Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Half begun, but not entirely well done

Universal Classics, through its Deutsche Grammophon property, has released an iTunes exclusive recording of Gustavo Dudamel leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic (his future post) in Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra (Sz. 116, if you keep that score), as part of what they once called DG Concerts (Decca, too), but are now marketing as "The Global Concert Hall." While I have (what I consider) some pretty serious issues with Dudamel (namely his somewhat ambiguous role in Chavez' public relations front), but that aside from that, Deutsche Grammophon has missed a great opportunity. Intentionally, I gather, and they're rubbing it in with their new marketing scheme.

What on Earth am I babbling on about, you may ask. As usual, these iTunes exclusives are 128 kbps AAC releases, loaded with DRM software. I'm less-severe toward the AAC codec since, often as not, it does sound better at lower bitrates than a file encoded at the same bitrate in MP3. Still, highly compressed files - laden with software that tells me what I can do with the file - at a cost somewhat more than trivial aren't exactly my thing. In defense of iTunes, they do have some records that are either rare or OOP, plus sometimes I'm lazy and can't be bothered to go to my nearest record stores. Also, the new EMI/Apple collaboration that has yielded the iTunes Plus option, which gives you 256 kbps files, DRM-free, is a good thing. Still, there is a lot of music, hyped and not, that puts the consumer at a disadvantage.

Here's the other thing: consumers can make their own digital recordings of live broadcasts (i.e., concerts), often in pretty good digital sound (assuming, of course, that they make these recordings in compliance with any applicable copyright laws). Online streaming and programs designed to capture those streams can produce recordings in any quality you want and in any concert hall you want - complying with any rights and laws applicable. This gives you a pretty big table, from which you can select a pretty diverse menu of concerts and performers. This is the great hole in the RIAA's totalitarian rights management regime. It always has been, too. The idea of taping live concerts isn't new, and it isn't verboten in every jurisdiction, though you should check - it might not be entirely OK. I'll put it like this: don't be a jerk about it, and obey the laws.

Now, and there's always a "but," I believe in supporting artists whom I like. That means buying things on which they'll collect some sort of royalty or allow them to keep fees up, going to concerts, and so on. I doubt that I am alone on that front. On the other hand, I don't believe in "licensing" recorded material to have a second-class license compared to physical media. I deal with it, because - well - sometimes my wants overpower my rationality. Universal is moving in the right direction, don't get me wrong, but until they (and other major companies) start offering a competitive product, they will always be in the Shadow between the motion and the act.

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