Time for music

Future Tense for Apr. 24, 2006

It’s a good thing I don’t have a cell phone.

Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel and a new company called Amp’d now offer services that send the song of your choice to your cell phone. Not a ringtone, mind you. The real recording from what Verizon, for one, claims is a million-tune library.

In the mood for Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”? Dial Pennsylvania 6-5000.

Feeling blue? “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

Want an instant replay of “Replay”?

Just punch the right buttons and, for the price of a minute’s airtime (the estimate for an average download; 17-minutelong “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” may take somewhat longer) plus two to four bucks for the song itself, you can experience instant musical gratification.

In no time at all, you, too, may be harmonizing and sympathizing with David Lee Roth, Bob Seger or Donna Summer — take your pick or take all three — singing their renditions of “I Ain’t Got No Money.”

“Money, Money” (from “Cabaret”) or “Money, Money, Money” (from Abba) — it’s all about the money.

Verizon Wireless says a suitably equipped cell phone will hold 34 hours’ worth of music, or approximately 500 songs. At an average of $3 apiece, that’s $1,500! Compared to that bill, the $15 per month for “V Cast” service seems almost trivial.

Spring Music Store’s cell phone downloads cost $2.50 — a mere $1,250 for 500.

Personally, I’d rather buy a 1-GB iPod Nano for about $135, pay $500 for 500 songs from iTunes and take the risk of not having “Take a Chance” (Olivia Newton John? No, Bonnie Tyler) when I’m racing down Wards Gap Road.

I love music and I love digital downloads and, IMHO, this is the best era for music since the 1960s. Once again, four decades later, I’m enjoying a huge variety of styles and innovations, like will.i.am’s new hip-hop production of Sergio Mendes’ classic “Brasil 66.”

Forty years ago, when “Mais Que Nada” briefly knocked The Beatles down a few notches on the pop charts, kids heard new songs on AM radio — FM didn’t come into its own until the 1970s — and bought them in record stores like Pearsons on Calendar Street. As in many record stores, Pearsons had a half-dozen carrels equipped with turntables and headphones. I could go to the clerk and request a record, take a store copy to the booth and play it. This is how many of us “discovered” B tracks (the “flip” sides) that never made it to the airwaves.

We usually bought songs on “45s” — 7-inch-wide vinyl platters with a 1.5-inch hole in the middle that made it easier for juke boxes to handle the records. Each side held about four minutes of music — two songs per record. As I recall, they cost 49 cents. We didn’t buy albums unless more than two songs made it to the top 20.

Now leap back to 2006.

Two months ago, Apple’s iTunes Music Store sold its 1 billionth download. The on-line store opened for business three years ago this Friday. iTunes started with 200,000 files; today it offers more than 2 million. Listening to the 30-second sample snippet of each one would fill your ears with “The Sound of Music” from now until March 2008 — assuming you take no time off for sleep, showers or sex (the iTunes Music Store has 86 different versions of Ravel’s “Bolero” — a fact worth noting if you remember Bo Derek in the movie “Ten.”).

Some people in the record manufacturing industry resent the success of iTunes and other digital downloading services. Five years ago, the industry sold 762.8 million CDs; in 2005, it sold less than 619 million.

On the other hand, download services sold 352.7 million legal tracks in 2005. Distributing those songs cost the industry nothing for blank disks, jewel boxes, printing or handling, so why should I or anyone else pay $15 to $20 for the CD version?

The record industry has obsessed over piracy and copyright violations. I believe the industry was a victim of its own greed. People copied and shared music because it seemed over priced — and they did the same thing with 8-tracks and cassettes long before digital copying became possible. Now that a legal download costs 99 cents —only twice as much as I paid for a single 45 40 years ago — I don’t mind paying it; heck, it’s a bargain, in part because it’s so convenient.

That convenience, however, may come at a price — to the customer who can’t resist an impulse buy.

For example, I’ve got a copy of “Brasil 66” on vinyl at home, so I don’t really need to buy another one. But it’s scratchy, there’s some wow and flutter on the turntable (if you know what “wow” and “flutter” mean, you probably were born before 1975) and this new Sergio Mendes album includes guest appearances by Stevie Wonder, India.Arie John Legend, Jill Scott and others.

And hey! “Timeless” costs only $9.99 on iTunes.

I’m sure I’ll find the time to listen to it ... in the future.

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