The Rise of Digital Music and the Fall of the Music Store

There was a time when music stores ruled the airwaves. You could not go one mile in a city and not come across one, and the parking lot was always full. Then came online digital music. Now you can not find hardly a single music store that exists solely on the back of CDs and music sales. They have to sell other things to even survive. Why is this? Is digital music and online music really that much better? Here are several reasons why online digital music has overtaken the music stores of the world.

One easy reason that online music is superior to music stores is cost. You can download a great deal of music online at very little cost, and that is impossible to compete against. Even with iTunes and other MP3 downloads, you are still paying a pittance in comparison to CD prices. Downloading music is much cheaper than buying an entire CD.

Selection is another reason online digital music is superior. You can literally pick and choose among the songs you like, and only buy what you like. It used to be you had to buy the entire CD, and usually only liked one or two songs. With MP3 downloads, you can make your own mixed CD of sorts digitally, and have only the best of your music in a snap. Selection is awesome with digital music.

Portability is another huge thing with digital music. Remember when you got your first Walkman? How can that possibly compare with MP3 players and iPods? It can not. For example, you would have to carry not only the bulky CD player, but you would also have to carry 300 CDs around with you as well to match what your iPod can carry in most cases. Who would choose to do that?

Finally, sound is another factor. CDs always skipped it seemed, regardless of how you were listening. You would make one wrong move in the car or in your bedroom, and your CDs were skipping and getting scratched. With MP3 players and iPods, you need not worry about such things. Your music will be crystal clear regardless of how many Kevin Bacon “Footloose” dance steps you might make while listening. You need not ever worry about a scratched CD, as the music is digitally recorded. That same digital recording will also ensure that the music is reproduced in a perfect way. There is no better sound on Earth than digital music.

Online digital music is so vastly superior to CDs that it is likely the CD will go the way of the 8-track. There is simply no good reason to have CD around except to keep copies of your music as backups. Even that can be done more economically by putting them on your computer. Digital music is the wave of the future, and every person that listens to music will benefit from it over time. What is so exciting about online digital music is that we have only scratched the surface of what is possible. I remember when CDs were the latest craze and look at them now. What will be on the market in 2020? I can’t wait to find out.

How Do I Set Up a Digital Music System With Squeezebox Touch

How did I set up a digital music system using Squeezebox Touch as core player, part I

It was five years ago I took the plunge to join the digital music bandwagon, during the period I have learnt numerous techniques, tweaks, tuning, settings, modifications both in software & hardware from the internet trying to improve the performance from the music server. I think it is time for me to give something back in return.

I, as an early adapter and a normal user, based on my own experience will cover each of the below one by one so as to let the newcomers easily build up their own digital music library.

A digital music system should consist of:-

(1) a ripping software to turn our CDs into digital files
(2) a music library management system to arrange the digital files in a orderly fashion for easy editing, sorting, searching
(3) a storage to store the music files
(4) a player
(5) a local area network if the player and the audio system is separated.

Five years ago, it was rare to hear general discussion about this topics over the web except some computer audio heavily skewed forums. At that time when people talked about computer music they mean mp3. Over time people start to appreciate the benefits of the digital music system over the conventional players. With the rapid development of technology previously it required an expert in computer to manage the system now becoming so easy that anyone with some basic computer knowledge can handle the system with ease.

There are many turnkey solutions in the market, mainly by some big name, eg. Linn, Meridian, Sooloo etc. They are expensive and proprietary meaning once you took its route you get stuck with it forever as you cannot move to other system easily without a big hassle, also you will be at the brand’s mercy for any upgrade or improvement. With my tips & hints the end result is nothing to be ashamed of comparing to these megabuck system.

Ok, first we need to rip our beloved CDs to computer file. There are more than hundred of CD ripping software over the internet more or less doing the same thing-converting the music stored in the CD to a digital file which can be storage in the harddisk. Most of them are free including the MS Mediaplayer, iTunes, CDex, EAC (Exact Audio Copy)…. The major difference between them is the workflow and the output format they allowed. Amongst them EAC is the most preferred one for its accuracy of ripping because it will do the ripping twice in order to make sure both result are identical before output, if not it will continue to re-read the data.

The data stored in the CD is in a wav format, it is encoded using 16 bit and 44.1kHz sampling. The goal of ripping is to ensure everything within the songs are being retrieved and stored in a computer recognizable format. There are a lot of computer audio file formats available, some are lossy and some are lossless.

Wav-original format, file size is big and lacks of tagging feature which make the library management difficult

Lossy-mean some of the data is removed during compression, without which the listener won’t detect the difference (similar to jpeg in photography) eg. mp3, isf,

Lossless-by mean of compression the file size is reduced (usually 50% of the original size) but when the lossless file is uncompressed it will be bit by bit perfect comparing to the original wav file. Eg. AIFF, FLAC

Myself would prefer using the iTunes to do the ripping. When we talk about Apple products it always stirs a flame war between the pro & anti Apple, to me I only want to concentrate of its user-friendly design plus its music management ability and I don’t want to comment of its self protectionism. I use iTunes internal Apple Lossless Encoder for ripping, by which I can always convert it back to a CD if I want to and preserve the bit perfect status.

The Future of MP3 Digital Music

Recording, playing and listening to music has never been more fun that it is today. Through the Internet, you can easily download songs and listen to your favorite music anytime of the day and wherever you are. Portable players that have access to Internet or those that can store large number of digital music files are now very affordable, fun to use and designed just right to fit the modern generation’s lifestyle.

What is MP3?

MP3, an acronym for MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3, is one of the most popular digital audio encoding and compression formats being used nowadays and is apparently making an enormous impact on how people store, listen and share music of different genres. It is even now regarded as a standard technology used in greatly reducing the amount of data used to represent audio without altering the uncompressed audio’s sound quality when played.

Compressing Audio into MP3 Digital Music

The compression ratio of MP3 is 12:1, which means that a typical audio file that is 1200 KB big can be converted into a 100 KB MP3 digital music file without corrupting the sound quality of the original. In fact, some MP3 digital music are clearer and sound better since the compression process eliminates portions of the original music that are not too significant to human hearing. There are three ways through which the unwanted portions of the music are determined; among them is psychoacoustics, which is a study of how people subjectively perceive sounds.

MP3 digital music can be compressed with various bit rates (the number of bits of data representing a second of audio), which makes it possible for you to create different sizes and sound quality of an MP3 digital music converted from the same original digital audio file.

Usually, digital audio is compressed with bit rates ranging from 128 to 320. MP3 digital music encoded with low bitrate are of lower sound quality whereas those encoded with higher bitrate are clearer and more pleasing to the ears. However, there are also other factors affecting the quality of the compressed MP3 digital music; these are the quality of the encoder and complexity of the signal encoded. Moreover, the quality of the computer, the speaker or the earphones through which one listens to the music also affects his judgment with regard to the sound quality.

Benefits of MP3 Digital Music

MP3 digital music is very versatile. It can be played using your personal computer or a laptop; it can be played through a portable, small and light MP3 player; it can be decompressed and recorded on a compact disk; and can be easily downloaded via the Internet. Through several software, which are also available for free, you can easily create MP3 digital music from other digital audio formats.

The best things about MP3 digital music is that it is inexpensive and can even be obtained for free. It makes acquiring and listening to high quality music easier, more pleasurable, and particularly, cheaper. Its small size also allows you to store hundreds of MP3 digital music on your computer or MP3 player with ease, helping you save money you might have spent for CDs.

How to Distribute Your Digital Music

Introduction
In the age of digital music distribution, with its endless channels and intricacies, it can be a daunting task for independent artists to try to navigate through all the requirements of each digital music distributor in order to get music tracks uploaded and ‘stocked’ in digital stores such as iTunes. Luckily, a few enterprising services have sprung up on the net to act as the aggregator and a one-stop-digital distributor-shop, thereby greatly simplifying a very complicated process. Today we will review several such services, one of which in depth, called The Bizmo.

Music Promotion

Our focus here at Audiofanzine has always been gear- reviewing, updating, testing and breaking. But gear at the end is at the service of music creation. Once music is produced, mixed and mastered, we will want to release the music for everyone to hear. Artists eventually face the marketing and distribution cross roads, and more and more, in the age of DIY and independent artists, artists will try to upload their music directly on iTunes, Amazon MP3, and other leading digital music stores while at the same time doing a bit of viral marketing and general promotion. It forces an artist to wear many hats these days, and to dedicate more time than ever before to the business of promoting music. Once a single is ‘done’, the work has just begun, and between tweeting, performing, publishing and selling (and perhaps a day job), an artist is stretched thin to say the least.

Every artist knows that in order to promote music you should upload tracks to your various social network profiles, do an email campaign, book gigs, woo bloggers and magazine editors to review your music, schmooze, network, beg, cajole and talk to anyone online and off who will give you 2 minutes of their time. But today, we’d like to take this a step further and introduce you to a service we recently discovered here called The Bizmo, which, in addition to the to-do-list above, can be a very useful service to help both your small time viral campaign and your big time music distribution endeavors, with minimal headache considering the mammoth task at hand.

The Microstore Widget
The Bizmo microstore widget can be a great addition to your viral/online marketing efforts by embedding it in your personal webpage, My Space/Face Book profiles, or email blasts. It is a good tool to keep in touch with fans of your music and gives your selling efforts that personal intimate touch of a ‘mom and pop shop’.

Newcomers to the Bizmo website will be glad to find a simple, uncluttered homepage, with clear and concise instructions as to what the Bizmo does and how you can join. Registration is simple and easy and thereafter you find yourself in the microstore widget space where you can easily upload and sell:

  • Music Dual download
  • Videos Dual download
  • Tickets to your gigs
  • Merchandise (e.g. t-shirts)
  • E-books, Sheet music or similar pdf formatted products
  • Ring tones Dual download

All the digital products are so called dual downloads. That means they are delivered both to your customers mobile phone and to their PC as well. Each time someone buys a digital product via the widget they get three things:

  1. An option to download the product to their PC straight out of the microstore
  2. An email with the download link in it.
  3. An SMS message (If they supplied a phone number) containing a link that downloads the content directly to their phone.

OK great. So once you have stocked the widget with all your products you can upload the widget directly to your Facebook, My Space, Ning, and Sky Rock profiles if you have them – or to any other website you manage by copying and pasting the html code. The process is relatively straightforward and simple from the My Store page on The Bizmo. On My Space it worked like a charm and within minutes our Audiofanzine microstore was embedded on the homepage of my personal profile for everyone to see. On Facebook, the situation is less ideal as the widget finds itself embedded not on your profile homepage but under the ‘Shop’ tab. Apparently, though this is because The Bizmo has a hard time catching up with Facebook’s ever changing code…Hmm, so does everybody else.

The good thing about the microstore is that it is free to set up and use. Second, we find the design attractive, clean and clear. Once you edit your store it is automatically updated everywhere almost in real time. We very happily encountered no bugs along the way.

Money Matters
If you are not sure what to charge for your products on the microstore, The Bizmo has created a small guideline for you to reduce thinking time. The amount you earn from each sale depends mainly on 4 factors:

  1. The price you set: You decide the retail price from the above price brackets; your profit is generally a percentage of that price.
  2. The type of product you sell: External costs vary between products, e.g. shipping for T-Shirts
  3. The payment method the customer chooses, e.g. charges for mobile phone payments are much higher than on credit cards
  4. The currency the product is sold in. The Bizmo operates with several currencies and the bank exchange rates vary.

The average return is more or less 70% of the retail price. The money is deposited into your Pay Pal account which you can withdraw whenever you’d like. If you have a Bizmo Silver account you get 100% of the retail price.

We should mention that The Bizmo was not the first to come up with this type of widget, and Nimbit, a veteran in the fields of direct-to-fan sales and marketing solutions for independent artists, was first and is the market leader. But today we find that at least when it comes to the microstore widget, The Bizmo offers more products for sale on the widget for free! While Nimbit does pay out 80% of retail price, their free service only includes music selling. If you want to sell tickets, t-shirts, DVDs, merchandise etc. on Nimbit you will have to upgrade to the Nimbit Retail account at $9.95/month or $99 for the whole year.

Super Distribution
While The Bizmo microstore is a nice freebie to have, The Bizmo’s music distribution system is “Super”, as they call it. Super or not, we will soon find out, one thing is clear: if you want to graduate to the big times you will need at some point to grapple with global distribution systems such as iTunes, Amazon MP3, Napster, Spotify etc.

Getting a track to go live on iTunes or Napster for example can be a tricky business. Every retailer has its own requirements. iTunes, for example requires a completely different format called Apple Lossless. Each has its own idiosyncrasies regarding artwork formats, quality and content. Moreover, today big distributors actually do not accept submissions from independent artists and require artists to actually go through an aggregator! This is because operationally it is extremely more burdensome to deal with a torrent of individuals uploading music rather than a few big aggregators and labels. Furthermore, when settling royalty payouts it becomes an accounting nightmare for music distributors if they need to settle millions of individual accounts.

In addition, for each track you will need to supply:

  1. An ISRC (“International Standard Recording Code”) for tracking and accounting purposes.
  2. A Universal Product Code (UPC) or barcode exclusively associated with your release. Getting these codes by yourself is also a bit of a headache, and can cost up to $50 per code.

Being that there are dozens of major retailers that your tracks should be on, not to mention hundreds of other retailers that you might want to distribute your songs on, an independent DIY distribution project for your music can take months and you might lose your sanity along the way. And as we mentioned before, in most cases big distributors will not accept submissions from individuals. Hence, there is almost no choice today for the independent artist/label: you MUST use an aggregator to distribute your music.

Hence, here The Bizmo launched a service whereby it acts as the ‘super label’ and you give it the non-exclusive rights to submit your music to digital retailers on your behalf to iTunes, Amazon and over 130 retailers for $34.95 US per year regardless of how many tracks or albums. The Bizmo’s cut? 15% from revenues you receive from selling your music. In this regard, facing the competition, The Bizmo has rightfully earned the title “super distribution” as it distributes your music to the widest range of stores. Yet, as the old adage goes- “it’s not the quantity but the quality that counts”, and an iTunes distribution can be a lot more valuable than distribution in 50 lesser known stores. Still, it’s impressive.

So how does it work? Unfortunately, if you’ve already uploaded your songs to the microstore widget you will have to upload them again on the Super Distribution system, as the latter is a whole different ballgame so to speak with much stricter guidelines and standards. Next, the SD (Super Distribution) system will quickly generate for you all the UPC and ISRC codes for your tracks in case you don’t have them. For each track/album you will need to enter a host of metadata on the SD Content Management System including detailed release info, tracks, artists, territories for release, retailers to submit to etc. While this seems cumbersome, it is unfortunately a necessary evil as this is the information that will be sent to the retailers and how your song will be displayed. Any changes later will be very difficult to implement as apparently big retailers such as iTunes not well-oiled machines for content updates. Hence, take your time to enter all the information correctly!

Finally we come to the file upload area. Your cover image must be a perfect square and not smaller than 1400 X 1400 pixels. Music file requirements are as such:

  1. Supported format is WAV (PCM).
  2. Bitrate not lower than 1.4Mbps.
  3. Sampling rate not lower than 44.1KHz.
  4. Bits per sample not lower than 16.
  5. A minimum of 2 channels (stereo).
  6. Should originate from a high quality source.

If you are not sure what some of these things mean, there are handy Wikipedia links embedded to give you a quick tutorial.

While the whole process seems a bit long and heavy, it does give you a sense of power and control over your music and its metadata. Uploading a 36MB WAV file took us 23 minutes with high speed internet with no bugs or upload failure messages.

After we’ve submitted our tracks we wait for them to go live. The day after we checked their status and saw that they have already been submitted to four major stores including iTunes. There is no alert system, neither by the distributors nor by Bizmo to inform you that your track is live. It is up to you to check the stores regularly – it could take up to 6-8 weeks to see your tracks live. And then of course, there is always the chance that your track might be rejected by a store for various reasons unrelated to the aggregator. It’s not a perfect science.

We should mention some of The Bizmo’s competition, as “super distribution” is a brand new service having been just recently launched in September 2009 and so far it looks poised to give market leaders something to watch out for. While we did not go through the whole process of trying to distribute music with the other aggregators, on the face of it here is a brief synopsis of their major offerings:

TuneCore: Has a complicated pricing model. For single tracks you pay a flat price of $9.99 per year to put up one single in all 14 stores. For albums, you pay $0.99 per track, $0.99 per store per album, and $19.98 per album per year storage and maintenance. Tunecore pays 100% royalties with no cut.

CD Baby: Charges $35 per album (in all 24 stores) and $20 per UPC number (!). For downloads from their site they take a 25% cut of retail price (minimum 29 cents). From other outlets like iTunes and others, they pay 91% royalties.

Reverbnation: Charges $34.95 per release per year (in 10 stores). One can have up to 50 tracks in one release. Pays out 100% of royalties, but must have a balance of at least $5 to withdraw funds.

Nibmit: Charges $9.95 per month or $99 per year (in 6 stores) for an unclear number of songs. Pays out 100% of royalties.