Bob Dylan on music piracy—he’s for it

Bob Dylan is a provocateur, a habitual obfuscator, and a bit of a crank. That said, he's also that rare and precious thing, a genuine artistic giant. His music will endure. And that makes his comments on illegal downloading, reported just now, particularly noteworthy. Asked whether he approved of illegal downloading, Dylan cut to the chase: "Well, why not? It ain't worth nothing anyway."

The article I've linked is a selective reporting of Dylan's comments -- I would love to see a transcript. But judging from the statements reported, Dylan isn't making some dumb old man argument about the quality of today's music. Rather, he's complaining about the quality of today's recordings -- that is, the sound quality, the audio fidelity, of the music laid down on CDs and downloads.

To which all I can reply is thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you for noticing what should be obvious. CDs are an ancient (approx. 25 yrs.) digital technology, and recordings reduced to the CD standard, devised at a time when processing power was expensive, often sound dead, airless, flat. Dylan notes this in his comments, stating that the songs on his latest album "probably sounded ten times better in the studio when we recorded 'em. CDs are small. There's no stature to it."

Well, so much for CDs. So along come downloads and what happens? Sound quality goes down! The bitrate at which most downloads are encoded provides near-CD-quality sound, which is a bit like eating "near-canned-quality peas".

Why does this matter? Because it points to one of the ways in which the music industry is partially responsible for its own piracy problem. I'm sure there is demand out there for higher quality audio. Does the industry scramble to provide it? No. The industry didn't exactly rush to support the DVD-audio and SACD standards by releasing recordings in those higher-fidelity formats, and perhaps that's understandable given the rate at which consumers are moving away from physical media in favor of downloads. But why doesn't the industry get behind higher-quality downloads? In a competitive market, record labels should be competing on both price and product quality -- a dimension that includes audio fidelity.

Oh, wait a minute . . .

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