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Digital music takes backseat to creative considerations in Pink Floyd ruling

The practice of downloading one digital song at a time has made concept albums a dying art.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor on

About two weeks ago, my husband and I went to an amazing concert put on by an organization called Classic Albums Live, which pledges to recreate the world's greatest rock albums "note for note, cut for cut." I can tell you with authority that I've seen many tribute bands and nothing came close to the caliber of this concert, which featured the Led Zepellin II album. Only the lead singer's tie gave away the fact that this was no Robert Plant. Frankly, it was eerie.

The auditorium for this concert (at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark) was packed, and not just with people of a certain middle age. The teenagers a few rows in front of me were enthralled. That's because the music "album" is, of course, a dying art--which is one of the unintended side effects of digital music libraries.

Most of us, myself included, rely heavily on our digital music players (whatever flavor you choose is your business) to select songs ala carte that were once part of conceptual masterpieces. But as a teenager, I lingered hours with vinyl records released by the likes of Pink Floyd or the Moody Blues, reveling in the complete package. Even though I have downloaded complete versions of these releases into my digital music library and try to play them end-to-end, sometimes things get shuffled without my intervention. It really jars me when a song like "Comfortably Numb" pops up in between, oh say an a cappella cover of "Danny Boy." I'm used to hearing it in context, and boy is that out of context.

Thus, I can't help cheer today's ruling by a British Court that music label EMI cannot "unbundle" Pink Floyd songs without the band's permission. Which means, in theory, that you can't buy just one Pink Floyd song. It's why certain albums were rather limited in their radio airplay potential even when they were first released, unless several songs were strung together into some super-set.

So, here's the thing. Generally speaking, I am a huge fan of digital music distribution, because it helps new artists that the music industry executives don't quite understand or that have a limited demographic audience build exposure socially and economically. It is an incredibly efficient way to distribute music, and I listen to way more different artists as a result.

That's because companies like Apple have made digital music libraries smart with things like the Genius feature in iTunes, which recommends genres or artists you might like based on what you've already downloaded. This, of course, is a very smart thing to do for cross-selling and exposure, and technology is central to making it happen.

I think it's less smart, though, to leave certain things entirely up to technology. Someone should tell my iPod to never, ever shuffle songs that weren't meant to be shuffled. And it should know what they are. Maybe I'm dating myself by saying this, but it seems awful sad that a whole new generation of music lovers is missing the context for some of the world's best music. Maybe this ruling will get Apple and others to reconsider how their stores are organized.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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