Zune vs. iPod, and commentary on MP3 files

December 7, 2006

In the realm of MP3 players, Microsoft has developed its own answer to Apple’s iPod. Microsoft does not expect the Zune to catch up with iPod right out of the gate (sorry, bad pun attempt), but the company hopes that its player will become more competitive eventually. A CNN story has further details.

Since MP3 files are stored somewhere, referring to them as “disembodied” recordings does not sound like an entirely accurate description. (This idea is not in the CNN article… I am now wandering into the MP3 “commentary” section.) Still, it makes sense if one compares the experience of going to the store, picking up a compact disc (or album, or cassette, or 8-track), and taking it home, with the experience of downloading something directly from iTunes or other similar services.

I have always enjoyed the experience of finding a recording by flipping through the stock of a store. In the process, one might even encounter a like-minded person with whom to discuss common interests. I enjoy classical music and opera, so such contact seems even more valuable since I find fewer people who have an interest in those genres. However, I have only rarely had such encounters, one of which demonstrated that I should be careful what I wish for. A clerk at a local specialty shop regaled me with recommendations during a visit, even though I simply wanted to graze for something that would soothe my ears (well, at least as soothing as Wagner can get). Still, one rarely encounters a cranky early-Boomer audiophile who iconoclastically praises the merits of Furtwangler’s conducting. At Barnes & Noble or Borders, I am usually approached by a well-meaning Millennial weaned on Coldplay, who might not know enough to leave this lone wolf X’er to his own devices. (Besides, I’m a librarian who should know how to find things without help.)

Okay, if one likes to steer clear of cranky and/or well-meaning sales clerks, maybe disembodied recordings are not necessarily a bad thing. Even in pre-MP3 days, ordering through print catalogs and websites like Amazon saved me from fruitless trips to stores that likely would not have a desired recording. Nevertheless, I like the rush of finding a recording unexpectedly, and waiting with eager anticipation for a listen at home (or perhaps in the car, if the exhilaration is great enough). I also like the neat packaging of recordings, so much so that I have some old LPs whose covers I would like to frame and display. Unfortunately, tiny compact disc booklets do not have that same iconic quality, and MP3 files do not come with booklets at all.

Overall, I think I object most strongly to the cavalier treatment of classical and opera recordings in the digital world. I suppose that one could find almost anything by a crappy pop band online and download it fairly easily and quickly. Unfortunately, the MP3 pickings for classical and opera can seem relatively slim. Admittedly, I have not done enough searching within iTunes to determine if this is empirically true, but there are plenty of obscure recordings that will probably remain available only on compact disc (if they are not out-of-print already). I am quite certain, for instance, that Britney’s ooh-baby-babying will be sought after more frequently than a live recording of Anja Silja in the title role of Richard Strauss’ Salome.

I am also appalled by the abyssmal metadata found on quite a few classical and opera compact discs. After downloading my classical and opera recordings into my iTunes account, it is necessary in many instances to put information in the correct fields. For some recordings, I have to place the conductor, orchestra, and vocalists in the “Artist” field, and I remove the composer from “Artist” in favor of the “Composer” field. (Catalogers, discuss!) Other times, I encounter a good number of fields that the manufacturer has left blank, so I finish the job for them. Newer recordings do contain better metadata, but I still tinker to accommodate the way I find MP3 files.

And yes, despite all that I have said MP3 files, I have an iTunes account, and I listen to an iPod. (Actually, it’s my wife’s U2 special edition iPod… I don’t have my own yet.) Listening to a recording may be no substitute for a live performance (unless the performance is horrible), and I do find it convenient to have music available when I want, most of it in one place, with no compact disc carrying case to lug around.

For the first time last week, I downloaded a complete recording from iTunes. It is a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Richard Strauss compositions conducted by Lorin Maazel, all for just $9.99. The recording will be available on compact disc in April, but I cannot wait that long. As an extra bit of good news for classical music and opera in the digital world, orchestras have begun to make performances available online… just as the classical and opera music industry appears to be languishing on its deathbed (if you believe the dire proclamations of commentator Norman Lebrecht). Perhaps the situation for classical and opera in a “disembodied” digital realm will not be as forboding as it seemed initially. With the right strategies, “disembodiment” might even help those genres find a broader audience. Still, work needs to be done to give classical and opera the same online prestige and respect accorded to pop, hip-hop, country, and other genres.

Listed below are some related readings:

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2 Responses to “Zune vs. iPod, and commentary on MP3 files”


  1. […] Although I liked to wander the “Shakespeare” part of the store, I paid even closer attention to the “Beethoven” section. Most music stores hardly bother with classical, except maybe for compilations with titles like “Mozart for Your Morning Commute.” Fortunately, Barnes & Noble and Borders are much better, though Borders stores actually have better classical and opera selections overall. Pound for pound, however, Shakespeare Beethoven is practically peerless. On my first visit to scope out Texas in 1998, my sister-in-law took me to Shakespeare Beethoven, where I found two recordings that I couldn’t find elsewhere (both with compositions by Richard Strauss, which should be no surprise to those who know me well). Following that visit, I developed a fond affection for the store, and I have been impressed with the attention given to the classical and opera selection there. It is also the place where I had the encounter that I mention in my posting about Zune vs iPod (see the third paragraph). This sad news also reminds me of the stories about Tower Records going out of business a few months ago, which I also mention in the earlier posting. […]

  2. Led Spots Says:

    those generic mp3 players that are made in china are really cheap but i still prefer to use my ipod .;,


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