Nothing New Under The Sun

Nicholas Carr’s blog is usually good for a different perspective on things and I loved his recent post on music formats. I’ve been musing recently on the impact of music downloads on the future of the "album": does the iTune generation mean the end of the album as piece of musical art? But then, I started to take a long view and realised that before there was any form of recording technology, musicians and performers relied upon their performance art to earn a living. Interestingly, as the record companies wring their hands and moan about digital piracy, the live music scene has never been stronger. What goes around, comes around and maybe we will see a return to performance art rather than the technological – though clinical – art of digital recording. By the way, how many times have you noticed that the latest digitally remastered reissue has lost some of the ambience of the original?

Anyway, Nick Carr added the piece of history I was missing and, in fact, it was a good old standards war – just like VHS vs Betamax, just like HD-DVD vs BluRay, just like Open XML vs ODF. The Long Playing Record was conceived by Columbia, in 1948, as a means of enabling the sale of classical music: the 78’s of the time could hold only a few minutes of music: the LP was targeted to cope with around 17 minutes a side to fit most classical pieces. The 45 RPM standard, by contrast, belonged to RCA and the world of albums and singles was borne out of two contrasting standards being accepted for two different purposes. The market decided and hardware – i.e. record-players – evolved to handle dual formats. In all my teenage years and beyond, amassing shelves of precious vinyl I gave never a thought to industry standards merely to choice and my snobbish eschewing of the single format in favour of the creatively more credible (ie less "commercial") album format which, of course, is as it should be.

Now, in professional life, I find myself looking at another standards debate with shrill voices pronouncing "there can be only one" and that ODF, the Open Document Format, should be the only recognised document standard. I particularly enjoyed Carr’s reference to the "liberation mythology" surrounding the internet and to "historical revisionism". Sometimes, we need to step back, discern the reality from within the fog of spin and propaganda, and realise that the market – as ever – can and will decide. Different needs, different solutions.

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