I regularly get questions about lossless audio files, or files compressed in a lossless format, for my Ask the iTunes Guy column. These questions come from people who seek to listen to the best quality audio files with iTunes. But many iTunes users don’t know what these files are.
In this article, I’m going to explain what lossless audio files are, how to create them, why you might want to use them, and why you might not.
What gets lost in the battles over fractions of pennies, however, is just how much money has vanished from the music business as consumers have abandoned its most profitable product: the CD.
Interesting article from the New York Times about the new face of the music industry. The graph in the article is quite telling. You can see that not only have the total amount of money generated by music in the US dwindled, the share of this that comes from CD sales has plummeted:
Ringtones: This was one a $1 billion dollar market in the US, until people wised up and realized that paying more than a buck for a snippet of a song was a rip-off. Good riddance. (Also, you can make your own.)
CD sales: The music industry constantly looks at the drop in revenue from CD sales, and glosses over the fact that much of that income, for a long time, came from over-priced product. CDs should never have cost more than LPs, and record companies ripped people off for years with high prices, which led, in part, to a great deal of ire at the music industry as a whole. This made it morally justifiable for a lot of people to pirate music. You reap what you sow.
Long view: Music sales peaked in the mid to late 1990s, as consumers replaced their music collections that were on LPs and cassettes. So if you compare the total amount of money spent on music now, it is much less than at its peak, but it’s not that far from what it was in the pre-CD era. The music industry likes to show graphs that go back to around 2000, rather than looking back to the 1980s, because it skews the decline in revenue. Here’s a better view from 1973 to 2015, adjusted for inflation (from an article on LinkedIn by Jason Hirschhorn; the entire article is worth reading):
Total revenue has certainly fallen, but not as much as it looks when you only see the last few years of the graph. It’s interesting to see two peaks: one around 1978, and then a catastrophic fall in the years that followed, as the Walkman because popular, and “home taping was killing music.” The second comes around 1999, and then Napster arrived.
YouTube vs. vinyl: There’s a meme going around, saying that vinyl has earned more money than YouTube. The Times article says:
Last year, YouTube and sites like it generated $385 million in royalties. In comparison, vinyl records — a niche if there ever was one — brought in $416 million.
Apples and oranges. YouTube generated royalties; the vinyl number is gross sales, which includes the profit made by record stores, the cost of producing and shipping records, and more. If there’s, say, a 10% royalty on these records, then YouTube earned 8 times as much as vinyl, at least as far as record labels, publishers, songwriters, and artists are concerned.
Concerts: The “music industry” is more than just record sales. There’s nothing in this graph about synchronization (music used in movies and TV shows), and especially nothing about concerts. A friend spent $350 for two tickets to see Bruce Springsteen the other night in an arena, and he had seats that were far from the best. There’s a lot of disposable income being spent on concerts, and much less on music. Sure, only a handful of artists can charge prices like that, but that’s still a lot of money spent on music.
More competition: It’s facile to say that music isn’t very good anymore, than people don’t want to buy albums which only contain a few good songs. The biggest factor that has hurt the music industry is that people have many other expenses that they prioritize over music. When I was a teenager, we had no cellphones, no cable TV, no internet. A couple with two cellphones, an internet connection, and a Netflix subscription, pays well over $100 per month; add in an expensive cable/pay TV subscription, and it can be double that amount. People obviously have less disposable income. Music didn’t have a lot of competition back in the day; now it does. Many people would rather buy a video game than an album; only the hard core music fans buy a lot of music any more. If anything, streaming is what’s keeping the music industry from crashing completely.
While I still prefer to own music – in part because I have a big collection – I understand that this shift is happening. The “music industry,” long used to limousines and cocaine, had contempt for its customers for a long time, and that karma is biting back. Too bad.
I’ve noticed recently that on some classical CDs – yes, I still buy CDs – long works are split into shorter tracks. Here’s an example: a recent CD release of a recording of Morton Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus, a work which, in this CD, lasts just under 68 minutes.
I’ve trimmed the screenshot a bit, because there are a total of 22 tracks.
So why is this? Well, it’s all about music streaming. If you stream this album and it’s a single track, the record label only gets a fraction of a penny. But if its split into 22 tracks, they get 22 times that fraction.
You won’t see this with all classical works; if a work has, say, four movements, you won’t see the movements broken up. But for very long works, record labels have realized that it makes financial sense to split the work.
This, of course, highlights one problem with streaming services: they pay by track, not by duration. A track counts as a paid stream if it is 30 seconds or longer, but an hour-long track would earn the same amount of money as a half-minute track. So rather than tempt record labels to split their works, it would be better if the streaming services could figure out a fairer way to compensate them for longer tracks.
Oh, and if you want to rip a CD like this, you can join the tracks, at least in iTunes. Insert the CD, select all the tracks, and then click Options, and choose Join CD Tracks. The work will be imported as a single track, as it should be.
Neil Young is nothing if not confused in recent years. From his comments about streaming music quality (I was there. AM radio kicked streaming’s ass. Analog Cassettes and 8 tracks also kicked streaming’s ass, and absolutely rocked compared to streaming) to his snake oil about digital music in general (only “5 percent of the data present in the original recording” is present in MP3 files), Mr Young has shown that he simply doesn’t understand a lot of things.
…it’s like nothing that I’ve done. It’s more like a giant radio show. It has no stops. The songs are too long for iTunes, thank God, so they won’t be on iTunes. I’m making it available in the formats that can handle it.
Too long for iTunes…? Are the songs three hours long? (I hope not, for his listeners.)
No, it sounds like Mr Young is saying that his album – “like a giant radio show” – will feature songs that flow together, or segue. But why would they be too long? If they fit on a CD, they’re not too long for iTunes or any other digital music marketplace.
Here’s one example: Dennis Johnson’s November, played by R. Andrew Lee. The work is about five hours long, and it is divided into four CD-length tracks:
Unless Mr Young’s songs are more than the length of a CD, I don’t see a problem. (And even if they are, I’m pretty sure iTunes can accommodate them; I’ve seen some nature sound recordings that are two hours long.)
Poor Neil Young… He just says the darnedest things. Because he goes on to describe this album a bit more:
It’s like a live show, but it’s not like a live show. Imagine it’s a live show where the audience is full of every living thing on earth — all of the animals and insects and amphibians and birds and everybody — we’re all represented. And also they overtake the music once in a while and play the instruments. It’s not conventional … but it is based on live performance.
By the way, I would think that the Rolling Stone interviewer should have asked him what he meant… (Most likely, he meant that the songs couldn’t be sold individually, because on the iTunes Store, songs longer than 10 minutes are album-only.)
I’ve written about Bach’s cantatas several times here (such as this overview article), and there are a handful of conductors whose recordings are essential. One is John Eliot Gardiner, and another is Masaaki Suzuki. Both of these conductors have recorded all the sacred cantatas, and both of their cycles are excellent in different ways. Gardiner’s recordings were made during a live, world-wide tour; Suzuki’s were made in concert halls. While the former are a bit ragged at times, the latter can sound over-polished. (My favorite Bach cantata conductor is Philippe Herreweghe, but he didn’t record all he cantatas, alas.)
Suzuki’s set was long available only on single CDs (though several smaller boxes of the first few dozen CDs were sold for a limited time), but a complete box set will finally be released in April. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) It is currently listed on Amazon UK, but will probably show up on Amazon.com in the coming weeks. At less than £200 for 55 CDs, this is a bargain, though substantially more expensive than the Gardiner set (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).
It’s worth noting the following:
This boxed set includes 55 Hybrid SACDs in individual slip cases. The recordings on discs 1-27, originally released on CD, have been up sampled and surround sound has been added, making this the only available complete set of the cantatas in SACD format.
I’m not a fan of upsampling or faux surround sound (where the music is played over speakers in a hall, then recorded with multiple channels). Personally, I don’t care about the SACD layer, and the discs will include a stereo layer as well.
If you’re a fan of this music, and you don’t own the individual CDs, this is a must-have set. The clarity and detail in these recordings is exceptional.
The Durutti Column (aka Vini Reilly) recorded an album in 1983 for a small Portuguese record label. Entitled Amigos em Portugal, this record has been hard to find since its release. (I actually still have an original vinyl copy of it.) Recorded in just a few days, Vini laid down some tracks, mostly instrumental, of some works in progress. The music was similar to what he would soon record on Without Mercy, and Vini made some of his finest music in these few days.
Unfortunately, this album was never really supposed to be released, and Vini never earned any money from it. For many years, it was one of the most collectible Durutti Column albums. Now, Cargo Records has reissued the album, which is available in a package containing an LP and a CD, each of which has been remastered with specific masters (i.e., one for the LP and another for the CD).
If you’re a Durutti Column fan, you must own this. Even thought it’s mostly a collection of sketches, these are some of Vini’s finest songs. (One of my favorites is Wheels Turning, with Vini’s slightly off-key vocals over a piano accompaniment.)
The same label has also reissued Live at the Venue, another limited LP release from the same period. Recorded in 1982 at The Venue, in London, this record features Vini Reilly and drummer Bruce Mitchell. The sound is rough, but it gives a good picture of what the band sounded like live, back in the day.
Pianist R. Andrew Lee has carved out a unique space in contemporary music playing minimalist works, and especially some that are extremely long, such as Dennis Johnson’s nearly five-hour November. He also crowdfunded a project, back in 2014, called Music of a Considerable Duration, to fund the recording of some other very long works. (You can read an interview with R. Andrew Lee that I published in 2014.)
Andy has released his tenth album on the Irritable Hedgehog recording, featuring a 47-minute work by Adrian Knight called Obsessions. In the notes for this recording, Knight says:
“a summary of a bunch of different directions that I’ve been trying out, what I like to think of as a harmonic labyrinth. There’s an equal-weightedness to each harmony, there’s a kind of push and pull that happens. I’m curious about chords that could go a number of different ways, and have a number of different types of functionality.”
This work is redolent of Morton Feldman, notably such later piano works as Triadic Memories. The first half of the work is a sort of see-saw between two or three chords, exploring the spaces between two different chords. As in Feldman’s music, there is a hint of dissonance, but the work is essentially tonal. About halfway through the piece, the tone changes, and instead of simple chords, there are more runs and short melodies that add to the music; the apparent simplicity of the harmonies becomes richer and more complex. And in the final section, the work offers a melodic series of chords that seem to form a brief, repeating narrative.
As with Lee’s other recordings, this one has impeccable sound, with the piano sounding as though it was closely miked, yet with excellent clarity. You can buy it by download or on CD from Irritable Hedgehog, and Lee’s other albums – this is his tenth – are on sale for the next month. If you’re a fan of this type of minimalist music, you will like this album. And if you haven’t discovered Lee’s recordings, this is a good chance to hear some music you probably haven’t encountered before.
I remember it being a dreary autumn in New York City, back in 1982. It was the Reagan years, and New York was a desolate city. Music was undergoing changes: disco was waning, Talking Heads had found rhythm, and I was listening to music by Joy Division, The Durutti Column, The Cure, The Clash, and others. Lou Reed and Velvet Underground were in rotation, and when I spotted John Cale’s new LP, Music for a New Society, in a record store on Bleecker Street, I bought it right away.
The Velvet Underground was never the cheeriest of bands, and John Cale’s solo music oscillated between sing-along-able songs and experimental music. Music for a New Society was no different. It’s a dark, album, full of angst, yet with such a powerful musical message that I spun it often, and copied it to cassette to listen on my Walkman. Recorded in New York, this album matched the atmosphere of the time.
I hadn’t heard this record in ages. I no longer have the LP, and while it was released on CD in 1993 and 1994, it’s been out of print for a long time, and used copies were quite expensive. Finally, Cale has re-released this record, in a two-disc set. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) The first CD contains the original album and two outtakes, remastered, and the second disk, M:FANS, is:
a visceral new reworking of the album under the title M:FANS — a record that explores the relationship between old and new, in terms of the sound and vision, and Cale’s memories of the experience, in terms of his life, and the recording.
Many of the songs are dark. Cale himself, talking about the recording session, is quoted as saying:
That album was agony. It was like method acting. Madness. Excruciating. I just let myself go. It became a kind of therapy, a personal exorcism. The songs are mostly about regret and misplaced faith.
There were some examples where songs ended up so emaciated they weren’t songs any more. What I was most interested in was the terror of the moment… It was a bleak record all right, but it wasn’t made to make people jump out of windows.
But it’s not all dark. Three of the songs – (I Keep a) Close Watch, Thoughtless Kind, and Chinese Envoy – are beautifully crafted art songs, closer to Schubert’s lieder, or perhaps to Leonard Cohen, than to the Velvet Underground. (A version of the former is on the 1975 album Helen of Troy.) Cale performed these two songs extensively, and you can hear live versions on the wonderful Fragments of a Rainy Season. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
The only song real “rock” song on the album is Changes Made, which features a full band and Blue Öyster Cult’s Allen Lanier playing lead guitar; it’s the “odd one out” song on the album, one that simply doesn’t belong. The rest of the songs were recorded with Cale playing most of the instruments, essentially him accompanied by guitar or keyboard, with some percussion and other odd sounds overdubbed. Changes Made stands out against what is more like an art song cycle than a rock album.
The second disc in this set is M:FANS. Cale said, after the death of Lou Reed:
Making any form of art is always personal to my mind. During the making of M:FANS, I found myself loathing each and every character written about in those original recording sessions of Music For… Unearthing those tapes reopened those wounds. It was time to decimate the despair from 1981 and breathe new energy, re-write the story. Then, the unthinkable happened. What had informed so much over lost and twisted relationships in 1981 had now come full circle. Losing Lou [too painful to understand] forced me to upend the entire recording process and begin again…a different perspective – a new sense of urgency to tell a story from a completely opposite point of view – what was once sorrow, was now a form of rage. A fertile ground for exorcism of things gone wrong and the realization they are unchangeable. From sadness came the strength of fire!!!”
M:FANS is a sort of re-imagining of the original album. Thirty years later, Cale returned to this music and created different versions of the songs. They still retain the original shades of gray, but with a more electronic sound. The order of the songs is slightly different, and there’s a Prelude – a phone call between Cale and his mother, with musical embroidery – and a closing song, Back to the End, which was recorded with the original disc but never released.
Some of the songs sound Enoesque, such as Taking Your Life In Your Hands, which features processed vocals and electronic backing. (Cale recorded an album with Brian Eno: Wrong Way Up.) Thoughtless Kind sounds a bit like Lady Gaga, with autotune and a dance-floor beat. The new version of Chinese Envoy, with backing singers and a finger-snapping background, becomes a poppy tune. Changes Made has a heavy metal sound. Close Watch has become an EDM track with a sort of Kraftwerk beat.
M:FANS is an interesting experiment, taking a set of songs that Cale clearly cared a lot for and bringing them up to the present using the wide variety of musical styles available today. Music for a New Society was nearly the opposite: a denial of the music predominant in 1982, a stripping away of the excesses of the studio. M:FANS is certainly harder for me to get into, and I listen to it as a set of remixes, since I find the original album to be such a masterpiece. But listeners new to these songs will likely have the opposite opinion; they’re more likely to like the new versions and find the old songs to be too dark.
With this double album, John Cale shows two sides of his music, and reminds many of us how much we’ve missed him. He’s been playing a handful of concerts lately, and I hope I get a chance to see him live again and hear him perform this music.
Reading Philip Glass's memoir Words Without Music, recently, I realized that I didn't have a recording of his seminal Music in Twelve Parts, a work Glass composed between 1971 and 1974. This music was written in a style similar to that of much of Einstein on the Beach, which is the Philip Glass music I like best (along with his solo piano pieces). So I bought the 2006 live recording that Glass made for his own label, Orange Mountain Music. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This set is on four discs, and runs for 3:24.
When Glass wrote this work, it was just the first part, and the title referred to the twelve lines of counterpoint in the piece. But someone he played it for asked him where the other eleven parts were, and he decided to writ them. Glass has said, about this work, "It was a breakthrough for me and contains many of the structural and harmonic ideas that would be fleshed out in my later works. It is a modular work, one of the first such compositions, with twelve distinct parts which can be performed separately, in one long sequence, or in any combination or variation."
The piece is scored for three electric organs, two flutes, four saxophones (two soprano, one alto, one tenor) and one female voice. Only the organ is heard throughout; each "part" uses a different combination of instruments, with seven musicians playing, and one engineer doing the live sound mix.
It's a fascinating work, which shows the range of what Glass's minimalism was like in the early 1970s. Each of the parts is different, yet they share the same rhythm. Like all of this music, it's not for everyone; and you might find that some of the parts aren't to your liking. When I listen to Einstein on the Beach, there are parts I don't care for, and skip: the ones with the really loud, harsh organ. There's not much of that here, but there are a couple of parts with a similar sound.
In any case, if you like minimalist music, and aren't familiar with this work, it's one to hear.
Reviewing recordings of Morton Feldman’s late works is never easy. With works that are often more than an hour long — some four, even six hours — it’s hard to judge the overall character of a performance or recording, and especially hard to compare recordings by different artists. This is the third recording of Feldman’s first string quartet; the Group for Contemporary Music has recorded it for Naxos, and the Ives Ensemble recorded it for HatHut. Both of these recordings were limited by the timing of a single CD; the Group for Contemporary Music’s recording is 78:33, and the Ives Ensemble plays the work in 76:57.
The Flux Quartet, however, gets all the time they need, playing it at nearly 100 minutes. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Why so much longer? The liner notes give no explanation, but in researching this review, it seems that the Flux Quartet respects the composer’s tempi, and, above all, plays all the repeats. I only have the recording by the Group for Contemporary Music, and the tempo doesn’t seem that different; however, if there are repeats, and the Flux Quartet is playing them, then this recording is clearly closest to Feldman’s intentions.
This is the first of Feldman’s long works, and, as such, bears the characteristics that he would develop in later works, notably those for keyboard (For Bunita Marcus, Triadic Memories), ensemble (For Philip Guston, Crippled Symmetry), or for other groups of instruments. These works generally feature short melodic motives that breathe; they come and go, they repeat in different ways as they vary; they return at various points of the work, in different rhythms, different tonalities. Much of this music is dissonant, but I find it to be a relaxing dissonance; it comes as intervals and chords, in brief passages, rather than in an Ivesian onslaught.
This string quartet fascinates, in part because it is perpetually asking questions. Rather than following a path that leads to a clear musical discourse, it constantly suggests potential music, sometimes following up on those suggestions, sometimes quickly aborting after a brief phrase and moving on to something new. The work begins with a few brief chords that sound like breaths, one slightly dissonant, the next with an added layer of dissonance, and the following chords moving away from and back toward that dissonance; and the work ends with some sustained notes that suggest that the questions haven’t been answered, but that it’s the journey that counts, not the result. The Flux Quartet gives a fine reading of this work, and the recording quality is excellent, allowing the listener to be absorbed by the music.
In addition to String Quartet No 1, there are four earlier works, from the 1950s. These works are not that different from the longer works; the techniques used are similar, without the sparseness of the later work.
Listening to String Quartet No 1– and to other pieces by Morton Feldman — raises one problem: that of volume. It seems that this score is marked ppp and ppppp, but how does a listener know what volume this should be? If you’re listening to, say, a Haydn or Schubert string quartet, you can adjust the volume to an approximate level, based on your listening comfort. But with Feldman’s quiet works, there’s no way to know exactly how to listen. If you’re listening on headphones, you can turn the volume down a great deal, but on speakers it’s a bit more difficult to find the correct level. This makes me think of recordings of the clavichord; this quiet instrument can be heard easily by a performer, but if you’re more than a few feet away, it’s hard to hear the notes. Should one set the volume to hear everything, or should the listener allow some of the music to stay in the background?
This set contains String Quartet No 1 on one and a half CDs, and also contains a DVD-Audio with the entire work, so you can listen to it without changing discs. (Of course, if you rip music to your computer, you can play it from the ripped files without any pause.) The DVD-A contains both a 24-bit stereo and a surround sound mix; I don’t have surround sound, so I can’t comment on the quality of that mix.
While price is not the main criterion for choosing one recording over another, it’s worth pointing out that this release is fairly expensive, selling for £33 at the time of this writing. (The Ives Ensemble’s recording is £20, and the Group for Contemporary Music’s disc less than £6.) This is, in part, because of the additional DVD-A. While it’s nice to have both versions, Mode Records might have considered two different releases, one with and one without the DVD-A; or, as they did with the String Quartet No 2, release the DVD-A separately for those who want it.
If you are a Feldman aficionado, you’ll want this recording, if only because it presents the entire quartet with all repeats, as Feldman intended. But if you’re new to Feldman’s music, the Naxos recording by the Group for Contemporary Music is a great place to start at a budget price.