was imposed by the major record labels. When they finally began selling their catalogues as digital downloads, they required online retailers wrap their music in "digital rights management" software.

This so-called DRM manages our rights by limiting them. It imposes quotas on how many computers you can play a "DRM-ed" download on, and how often you can burn that song to an audio CD. Any sort of sharing -- or even a simple resale -- is usually banned outright. And the lack of a common DRM format means you can't even count on playing a purchased download on the hardware and software of your choice.

Before the advent of iTunes and other online stores, a lot of DRM opponents thought the entire concept of software-enforced usage limits was so inherently repellent that it would flop in the market.

That hasn't happened with major-label music downloads. By the millions, customers have put down their money for songs that don't offer the same freedom of use as plain old CDs. They've bought songs that can be heard only on approved hardware and that they can't easily give to friends or even pass on to their heirs.

The DRM attached to music sales online does come with an escape hatch of sorts, however. Liberating one of these downloads requires merely burning it to an audio CD, then popping that CD right back into the computer. You can then copy the songs off the CD in the open, unprotected format of your choice, though with a slight loss in quality from that re-conversion process. (The absence of any such workaround in most video downloads is glaring.)

I'd like to think that digital-music DRM could never have gotten anywhere without this get-out-of-jail-free card. But it may be that most customers don't care that much; as long as DRM doesn't impose outrageous restrictions and works with the hardware most people own, they will accept this bargain.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com.

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