Digital Musings from an Analog Guy


Michael Foster, editor
Ambient Visions



Ambient Visions started up back in 1999 and at that point in time most of the review material that came in to the P.O. Box was of the physical CD variety. Some good, some great and some bad but they all had a couple of things in common....they were physical CD's and there was a cost for the artist to put them into my hands. That had been the way it was done for decades since the beginning of radio and music promoters trying to get artists played on the most stations across the U.S. I remember many of the reviewers who wrote for Ambient Visions over the years insisted on having the "whole package" in their hands to offer up a review of the music. The "whole package" in this case was a physical CD, the artwork and the liner notes. As the Monkees song title so succinctly puts it "That Was Then, This is Now".  

The world of music distribution has changed and will never be going back to where it was. Evolution moves us all forward so it is adapt or die. Nothing personal in evolution. It is simply the way things are. For the longest time I resisted the tidal wave of change that has pummeled the music industry since the introduction of CD's, ripping software and peer to peer sharing networks. Over the last few years I have finally realized that "resistance is futile" and allowed myself to be assimilated into the collective music community who lived and breathed music in many ways beyond the physical CD. As digital files continue to grow in terms of how people obtain or listen to their music artists must also accept that at some point in time the physical CD might simply become extinct like so many other technologies of times past. Music from the clouds with services such as Lala, Spotify (launching in the U.S. later this year), Rhapsody or web radio shows/podcasts along with services like Pandora or The Last FM clearly point to a time when physical product might not be the optimum way for artists to market their music.  

Many labels and artists have already embraced digital music files wholeheartedly and have started to surf the tidal wave of change rather than having it come thundering down on them like tsunamis on a shore devastating anything in its path. A few years ago I would have said that I would never completely join that camp because my music would always be played on my nice stereo system with a mid range amp, a sub woofer and surround sound. I have found myself listening to that less and less while spending much more time at my computer streaming music from the web or listening to my music collection which I am in the process of ripping to my hard drives. With Terrabyte drives very affordable there is no reason now not to digitize my entire collection and have them at my fingertips all over my house. My sound system on my computer is not as great as my stereo system but I have a nice set up with Altec Lansing surround speakers and a very nice subwoofer so it isn't so bad sitting behind the monitor absorbing the latest tunage.  

In terms of pure quality I would still say that a physical CD has the edge over digital music files unless you have ripped them to a lossless format but in most other ways digital music files are probably better than a CD. You have instant delivery whether you are streaming music from the clouds or whether you just purchased and downloaded a song from iTunes or some other comparable service. There is no shipping or handling that the artist has to pay to put the music into a consumer's hands or into reviewer's hands. There is no manufacturing costs associated with producing a physical CD before you can ship it out to your fans and finally the music is available from multiple platforms, websites and your own homepage if you have it set up that way. But I have detected resistance not from fans of the music but from the artists and labels themselves because they don't like the quality of the music in the digital format.  

I wanted Ambient Visions to be able to help artists to save money and still get their music into my hands for potential reviews and I was told by some artists and labels that they don't do digital promo copies for the very reason that I stated above. The quality wasn't good enough to send out as review vehicles. In theory I do understand that these artists and labels want to portray their music in the best possible light but I also see them as missing an opportunity to spread promo copies around to a few other respectable review sites that were too small to warrant the artists and labels sending out the latest CD's to them as they were released. So to say I was surprised to learn that a few of these artists and labels didn't use digital files as promos was an understatement.  

I grew up owning my music like many of the folks my age and have bought more than my share of LP's, 8-tracks, cassettes and 45's because that was how it was done for most of my generation. My generation grew up owning physical products when they bought their music but now there will soon be a generation that has grown up with music being something they stream from the internet or listen to on their iPod and download from iTunes. The labels and artists that haven't already embraced this wave of change might want to rethink how their reluctance to change will limit  how far their music will eventually travel in a world that increasingly lives and buys online. Though it may be sacrilege to some old school audiophiles  have settled into the digital age and do a lot of my listening to music that comes into Ambient Visions as digital files on my computer. Perhaps I have traded down a little in quality and that much I will grant you but it has opened up a world of music to me that I would never have heard otherwise. I have found artists that would never have been able to afford to send out demos to get themselves noticed by websites like Ambient Visions and I consider that to be a huge plus in this digital age.  

Music from across the country and around the world pours out of my speakers these days and I couldn't be happier. I remember those long ago days when I considered my little transistor radio that sounded like listening to music through the two tin cans tied together with a string the ultimate way to hear things that I would never hear on my local radio stations. Compared to that even low quality MP3's are a world of improvement to the pinnacle of music at the time. If people are happy with what they hear when your music is played through their iPods or their computers or even through their home stereo systems then it is time to start surfing the digital wave yourself and let evolution take its course. Alton Brown (Food Network celebrity chef) had a cook book out that was aptly titled I'm only here for the food. I can truly say that in regards to Ambient Visions I'm only here for the music and sometimes I love the music just as much even if it isn't the absolute perfect sound that you heard when you were recording the music. Sometimes you just have to say if the fans and listeners are happy then so am I. Something to ponder in the years to come.