Little Big Town

No Longer a Digital Download Virgin

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In this post, which I just published a few minutes ago, I mention that I just purchased Acoustic Sketches by Phil Keaggy. In that post I said that I would write separately about how/where I purchased that “CD”. This is that tale…

I have purposely avoided the seduction of purchasing music for downloading online, even though I buy most things online (including the vast majority of the CD’s that I buy), and even though 99% of the time, I listen to ripped MP3’s of the CD’s that I buy!

Why? By far the biggest reason has been DRM (Digital Rights Management). I am 100% against illegal trading of copyrighted material, in any form. I want to see artists/authors compensated fairly for every user of their works. That said, as a consumer of a legitimate purchase, I want to be able use that work for my own benefit, in any manner that pleases me (short of making it available illegally to others!).

DRM sounds harmless enough. After all, I can certainly listen to the music that I purchased, as many times as I want, right? Sure, to begin with. But, if I buy a DRM-protected song on iTunes, I can play it on my laptop, and only on an iPod (and a specific iPod at that!). Today, I love my iPods, so it sounds like there is no problem. However, in the future (could be soon), I could easily fall in love with a new device (say, the next generation Zune), and the song I’ve already purchased will not run on that device, simply because I chose to buy it from Apple.

Ugh. Further, the CD provides a perfect backup device on two fronts. First, I don’t travel with it, so it sits with all of my other CD’s, patiently waiting to be re-ripped should the need arise. Second, it’s at the highest possible quality, so if in the future I want to rip into a new format (not MP3), or a higher bit rate, I can easily do that. But, since for now, I am happy listening to 96kbps MP3’s, I save space on my laptop and iPod while still owning the master copy on the CD.

If I download a song, even a DRM free one, I have to actively think about a backup strategy for it. Not rocket science, but an extra step at a minimum, plus, it’s not likely to be CD quality (not that I can hear the difference), so I can’t (necessarily) take advantage of future encoders.

The only thing that ever made me feel badly about not downloading was the immediacy and convenience of the process. The impulse nature didn’t hit me as much. Under most circumstances, I’m happy to wait a week to get my delivery from Amazon.com in the mail.

A month or so ago, I looked into the new Amazon.com MP3 download service. Here is the page for Acoustic Sketches. The more I looked into the Amazon service, the more I liked it. DRM free. 256kbps encoding (like I’ve said too many times, I can’t hear the difference, but others can, so the sale should give a reasonably high quality file). I decided that sometime in the next few weeks, I’d take the plunge.

Acoustic Sketches turned out to be the perfect guinea pig, because the price of the downloaded album is $9.49, and the price of the CD is $14.99 (though I can swear that when I looked yesterday, it was $16.98, but perhaps I am just crazy…). That’s a big enough difference to make the plunge obvious. Also, since this was still a bit of a gamble for me, if I hated the result (for any reason), I wouldn’t necessarily feel the need to run out and buy the real CD, which I would if I were buying something from Girlyman (for example).

So, earlier today, I hit the “One Click Purchase” button, and a few minutes later (probably more like one minute on my FiOS connection) 😉 I had the entire CD downloaded. Yes, I used iTunes to “convert” to 96kpbs. I intend to archive the 256kbps version for posterity, but I still prefer the smaller files on my laptop and iPod.

If you read the post before this, you know that I am extremely happy with the album itself, so obviously, the resultant download worked as well as expected (from a sound quality point of view). That said, there are a number of things that I am truly unhappy with (perhaps frustrated with is a better term). None of them will stop me from purchasing more music from Amazon.com, because I definitely will, but nonetheless, the experience is far from what I’d like to see (given my personal preferences!).

So, what’s the problem?

Purchasing the music couldn’t be simpler. On Windows (and I think Mac), there is a small helper application that you can install if you want to purchase entire albums. You don’t need to install anything to download individual songs, though the helper app makes even purchasing a single song easier.

The app can be configured to automatically import (add) the song/album to iTunes or Windows Media Player (WMP). I found it a tad strange that you can’t check off both, but it’s not a big deal to me. After all, I could have a Zune and an iPod, and want each to be sync’ed from their own library, etc.

First, the songs have the most important ID3 tag information already encoded. That’s a good thing. Except, the name of the song also has the name of the album in it, in parens. This is silly, since the album tag is filled in correctly! What’s worse, the filename is taken from the name tag, so the filenames on the system have the parens and the album name in them as well. Ugh.

That might be the only real complaint, since I think the rest has more to do with my personal preference. From that perspective, I recognize that few other people will be annoyed by these nits, since they won’t go through the process that I did, but here it goes just in case anyone cares.

If you say that you want the files automatically imported into iTunes, then you get a copy of the file in iTunes (meaning, a duplicate on the filesystem, not just a pointer to the file in the directory where you download the files). Not a huge deal, but still, something to potentially have to clean up. For me, this becomes necessary (though annoying), because iTunes will only convert files that are already in iTunes. In other words, I can’t pick a file in a directory unknown to iTunes, and tell it to convert that file to MP3 in iTunes (that would be ideal for me for this application). Perhaps there is a way to do it in iTunes, but it’s definitely not obvious.

Next, when I use iTunes to convert the file, there is no option to replace the existing file. So, I end up with two files in the iTunes application. I know, this is an iTunes problem, not an Amazon one, but it still affects the entire pipeline of deciding to purchase music online. One file is the original 256kbps file, and the other is the new 96kbps converted file.

Next, because both files are in the same directory, iTunes had to create the new one (the one I want), with an extra “1” hanging in the filename, since the original has the correct name. So, after I delete the original file (in iTunes, not my canonical Amazon download directory, which I will archive permanently as the original file), I need to change the name of the file on the filesystem. Of course, that means telling iTunes (file by file!) that there is a new location for the file.

Finally, I need to edit each song individually to remove the album name and the parens from the ID3 tags.

When all is said and done, I still end up with the album on my computer a week earlier than waiting for the CD to arrive, and the sound (to me) is identical. But, I had to work a lot harder than I should have, even though I got it sooner, and paid less. When I rip the CD, it goes directly into iTunes, with the correct filenames and the correct bit rates in one motion, and I already have my permanent archive in master format. Oh well…

One last nit. If you looked specifically at the Acoustic Sketches page on Amazon.com MP3 Downloads, you will note that in addition to being able to purchase the entire CD for $9.49, you could purchase individual songs. Note that #7, Looking Back, is only 40 seconds long. It still costs the full freight of $.99. Fair enough. Oh oh, wait a second, now look at #12 “50th, The”, which is 7 minutes and 2 seconds long. It’s $1.94.

What? They want more money for long songs, but no discount for teeny tiny songs? Just seems wrong. If a song is $.99, I can live with that, but then long songs should also be just $.99…

So, am I likely to purchase more CD’s for download? Definitely. But, if it’s a favorite artist, and the price differential is close, I will likely still buy the CD instead. A specific example is the new Little Big Town album A Place To Land. It’s $8.99 to download (cool!), but only $9.99 to purchase the CD. We are nuts about Little Big Town, the difference in price is small, so I will likely purchase the CD.

Martina McBride Rules!

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This could easily get very long, so either settle in, or bail now, seriously! 🙂

Last night, Lois and I went to Radio City Music Hall to see Martina McBride perform. From past posts (or if you just happen to know us), you know that Lois is a country music fanatic. However, for all of the live music we’ve seen over the past few years, none of it has been country.

At least two have been bluegrass, which we both like (me probably more than Lois), but it has been a long time (over 15 years) since we saw one show at the Grande Ole Opry in Nashville, and neither of us could tell you who was in it (at least I can’t). 😉

I can remember when I first discovered that my stereotype of country music was wrong. It was 20 years ago (give or take a year), when my boss’ boss mentioned to us that his favorite artist was Juice Newton. Yup, I thought he was pulling my leg. I can’t remember whether he gave us a copy of her CD or we bought it, but either way, we ended up with a copy. It might also have been one of the first CD’s I ever owned, as I was a little late to the party of adding a CD player to my stereo at the time.

There are lots of excellent songs on the CD, but one of my favorites is “Angel of the Morning”. It’s not that I became an instant country fan after hearing that CD, but it is the case that my mind was opened to hearing more.

I honestly can’t recall whether Lois liked any country artists before that CD, but sometime close to hearing that CD, she went on a much deeper odyssey into the genre than me. For those who know us, you know both of us can be compulsive. Mine are usually gambling or gaming oriented, with an occasional tech project thrown in. Lois’ are generally more noble (or at least useful, and for certain less destructive).

Lois’ obsession with country music hasn’t faded one bit. It has simply grown and morphed. There are groups that we used to listen to repeatedly, that she has no interest in any longer. However, in all cases, they have just been replaced by someone she is now exploring, musically and lyrically, etc. It was not unusual in the past for us to listen to a specific song five times in a row. Now, it’s rarely more than twice, so some change has occurred. 😉

Anyway, for a very long time, Martina McBride has been at or near the top of Lois’ favorites. She has a voice that is truly incredible, and even though she doesn’t write most of the songs she records, she is active in selecting and producing the records, and her talent for recognizing and polishing other talent is evident.

Our goddaughter is graduating from William and Mary tomorrow. When I first heard that Martina was coming to NYC, and to Radio City Music Hall no less, I was 99% sure that we’d already be down in Virginia for the graduation and wouldn’t be able to make the show. Through a series of events (some of which were misunderstandings on our part), we decided that we could commit to being in NYC through Friday night (the night of the concert). I bought tickets.

We had seats toward the back of the orchestra, center stage. Even though we were pretty far back, the seats were reasonably good, with one exception. The sound board (which is pretty damn big) was four rows in front of us. In itself, it wasn’t that distracting, but it attracts lots of people (most of whom are working) and they are standing around it, which is very distracting. Oh well.

The acoustics, as usual in RCMH, were outstanding.

RCMH is owned by the same people who own Madison Square Garden and The Beacon Theater. I’ve written about the Beacon twice already (Dave Koz and The Allman Brothers). They run a very impressive technology marketing program. I usually get emails directly from them announcing artists that are coming to one of their venues, and am offered an opportunity to purchase tickets at least two days before they go on sale to the public.

However, what was impressive to me this time, was that I got an email a day before the show, letting me know the lineup for the evening. The opening act was going to be Rodney Atkins, coming on at 8pm. He was to be followed by Little Big Town. Then there would be a short intermission, followed by Martina at roughly 9:30pm, all subject to change, of course.

I can’t ever recall getting this kind of information before (without having to explicitly dig for it myself). It was very nice to know that Martina wouldn’t be on until 9:30, so that expectations are set appropriately.

OK, finally, on to the show. 😉

We are familiar with both Rodney Atkins and Little Big Town. We own Rodney’s most recent CD (he has three), and both of Little Big Town’s, so it was a bonus that they were both opening for Martina. Rodney came on almost exactly at 8pm (unusual, since most shows start at least 5-10 minutes late, and some much later). He was good, and didn’t disappoint, but he wasn’t amazing. In fact, he’s better on the CD (and the Radio, yes Jamie, including XM). 😉 I don’t mean to imply anything negative about him or his performance, it was all good, just not exceptional in any way.

He only played four songs, all good ones, including two of his big hits: “If You’re Going Through Hell” and “Watching You” (a.k.a “Buckaroo”).

After a short break, Little Big Town took the stage. They are incredible. Two guys, two women. All four can sing well enough to be solo stars. The guys both play guitar, reasonably well, but mostly rhythm. The band behind them are also incredible. Lead guitarist played a number of instruments (including Dobro), drummer, bassist, etc. Their harmonies are not to be believed. They played for nearly 50 minutes, and every second was delicious.

Then the expected “short intermission”, slightly longer than announced.

At around 9:40 Martina took the stage. Wow. Her voice is crystal clear, operatic range, strength, softness without breaking up, in short, she can produce any sound she wants, the way she wants to produce it. In addition, she has a stage presence that all of the greats do.

I realize that if I start describing individual songs, I’ll miss tomorrow’s graduation, so I’ll make some larger points, and then conclude with the encore. 😉

Martina also has an exceptional band behind her, which includes her brother Marty, who plays guitar and sings really well too. They did a duet where he sang the part that Keith Urban does on her CD. The lead guitarist is amazing, which brings me to my big point.

Many people who profess to hate country (or more likely make fun of country music), do so on the basis of their perception of the lyrics of the genre. That’s my personal opinion. In addition to thinking that the lyrics are predictable (and silly), and that the voices are twangy, I guess that most non-country lovers also think that the musicians are inferior to their favorites.

If I’m right about that, then they are wrong. The top acts all have extraordinary musicians, and the musical productions are first rate as well. Some songs are as good as the best rock bands, other as good as the best pop bands, etc. To me, the genre is most defined by the content of the lyrics, but otherwise, it’s a little harder to categorize the entire genre as different than the others.

I’ll finish that thought in describing the encore.

After a long standing ovation (one of many that Martina garnered throughout her set), she came back with the entire band for an encore. Before the band came out, just the lead guitarist came out, and he played a wild solo electric guitar riff that was definitely rock. When the band joined in, and Martina took the stage, she rocked out with Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”. Of course, Martina nailed it. But, so did the guitarist. He did the solos as well as Pat Benatar’s group ever did, and that’s not to take anything away from Pat’s guitarist (get it?).

Martina has a woman in her band, Jennifer (I missed her last name). 🙁 She played the fiddle, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and sings harmonies with Martina. She is so talented and has so much stage presence as well, that I will be surprised if I don’t hear about her going out on her own at some point in the future. As Martina said: “She sings like an angel”.

After “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” was over, the band left the stage, and Martina stayed only with her lead guitarist. This time, he only had an acoustic guitar. After telling a story to introduce her final song, she sang “Over the Rainbow”.

Are you kidding me? For Lois and I, accurately accused Wizard of Oz (and more importantly) Wicked fanatics, this was the perfect culmination of the evening. It was an amazing rendition (interestingly, Dave Koz also did a beautiful “Over the Rainbow” at the Beacon). Also, the guitarist was wonderful on the acoustic guitar this time, minutes after rocking RCMH on an electric one.

We walked home on cloud nine, and Lois couldn’t stop talking about the concert all the way down to Fredericksburg in the car this morning.

To sum it all up, Wow!