Quick Introduction to Digital Music

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February 23, 2010


The digital music environment today is fragmented in so many ways that one can struggle with choosing among the available options. Music listeners are downloading music at record rates through services such as iTunes and AmazonMP3. They are listening to streaming music on their computers and an ever-increasing number of other devices. Now a music collection can be uploaded to a cloud server, such as Lala, and accessed by any computer with an Internet connection. Perhaps we should start at the beginning of a personal digital music collection.

Digitized CDs are often the basis for someone's digital music collection. A digital version of a CD allows the CD owner to prevent wear and tear of the physical media. Digital music can also be transferred to portable music devices such as an iPod or Zune. There are a variety of free CD ripping software options available, including iTunes (Mac/PC), Exact Audio Copy (PC) and Max (Mac). CDs can be ripped to lossless formats such as WAV, AIF, FLAC and ALAC. Lossy compression options include mp3, WMA, and AAC. Visit Rhino.com for a thorough introduction to the various file formats.


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Once you have digitized your CDs you need to choose music playback software that suits your needs. There are many media player options available free of charge or for purchase, including popular titles such as iTunes (Mac OS X/Windows), Zune (Windows), Windows Media Player (Windows), foobar2000 (Windows), MediaMonkey (Windows) and Songbird (Mac OS X). Your decision may be based on the formats of the files you have downloaded or ripped from CDs to your music collection. For example, iTunes doesn’t natively support the popular FLAC format (though there are workarounds). You may also choose a media player based upon whether you own a mobile device such as an iPod, Zune or Zen.


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Apple’s iTunes, AmazonMP3 and Microsoft’s Zune Marketplace are among the most popular sources for digital music downloads online. Audiophiles, or people interested in high-quality music playback, are purchasing music from websites such as HDtracks, Linn Records, iTrax and 2L. These sites are offering high-resolution music files in 24bit/96kHz or even 24bit/192kHz, compared with the CD standard 16bit/44.1kHz. See Computer Audiophile for excellent guides and discussion of high quality computer-based music listening.

Not all listeners are getting their digital music through downloads to their hard drives. Streaming Internet radio and subscription services such as Pandora, Spotify, Last.fm and Lala are having a greater impact on the digital music environment. After ten years, Pandora recently published its first-ever profitable quarter. One of the greatest benefits of streaming music services is their expansion beyond the desktop computer. For example, streaming music services like Pandora and Last.fm have released smartphone applications that stream music over cellular networks.

Digital music downloads are one of the few bright spots in the slumping music industry. In 2009, consumers purchased over 1.5 billion digital music files. Digital music sales have continued to steadily increase in a trend expected to overtake physical media in a few years. Nielsen SoundScan recently released its 2009 year-end report of music industry statistics that cites a 40% increase in digital music downloads from 2008. This rise is occurring among a 13% decrease in overall album sales.