Meet the New Boss(es)

Music fans have a long-standing love affair with the album -- a collection of songs stamped on plastic donuts of various sizes. Artists became stars, labels got rich. Record profits came from resell

Music fans have a long-standing love affair with the album — a collection of songs stamped on plastic donuts of various sizes. Artists became stars, labels got rich. Record profits came from reselling the same music on different formats, over and over.

But any healthy business requires new products, not just new packaging. Fans not only ignored the label's crippled CD replacements (new formats like SACD, DVD-A, MusicMatch, RealMedia), many openly rebelled, stealing music via Napster and LimeWire! Yet the appearance of iPods and iTunes helped stem the tide by boosting demand and filling the sales void with an entirely new delivery format. The evolution of DVD continued that trend, introducing surround mixes and reintroducing the music video. The industry found that selling music is easy (and more profitable) when products offer real value. Video, photos, Web freebies and pre-ripped MP3s have become familiar ways to add value.

Since artists aren't waiting around for labels to come up with bright ideas, this column aims to give a shout-out to records that push things forward.

Sometimes we'll look back to go forward. Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon was a "concept album" and has been a chart fixture since its release. In the '70s, a format called "quadraphonic" pushed contemporary technology to the breaking point. Consequently the original "surround" mix wasn't developed because the format couldn't support the music. When DVD brought surround back to the living room, Floyd commissioned a remix. So on this record, value is added through the music itself, and Dark Side is one of the few SACDs that's actually sought out by fans.

Super Audio CD (SACD) is a dying "new" format that only a label could love. SACD sounds good and can deliver high resolution surround mixes, but it cannot be ripped, and releases are often incompatible with conventional CD players. While SACD playback is more common than it was, costs and compatibility have kept it from catching on.

For some fans, quantity is essential for an "enhanced" product, providing a reason to buy the DVD instead of, or in addition to, the CD version. Super Furry Animals' classic DVD-V, Rings Around the World, fits that bill, providing additional remixes and extra songs. It also includes solid conceptual videos for every album track, plus photos, Web links and other extras. But it's the music and the concept that carries the day. Like the video, the album explores the most workable conventional and unconventional approaches to surround mixing. It's definitely one of the most listenable and innovative examples of surround mixing available. This potential is even greater today with the latest new format, the Dual Disc (two-sided CD/DVD combo).

Podcasting, named for Apple's ubiquitous iPod, is maturing too, with creators making their programs work on any MP3 player or computer. Unlike radio or satellite broadcasting, programs aren't limited by geography, regulation or even revenue. Many are done purely for love! It's difficult to "stumble" onto a podcast, as one stumbles onto a radio station by scanning the dial. Podcasts are found by intentionally looking for them (usually Googled and searched for). People find programs of unique interest to them, so they can be very narrowly focused on a specific topic, musical genre or approach. Even though programs aren't locked to iPods, Apple's iTunes application/store remains a good tool for finding programs. iTunes shows what's available and also works suggestively, presenting selections to you based on your music library and/or listening habits.

The emergence of the video iPod has challenged a basic assumption of the media world: No one thought people would choose to watch (much less pay for) commercial programs at low quality on a 3-inch screen. Surprise! Video podcasts of TV shows created yet another fast-growing segment. Commuters have adopted a new kind of time-shifting, bringing entertainment with them to work. Playback on demand is liberating, not only freeing up time at home, but also encouraging new kinds of discussion and sharing between people. This is spawning new forms, merging words, poetry, video, photography and music.

A great podcast is defined by the closeness of listener and topic. The typical radio "Voice-of-God" is not required. The subject matters more than the speaker, and the message can be more critical than quality of delivery. Podcasting and "audio blogging" are very similar, parallel in audience and goals, but are not the same. Blogs are inherently personal and subjective, rarely reflective. Podcasts can be personal and subjective but are frequently well designed, with broader messages. Some of the best podcasts have evolved from radio shows, adapting regional broadcasts to wider audiences, or delivering familiar radio personalities via a new venue. Not surprisingly, public radio offers a font of programming online, without endless fund-raising noise and pitches. Similarly, musical artists are turning to podcasts to directly connect with fans.

We've reached a tipping point in 2006: A major label band (The Dixie Chicks) writes off radio air-play before their record's release. When that record shoots to the top of the sales chart and sticks, the message crystallizes: Radio needs music more than music needs radio. The connections between artists and fans are more direct and personal than those between fans and the various middlemen peddling songs. The other shoe's dropped, and we're standing on the other side of the fence.

Lets push things forward!

DAVE DAVIS makes records and designs new media at Sound Images.

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