Downside of MP3s: no enjoyment of whole album

by Cory Van der Pol
August 20, 2014 –

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Who am I to criticize wide and frequent use of technology? It has brought great benefits and much landfill, as well as seeming to fill our time with activities that are both “work” and “fun” at the same moment. It has made life easier, and made the list of stuff to do longer. I suppose it is a mixed bag.

In general, I am fond of MP3s. “Try before buy” provides a great principle for buying music that in theory would lead to the rejection of the usual stuff and embrace of the distinctive and elevated. This would (again, in theory) give consumers better music and give small bands a chance against big industry bands.

In practice, people simply become overwhelmed with the sheer amount of stuff, which spams their brains, and thus they download a ton and a half of metal and listen to all of it once, which leads to the conclusion that it is all about the same in value. In turn, that causes them to stop worrying about quality and to download anything above “barely acceptable” and put it on their playlist. This favors the big industry, which can use its advertising power to overwhelm those spammed brains and so people go back to the 1980s condition of buying whatever is advertised and ex post facto finding a way to like it.

So, maybe MP3s are not the savior of the music industry. And a relatively recent Abigor interview raises another point: MP3s ruin our appreciation of the album as a whole as if it were a communication from a band to its audience. Instead, we are awash in easily queued and listened music, which by reducing our effort in hearing it reduces our ability to perceive it.

[E]verything should be viewed as one piece of art, not just the sound that’s coming out of a studio in whatsoever form, be it vinyl, CD, a file (originating “from the connection in the wall”, that’s the horizon teenagers have these days.

They don’t care and they’re not as informed as we were – when we liked certain albums back then we knew the lyrics, could draw the logo and knew every dot on the cover or who was in the thanx list. Today it’s about a track in the MP3 playlist only, albums matter less and less). An MP3 player can’t capture, it simply isn’t, such a piece of art. People tear individual tracks out of the album context to an MP3 playlist and the music looses it’s meaning and also it’s value.

How much is such an MP3 worth? Nothing. And therefore people lose respect of the artist’s work as well. They forget that this soundfile actually has a history full of sweat and blood, and quiet some people put in a lot of money before the first cent comes back from sales, all this seems like a long lost echo when I hear people talk about their MP3s. People that talk about their record collection have a different access.

All of this reminds me of the “bad old days” before the internet and underground alike when people heard new stuff on the radio and listened to that without even thinking there might be an option. The same four companies owned every radio station in the major cities, and the same six labels owned everything played by those radio stations. Not much has changed, except that what is driving people to that same old stuff is the vast amount of musical spam coming out in MP3 format designed for people who cannot tell the difference between plausible and mediocre music.

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22 comments

  • Not That Old

    I have very few material music, I have 2 or 3 CDs. But I have 15gb of metal mp3s, and I think I filtered a lot of things (from my earlier music opinion, something like SOAD, Cannibal Corpse, Pantera, Whitechappel, generic underground “hardcore”…).

    I recentely downloaded 3 discographies: Beherit, King Crimson and Swans. I have listened a lot of Beherit on YouTube, only “Starless”, “Epitaph” and “Moonchild” from king Crimson, and only “Cop” from Swans. What happened? I listen all day long to Beherit, some King Crimson and once I listened to Swans.

    My opinion: before you even download, you got to listen to every single track of the album in youtube, read every single lyric of the album (if possible), analyze every detail of the album concept, and preferably, read the band’s/musician’s biography.

    Or you will end with 52 albums that you never listened (and hardly will be interested). I downloaded Dead Can Dance’s debut last year, and I listened last week, fortunately I got interested instantly.

    1. Richard Head

      If you can get into “Starless”, try checking out “Red” next. My two favorite KC albums next to the debut.

        1. Richard Head

          Yeah you’re right, I got myself confused because the song’s chorus is “Starless and bible black”, while that line is also the name of the album before “Red”. So I’m actually trying to recommend Not That Old check out the album “Starless and Bible Black”.

  • Lord Mosher of the Solitary Pit

    Maybe it all comes down to who is listening. For example, thanks to mp3 I’ve been able to listen to early 70s prog rock bands and entire discographies and make up my mind of which albums say, from King Crimson or Tangerine Dream to buy.
    .
    If I was new to metal and somebody recommended Slayer to me yet clueless to which albums should I buy, I’d download 3-4 albums one month, listen to them repeatedly and eventually figure out on my own that Reign in Blood is the one to get rather than Divine Intervention.
    .
    Now let’s say I like a band like Ripikkoulu but their demo is impossible to find and/or I’m not willing to pay $100 for it; then I’d download the demo and burn it to a cd-rom, draw the logo on it on my own, put it on a jewel case and pretend it’s the original thing. Without mp3s I’d miss a lot of great music.

    1. Richard Head

      This is a good point. I don’t think the article attacked the MP3 as a compressed music file, rather as a mentality. It is really a carryover of the “hit single” mentality that happened around the dawn of the iTunes age (really before that with Limewire and Kazaa and such), that gave people the opportunity to skip a whole album of background noise and get right into the catchiest song of all. Good metal really is usually album-oriented though. I have a lot of MP3 albums for the same reason you do (hard-to-find physical copies) but I also own a couple some hundred CDs because it is a very versatile album form (skip songs if you want, listen to top-quality all the way through if you want, win-win).

  • (still unnamed)

    Thanks to MP3, YouTube, blogspots, etc. I know not to waste my time with “legendary” releases like God Macabre and Gorement. Thanks internet! I have wasted money on a lot of crap though…

    1. Nick Metal Maniac

      I have to echo this sentiment. Before I explored Metal on the web, now about fifteen years ago, I thought that Metallica, Pantera, Megadeth were the be all end all. Thank SATAN for the net, because now I know so much about the history (sonically and otherwise) of underground Metal that I feel that it’s an integral part of my life, along side my philosophies, my classical music, and everything else provided by the freedoms of access to infinitely deep wells of information! By the way, what’s wrong with the Winterlong?

  • EDS

    This all boils down to the individual and the level of responsibility and accountability they have for their music collection. Do they approach their collection as a vault of tomes and they are the Tomeguide or Keeper of the Tomes, or are they just some fat and lazy sweat ball, eating pizza thinking their cool because they scored a download of some super underground band from Finland circa 1990? If the individual is smart and treats metal as an art form they will buy what they can afford and find, and they will download what they cannot. They will treat the download the same as the physical copy. I downloaded Rippikolou’s two demos back in the day. I found websites which provided photo scans of Musta Seremonia’s inlay and back cover and I studied the information. I became acquainted with the visual aspects of the release soon after downloading it. I memorized band member’s names, instruments, photo poses and some of the lyrics. I did my best to log into my memory the layouts visuals. Sure it’s not as good as having the original in your hands but it is good enough during a time when people are being robbed on Ebay for obscure metal merchandise. Later, when Musta Seremonia became available from Svart, I bought it. I followed these procedures with literally 100’s of old school metal albums until I could buy them as a re-release / re-issue.

    It’s all about a happy medium.

  • Nomen Nescio

    Ever since it was easy to find whatever you like on the internet I used it for quality control. I’d download the album, open the lyrics on another tab and the listen to it 4 or 5 times to fully immerse myself in it. The only times I listened to an album once or twice is if I saw that it was crap.
    In the end if I liked it, I’d try to hunt for a physical copy. I prefer it over having it on my HDD. If I can’t find a physical copy, then I keep it on my HDD until further notice.

  • witten

    I shall echo the sentiment that it depends on how you use it. To the elite, mp3s are a valuable aid; to the commoner they’re just distractions.

    On the other hand, I don’t necessarily think that listening to whole albums is a good thing. Even in many good albums, there are usually a few mediocre, insignificant songs, while some pieces truly stand out. And most albums only have superficial if any large-scale organization, so a good track is usually structurally complete in itself. My view is that in the future we need to stop treating albums as indivisible wholes, and start reviewing/ranking individual tracks. That’s where most of the structure lies. Of course I recognize that in some rare cases (e.g. Hvis lyset tar oss) the album as a whole has a real structure that goes beyond the sum of the parts.

  • Daniel

    FLACs are the way to go. MP3s don’t represent the album as they are loss and sound like shit. Anyone who reviews an album from them is an ignorant fool. The codecs (even the best) will clip any recording with peeks that almost hit the limit in the waveform. Dead Congregation’s Promulgation of the Fall sounds fine on CD but the MP3s made from it, even 320, sound like shit; the instrument tones they achieved by recording it analog to a tape in the style of early Incantation are ruined. The instrument space and separation (and time keeping but let’s not go there) that Bolt Thrower finally achieved on For Victory that are present on the CD and LP are mostly gone in MP3s made from them.

    Anyone with a decent pair of headphones (even something as cheap as Sony MDR v6/7506) or speaker setup is simply doing a huge disservice to themselves by listening to lossy compression. There is no reason for MP3s to exist anymore when FLAC is around. Hard drives and SD cards are fucking cheap. This isn’t 1997 when 2gb hard drives cost hundreds of dollars.

    Also if you are listening to metal (or anything not current DR2 crap rap and Top 40 teeny bopper garbage) primarily through Apple earbuds, laptop speakers, car stereos, or Beats by Dre; I don’t even know what to say. Why are you even bothering?

    1. Richard Head

      Totally agreeable post. I have been figuratively drawn and quartered for arguing with mp3-listeners about how they are not hearing the music the way it was recorded and so intended to be heard. They pull out the science argument and claim “humans can’t detect a difference once the compression rate is as high as 192 kbps” and they won’t accept any counterargument. I even forced someone to tell me out-loud that any human with good ears couldn’t technically tell the difference between and mp3 sound clip of a howling wind and the real howl of real wind itself. So at that point I pulled out my broadsword, rectally skwered him, stuck my sword in the dirt and left him dangling upside-down in the middle of a college campus to liven up the dreary place.

  • BrennendesGehirn

    Personally I think there is a big difference between being a music lover and an audiophile. That’s not to say though, that the two don’t often go hand in hand. I always believe that, within reason, great music can survive compression and average playback equipment. Crap music can never be made into better music by improving the hardware, even if it ‘sounds’ better.

    The music always trumps the pursuit of audio perfection for me – I listen to mp3s for portability, and my headphones are a cheap set of in-ear Sony that have survived coffee dunkings and at least two trips through the washing machine. I own about 950 cds of various types and 400gb of ripped/downloaded music, mainly on mp3. I maintain my collection as someone would attend to a large and unruly garden replete with multifarious pockets of beauty and interest. That is to say, while I trawl through and evaluate by track, or by album, occasionally deleting, there may be the odd item in there that is of less than crucial standard. I like to make compilations and yet I make sure I listen to whole albums regularly – as stated above so many bands in all genres put out a couple of stand out tracks and a bunch of filler. If I love an album I will buy it on cd if possible.

    All in all, life is too short for me to worry too much about it, I am a discerning, if somewhat fanatical collector of music, whether trawling through a record shop, buying direct from the label or downloading. That probably won’t change. But thank fuck for the internet I say.

  • numb

    I think this article is valid. Because most of the people are like this. Downloading every new release for the purpose of keeping up with the trend, so they won’t appear to be dropping behind on those two-weeks hot topics. Bad albums always win out, because it sound like “black metal”, featuring a sing along opener. Too many choices lead to indecisive. Without some guidance, people are directionless.

    1. EDS

      Eh, leave those that are in need of guidance behind where they belong. Those that rise above and find their own direction are the only ones worth collaborating with.

    2. Nomen Nescio

      The only release of this year I checked out was Tibi Et Igni by Vader. I usually stray away from checking modern bands unless they sound compelling to me, I usually fiddle around trying to find old, forgotten gems (which makes it much harder for me to hunt for a physical copy once I do find one). I remember I used to keep up with new releases years ago, but most of them were either boring or tried to mix&match metal with too much outside influence, making it lose it’s focus.

  • trystero

    This article sounds like it was written more than 15 years ago. People can easily download full albums. In any case no mp3s = I would not be a metalhead at all. My bias is quite clear ^_^

    It is kind of funny what Abigor dude says because its usually the bands that put out single samples in mp3s before big releases (consumers always deal in albums). You know what, it does give you a good idea of what is to come. Only if your interest is even slightly piqued will you be ready for the artistic experience of the album; and usually you can tell if the album will be an artistic experience or not…

    Research has shown that being spoiled of a movie or book ending does not reduce subjective enjoyment from either. Why does this apply to music?