has it that the big record companies are working on some sort
of “bundled package” so they can sell you complete albums
via digital download. Of course, they already can do this,
except most people, acting rationally, only buy single songs
online. The labels want to change this. The “system,” reportedly
named CMX, will include digitized copies of the album covers,
liner notes, lyrics, and videos. It’s also reported that the
“system” may not be compatible with the iTunes store, so Apple
is also working on its own bundled album package.
Ever since the late ’60s, when albums rather quickly replaced
singles as the music format of choice, there’s been an uncomfortable
market and practical balance between the album and its component
parts. Great bands can fill an album with great songs that
in sequence tell a narrative, or just plain sound great together.
Most artists, though, can’t match the transcendence of those
one or two hit songs and wind up loading albums with banal,
second-rate filler. In the days of milk and vinyl, we all
bought the albums anyway.
It got worse in the ’80s with the transition to CD. Now, instead
of the 40 minutes of sound on an LP, artists had 75 minutes
to fill up, leading to the release of mountains of filler
that would have been righteously scrapped in the age of vinyl.
The record companies colluded to keep the price of these mysterious,
shiny little disks way too high, and we bought them anyway,
often buying a CD with 12 songs we didn’t want to replace
the vinyl record with 7 songs we didn’t want. And the record
companies made a fortune selling us, sometimes twice, music
we didn’t want.
Obviously, I’m making some broad generalizations here. Sure,
there have been wonderfully remastered CDs with previously
unreleased bonus tracks that are great. And, of course, what’s
filler and what’s not is subjective: Stuff I might like you
might find vile, and I’ll hold my opinion on that crap you
listen to. Moving on.
The market pushed back the best it could in this CD-based
world with the chart dominance of the Now! That’s What
I Call Music singles compilation series, greatest hits
packages, and hit-centric movie soundtracks. But it wasn’t
nearly enough. Along came MP3s, Napster, iTunes and the rest,
and suddenly singles were back. It became a singles world
again. Consumers demanded it. And they got it—legally or otherwise.
The genie got out, and now they’re trying to put it back in
again with these “bundled systems.” And it won’t work. The
“packages,” the “systems”—whatever these things are that purport
to repackage full digital albums—will make a little money
for a handful of artists, but they will work on the same principle
that the old CDs did: People will pay for a few songs they
want and a bunch more they don’t. Most people will likely
ignore the “bundle” and grab the song they want. And if the
song isn’t extractable from the “bundle”? Then the whole shebang
is DOA. People won’t be told what they can and can’t do with
their music any longer. New rules, babe.
As for the graphics, the lyrics, etc.? All those great “extras”?
Maybe good for the 15-20 year-old demo, but that’s about it.
Dunno about you, but I stopped looking at liner notes when
CDs hit. There’s such little pleasure to be had from looking
at those dinky little booklets, and there’s even less from
looking at something on my computer screen, or, God forbid,
Who knows what CMX and Apple’s digital albums are going to
look like or be compatible with, if or how they’ll restrict
consumers’ ability to consume music. The thing is, there’s
already a fine workable bundling “system” out there. It’s
the ubiquitous zip file, and it’s used by the exploding number
of music bloggers out there who are posting full albums online
for download for free. The best of them post super high-quality
MP3s of the best versions of an album available (new remastered
versions, rips of Japanese vinyl audiophile versions, etc.),
along with hi-res scans of all the album art, all in one downloadable
I guess the problem with zip files is that the consumer can
easily cherry pick favorite songs (oh, mercy!) and even rearrange
the sequence of the songs (utter sacrilege!). And the graphics?
Well your preferences may vary, but I haven’t looked at, much
less saved, a single liner note or album cover on my computer.
Why waste the space? If I wanna know something about an artist
or see what he/she looks like, I hit the Web.
So, expect the CMX, whatever the hell it is, to go the way
of the mini-disk. Nice try folks, but the train left the station
a long, long time ago.