Monday, March 02, 2009

The Demise of the CD

What happens when CDs disappear as a commercial product? That was the question addressed at a plenary session at the recent Music Library Association annual conference held in Chicago, "What’s Next? The Compact Disc as a Viable Format in the Future of Music Libraries." Greg MacAyeal, Assistant Head of the Music Library at Northwestern University, assembled a panel that made it clear that this is inevitable although not imminent. The shift to music distribution as downloads has few notable shortcomings, but those are being addressed. One is the degradation in sound quality compared to CDs. The other is that standard metadata for popular music doesn't work for classical, where the "artist" could be the composer, conductor, orchestra name or soloist, and track names make little sense on their own, such as "adagio" as a single movement in a symphony. But two panelists made particularly strong points about the importance of a physical format from the artists' and libraries' perspective.

Chicago-based classical violinist Rachel Barton Pine discussed one circumstance in which a CD is invaluable: after her concerts when she heads to the lobby to sell music and meet her fans. The selection of her releases offers a starting point for conversation as she helps them chose one to buy, and they get a souvenir of the event when she autographs their purchases. The physical item is a tangible memento with immediate gratification that they can listen to on the way home. If she only signed postcards with pictures of their albums, the autograph wouldn't be an intrinsic part of the thing, and the music cannot be an impulse purchase. Fans may forget to go to the web site later to purchase downloads. If nothing else, she brought up the unexpected point that even classical musicians work the merch table, not just indie rockers in grubby clubs.

D.J. Hoek, Head of the Music Library at Northwestern University, drove home the unique aspect of this changing distribution scheme as it severely affect libraries: licensing agreements. More and more releases are available only as downloads, not physical items. While CDs are sold without restriction on who can use them, standard licensing agreements limit downloading to "end users." Since libraries are not end users themselves, no library can add these to their collections. He gave the notable example of Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic's recording of  Berlioz's Symphonie Fantasique which just won a Grammy for its producer and garnered another nomination for itself. According to the terms from the label that released it, Deutsche Grammophon, one of the largest classical labels, it may only be downloaded by "end users." So while this is a culturally important work, no library can fulfill its most basic mission of collecting and providing access to this material. Because libraries are such a small portion of the market and our activities could be perceived as cutting into potential sales, they are in a poor position to ask for special dispensation. But without change, it will become impossible for libraries to preserve our culture.

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