Endangered Music
May 26th, 2010 by robert

Not so long ago I was a columnist for a great magazine devoted to “world music,” called The Beat.  I put world music in quotes because it was a marketing phrase coined in the early 1980s to cope with the explosion of music being published from Africa to the Caribbean to Bulgaria. It’s a nearly useless label because it includes such diversity, but it is also a tad xenophobic because it lumps all music not from “America.” Absurd, when you think about it; but I digress.

My Beat column covered music from Africa, an immense source of diverse culture and, for me, the foundation for almost all of the world’s music. I usually wrote about the latest developments in African pop music, often highlighting important innovators who captured global interest and fame. Frequently, though, I would receive traditional or historic field recordings to review, and I would write about how important they were because they preserved music that was extinct or barely surviving the onslaught of globalized commercial culture.

Today I am writing about endangered music at a different scale. I believe ALL MUSIC IS ENDANGERED, at least music as most of us have enjoyed it since before iPods were invented. How can I say that, when today it is easier to acquire music than ever before, with a few clicks on the computer, and when any music talent can create complex recordings at home?

The emerging problem with commercial music is the way it is distributed. Technological change continually revamps how musicians (and their marketers) deliver their music. A century ago strictly live performances were recorded onto records, and music distribution was revolutionized. Everyone who could afford it, could listen to their favorite music in their homes. The vinyl LP record evolved to become the dominant distribution medium, withstanding challenges from reel-to-reel, eight-track, cassette and digital tapes, until compact discs became the world’s favorite musical consumable. Compact discs did not eliminate LPs, however, because many audiophiles and others recognized that despite surface noise, something about the analog music on LPs seemed more real than the same music digitized. Often this rather esoteric debate has centered on musical space, something impossible to describe beyond saying that with headphones on and eyes closed, it is easier to believe you are in the room with the musicians when listening to an LP. Digitizing removes some essence of music.

Yet digitizing of music has improved over time, and the convenience of digital music has outweighed the slight audible compromise for most music enthusiasts. Many have abandoned libraries of LPs, while building collections of CDs. Today many people are ripping their CDs onto their computers to put onto iPods or cellphones, and new music purchases (if there are any) are most likely made through iTunes or Amazon online stores.

The result has been dramatic in two ways. First, as online purchases and especially music piracy have grown ubiquitous, many independent music publishers have closed their doors; huge music corporations are on the ropes. The market for CDs is evaporating, causing profound repercussions for musicians throughout the world.

The second aspect of digital online music is that almost all of it is compressed. You are aware that you are buying an MP3, but did you know you were purchasing only part of the music? This is how compression works. Digitally recorded sound is routinely sampled at around 1400 kilobits/second. CDs conserve all of that data, and when you listen to a CD you hear the complete mixed recording. A full “CD quality” recording uses about 600 megabytes of space on a hard drive, which used to be a considerable percentage of a hard drive’s memory. So when people began ripping CDs onto their computers, their ripping software (iTunes, etc.) would by default compress the music into 128 kbps MP3s (or AAC), in order to fit more music onto the computer (or iPod, or whatever), shrinking an album to 50 megabytes.

Compression of a sound file basically removes part of its data. In the case of 128 kbps MP3s, about 91% of the musical information is discarded. Even those with diminished hearing should be able to hear the difference between a typical MP3 and the CD version of the same song. Listen to cymbals! Lossy MP3s in general sound dead to me, a muted parody of the original music. The slight musical space lost when going from analog to digital recordings becomes a universe of space lost when compressing digital files. Imagine removing 90% of the essence in a glass of wine. How would it taste?

Online music distribution began with rampant piracy enabled through file-sharing software like Napster and LimeWire, and most people who shared their music shared compressed MP3s. When the iTunes store was developed to compete with illegal file sharing of music, it distributed music as compressed MP3s. iPods were marketed by the number of songs that they held. Low quality MP3s became the standard and dominant music product exchanged or sold throughout the world, and it is the only music that most children ever hear.

Unsurprisingly, the market for CDs has collapsed. As a result, like 8-track and cassette tapes a generation ago, CDs are becoming an endangered species. Now many recordings are available  only  online. Recently I tried to find the newest release from one of my favorite African musicians, Pierre Akendengue, but I could not find it anywhere in this country. I might have purchased the album through iTunes, but I could not stomach paying for his music, degraded. Eventually I found a CD through Amazon UK, and had the disc shipped from England. That event convinced me to identify holes in my music collection, the handfuls of CDs I’ve lusted for, and collect them before they are gone. The way things are going, they may be the last copies of the rich, full music that musicians create.


10 Responses  
  • CC Smith writes:
    May 26th, 20107:47 pmat

    Robert, you are describing in painful detail the reality and dilemmas that music fans and music industry “refugees” face nowadays. The point is: what can we do about it? The big pop stars have no trouble at all making and selling music, even in CD form. It’s the “marginal” artists who make the music we love who are endangered, with few independent labels left to produce and sell their recordings. That makes individual musicians responsible for making music on their own, and naturally there is rarely enough money for them to finance their own studio work and CD manufacturing, and then have to figure out how to sell the album. We are in a time of transition, and don’t know yet where all this will end up, but I sure wish they would hurry up and figure it out!

  • Simon writes:
    October 16th, 201011:02 amat


    I got so emotional when I read your article and what you have experienced over the years. I am the founder of a Non-Profit organization in Kenya and one of our main goals is to preserve the African art, music and culture. It is very sad that we are losing ourselves so fast.

    I am keen on connecting with you and anyone interested in learning more about my organization.

    Am glad that there are people like you who are trying to put the word out there.


  • India Kittredge. writes:
    October 20th, 20109:16 amat

    Pertinent. Thanks for posting!

  • Siddh writes:
    May 31st, 20119:18 amat

    What about FLAC and APE?

  • Nico writes:
    June 24th, 20118:34 pmat

    Scary stuff!

  • robert writes:
    June 24th, 201110:34 pmat

    FLAC, like Apple Lossless (ALAC), conserves all the data to make the music indistinguishable from the original recording, for the human ear. I use Apple Lossless for all my music storage, from ripping CDs to digitizing records. It saves some room. If it conserves the aural “space,” that is something for every listener to discover on their own. By the way, on my other site I share out-of-print music as 320 mpeg files. While not perfect, it retains enough data that almost any human would not be able to hear much of a difference, and is small enough to upload/download over moderate connections.

    Cheers, and thanks for visiting.

  • Dave Sez writes:
    August 31st, 20118:15 amat

    Thanks indeed for this very insightful article, and quite accurate on the ubiquity of excessive compression and low bitrate mp3s – unless you use a piledriver daily for your job, you really can hear the difference between 128/192 and 320 … and FLAC or wav are in a different universe!

    Whilst the advent of the Internet has spawned low bitrate rips, it has had one beneficial effect – easy and usually free online access to rips of long-deleted vinyls from the most obscure corners of the world. Back then, trying to find a Zimbabwean or Jamaican pressing, for example, was virtually impossible even for those living in major Western cities – for those out in the sticks, nigh-on impossible. And once out-of-print, well, no chance. But now dedicated sites circulate this African musical heritage to all who have the patience to search the web for it. Robert will know all these sites, but readers may not: globalgroovers, wrldsrv, freedomblues, electricjive, each . blogspot.com, which specialize in rips of long-extinct but bouncing African vinyls. My humblest thanks to them, to rhythmconnection and to all who keep this heritage alive, cheers Dave Sez.

    PS: for a most interesting discussion by a working musician (Dave Allen, bassist of the legendary politpunkfunk group, the Gang of Four) on digitisation and its impact on artists, see:


    I, in my own little way, try to help preserve rare recordings in ‘megaposts’ of mostly new wave groups, indexing links to all available live or unreleased recordings by a particular group. For those who don’t yet know the Gang of Four, you’ll find a link to my megapost of their work in the comments to the pampelmoose piece; all of my megaposts (two pages, so click ‘Older Posts’ at the bottom of the first page) are at the address below, and don’t forget to check the comments for additions and reuploads – hope you find something you like, cheers, Dave Sez.


    and one prog-jazz/blues megapost here:


  • Henk Madrotter writes:
    October 1st, 20117:07 amat

    People ask me all the time if I can post WAV or FLAC files on my blog but living in a small village on a volcano just outside the city of Bandung, Indonesia the internet connection is slow at best and 320kbps is the best I can do and I think those files are good enough for what I do. People download them and play them in radioshows/parties and no complaints…

    What worries me more is the disappearance of music here, mostly because of foreign traders (Western and Japanese) who buy up stuff dirt cheap in bulk and then proceed to sell it again very expensively in their countries of origin or on the web. Got to really hating them actually. I have helped some folks to find music here but they were exceptions, total music lovers trying to find what they really love, not looking to make a buck. For the rest I always have the same answers to the questions I regularly get asked via mail or comments. “Where do you buy your music?” Well, I ain’t telling. “Will you sell your records to me?” Nope. “Will you be my personal crate-digging guide when I come over?” Nope, do your own digging, it’s hard work….

    Kudos to all the great bloggers out there that SHARE what they’ve got through hard work and endless searching but I’ve got nothing but contempt for those that go to all these third world countries and empty them of their culture for the sake of money….

  • robert writes:
    November 2nd, 20118:06 pmat

    Thank you for your thoughtful insights, Henk. I was, until recently, unaware of the scramble by treasure hunters to plunder vast quantities of vinyl from less developed countries around the world. Some few of them do an extraordinary job making available freely on the internet, the incredibly rich and rare music that is increasingly extinct, while a couple of passionate music lovers and collectors are trying to market the music, remixed and repackaged, for the benefit of listeners and the musicians themselves. My contribution at my other site is much more modest, sharing a relatively limited library. Yet I have noticed that in addition to the petty traders trying to score profits by selling cultural treasures, there are a few bloggers who do the same.

  • Ken Bainton writes:
    December 11th, 20119:18 pmat

    I agree with your assessment and I am trying to do my part. I have an extensive collection (primarily CDs) of african and carribean music, and am grateful to anyone willing to share unavailable music in any form. thanks

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