Archive for February 18th, 2008


What to do about music on tape and LP

Yesterday I bought “Thick as a Brick” by Jethro Tull from the iTunes store using a gift card I got for Christmas. The obnoxious part of this is that I already own the album, albeit on cassette. As a matter of fact, I own a lot of music on cassette. I don’t think I got a CD player until around 1994, so the music I bought up to that point was mostly on cassette or vinyl.

In any case, the 1990’s were a great time for record companies. In addition to all the new music they were selling, they were selling lots of CDs because people were migrating their music collections from cassette and LP to CD. Part of the difficulty the music industry has had in the last few years is that they had gotten used to extra revenue from people re-buying music they already owned in order to migrate to CD. However, for most people, this migration is now complete and record companies’ revenues have fallen dramatically. Furthermore, while people are now migrating their CDs to MP3, that can be done without buying the music again (though the RIAA has argued that ripping a CD and adding it to your iTunes library does not qualify as fair use.)

I think I’ve added most of the CDs I own to my iTunes library, but there’s still a lot of music I own that is much more difficult to import. Some of it I have already bought in digital form from eMusic (Pavement, Superchunk, Pixies), which wasn’t too painful since it only cost me like $0.30/track. However, not all of the music I own on cassette and LP is available from eMusic. If I want to add this music to my computer-based digital collection I have the following options, roughly in order of potential illegality (least to most):

  1. Re-buy the music from iTunes or Amazon (or elsewhere). (This is the most unquestionably legal approach, though some tracks are not available in digital form (eg. b-sides of singles released only on vinyl)).
  2. Convert the tapes and records into MP3s by one of the following methods. (I haven’t heard anything about the RIAA taking issue with this practice. That does not mean, however, that they view it as acceptable. Most likely, it is unacceptable to them but they have not attacked it explicitly since it is seen as low-threat and the sound quality would be somewhat degraded.)
    1. Connect a standard cassette player or record player to the sound card of my computer, import the music as .wav files and convert to MP3. This wouldn’t cost anything but it would be very labor-intensive and tedious.
    2. Buy products specially-designed to import music from cassette or LP, like a cassette deck that fits in a 5.25″ drive bay in your computer or a USB turntable. These make the process less painful, but they’re like $100 each. I could buy a lot of albums in MP3 format for $200. As mentioned before, however, some of the music I have on LP or cassette may not be available as MP3s from any online store.
  3. Re-buy the music on brand-new CDs and import the music into my digital library. (The RIAA would love it if I bought the CDs. However, they’d be less enthusiastic about me ripping them and adding them to my computer’s music library. In their eyes, I should buy the album on CD and MP3.)
  4. Re-buy the music on used CDs and import the music into my digital library. (Used CDs are/have been a point of contention for the RIAA, in addition to the act of ripping. If I were to subsequently sell the CD and keep the MP3s, the legality of this approach would have just gone down some more.)
  5. Borrow my friends’ CD copies of your music and rip them into my collection. (The RIAA would definitely take issue with this, though they’re unlikely to find out about it. While in some senses it might seem like this is justified, there is something about this that makes me uncomfortable. I think it has to do with the quality issue. When I buy a cassette, I buy the music subject to the quality constraints of the format. I don’t feel that I am entitled to a copy of the album at a better quality just because I have paid for the music in a format that offers inferior quality (and is also cheaper).)
  6. Download MP3s of the music you already own via P2P file-sharing. (This is likely to get you in trouble with the RIAA. I would be reluctant to do anything that might attract their ire. Even if you’re guilty of nothing, simply being accused will cost you money. Also, the argument from #5 applies here – having bought a song in some format doesn’t necessarily entitle me to a free copy of the song in any format.)

There aren’t a lot of particularly attractive options in the above list. I object to re-buying things I already own. However, it is undoubtedly the most convenient option, which is why I have done it. Fortunately for me, my taste in music changed substantially toward the end of my cassette years, so much of the music I own on cassette is of little interest to me now.

What about you? Do you have a lot of music on cassette or LP? If so, what have you done about it? Do you still listen to it in its native format or have you converted it to digital? Let me know how you’ve solved this problem. Also, if you disagree with my analysis above, let me know where you stand on these issues.


February 2008

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