Noteworthy Music

One of the joys of buying albums and then CDs was ripping through the plastic sheathe, plunging into the music, and then poring over the liner notes. When I heard background vocals I wanted to know who was singing and thankfully, the answer was in the notes. That’s how I learned that the great Brian Kennedy was singing with Van Morrison on “The Healing Game” album. It’s how I learned about Muscle Shoals. I enjoyed knowing who was on a record and then making connections to their work on other records. The drummer Jim Keltner really was ubiquitous (have sticks, will travel). The degrees of separation were in the liner notes.

The iTunes digital booklet (née liner notes) is a simple PDF file of lyrics, album art, credits, stories, essays, etc. It is the same information that is produced for the CD version and is likely created by doing a “save as” to PDF from Adobe Illustrator. If you are an iTunes customer you get cheated because, more often than not, the digital booklet isn’t included with the purchase of the record. Even when you buy a “deluxe” iTunes album, chances are you won’t get a digital booklet. Neither the deluxe iTunes versions of “The River and the Thread” (Rosanne Cash) or “Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes” (various artists) came with a digital booklet. Here “deluxe” means getting different versions of songs.

It is because of liner notes that I prefer CDs to iTunes albums. However, since moving abroad I buy music from iTunes. It is a blessing and curse. I enjoy getting new albums on the Tuesday of their release. I disdain not getting a digital booklet with an album. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences also thinks it is important because they have a Best Album Notes Grammy. Only one of the six albums nominated in this category for 2015, “Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound,” comes with iTunes digital booklet. Four of the nominated albums are not available in iTunes as of Feb 1, 2015.

The thirteen albums I bought in 2014 weigh in at 159 songs, 1.25 gigabytes, 10 hours and 39 minutes, two digital booklets (16.7 MB) and $124.90. This would all have a nice 21st century heft if the digital booklets were not in short measure. And I thought we were still in the information age.

Only 15.38% of my 2014 iTunes record purchases had digital booklets. This made me curious so I looked at the end-of-the year top album lists at Mojo, No Depression, Paste, and Rolling Stone. This list includes 148 unique albums. I checked each album against the iTunes store to see if it included a digital booklet. I found that forty-six, or 31.08%, of the records included one. That leaves one hundred and three albums without digital booklets. Omission, it is said, is also a sin.

When I was in Warsaw in December my friend Ray had two CDs that I had purchased on iTunes: “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone” (Lucinda Williams) and “Into the Breach” (Jackson Browne).

On iTunes neither of these albums have digital booklets. Of course, I had to read those liner notes. Wherein I learned that Greg Leisz plays on both the Williams and Browne albums and that Lucinda’s opening song, “Compassion” is based on a poem written by her father, Miller Williams. I had assumed those were Lucinda’s words.

Okay, I could have poked around the Internet and, just maybe, learned these things. But when you pay for the music shouldn’t you get a complete package? Just like Ray did with his CDs.

Digital booklets nurture a fan’s ability to become what my friend and musician BeJae Fleming calls, “a deep listener.”

About paying. I don’t know how to download “free” music from the Internet. Sure, I could learn and do so in Azerbaijan… and apparently with impunity because here the net, I am told, is not monitored for such activity. A German friend downloads songs here, but said he would not dare to do it in Germany. No matter the geography I buy music for one reason: To support musicians.

When I don’t get a digital booklet with my purchase I am getting short shrift from… whom? Yes, just who makes the decision to include the digital booklet? Was it Rodney Crowell and John Hiatt who decided to include digital booklets for “Tarpaper Sky” and “Terms of My Surrender”? If so, thank you gentlemen. From those booklets I learned that the great black and white photos on Hiatt’s album are by Michael Wilson and that Steuart Smith (the Eagles) co-produced “Tarpaper Sky.” Crowell’s closing song is dedicated to John Denver and the penultimate song is “For Guy.” Guy Clark of course. The eleven other artists whose work I bought in 2014 did not include liner notes, and it is an auspicious list: Dave and Phil Alvin, Jackson Browne, T Bone Burnett (produced “Lost on the River”), Johnny Cash (posthumous release), Rosanne Cash, Drive-By Truckers, Justine Townes Earle, Parker Millsap, Shovels & Rope, Bruce Springsteen, and Lucinda Williams. None (or their producers or managers or factotums) chose to include a digital booklet.

All musicians depend on the quality of musicians, producers, designers, singers, and songs. Yet all do not assure that information about the album and its contributors is available via the digital booklet and ipso facto, give credit where it is due. Many artists also work hard to communicate to fans via social media, but yet, the digital booklet, a basic, time-honored form of disseminating information about an album is routinely scuttled in iTunes. I am baffled as to why. Especially when it could so easily (Save as!) be included.

“MP3 players and iTunes liquified the album.” — Derek Thompson

Maybe people in the music industry don’t buy from iTunes; you can’t miss what you don’t know about. Also, musicians have never really liked iTunes because it killed album sales. Derek Thompson writes in The Death of Music Sales (The Atlantic) that “MP3 players and iTunes liquified the album.” In 2012, according to CNN Money, “There were 1.4 billion digital singles sold, dwarfing CD sales by a factor of 7.” It gets worse. Thompson’s includes a Nielsen graph showing a 15% drop in CD sales, a 13% drop in digital tracks, and a 54% increase in streams. Wikipedia’s list of thirty-three music-streaming services worldwide (does not include iTunes Radio or YouTube) indicates that listeners have multiple streaming options. The dearth in CD and digital sales will not be abated. This changing musical landscape, in turn, forces musicians to be on the road more. “We have to stay on the road as much as we can to make a living,” says James McMurtry in a recent interview. He elaborates , saying, “Back before Napster and Spotify, we toured to promote record sales. Now we make records to promote tour dates.” Maybe musicians don’t have time to think about digital booklets on iTunes.

“Back before Napster and Spotify, we toured to promote record sales. Now we make records to promote tour dates.” — James McMurtry

Not having the digital booklet doesn’t diminish my love for the music. But having it would enhance it. Digital booklets nurture a fan’s ability to become what my friend and musician BeJae Fleming calls, “a deep listener.” Is this not what musicians want?

I can’t say that I won’t buy the next Rosanne Cash record on iTunes because it lacks a digital booklet. Why stop what began in 1987 with “King’s Record Shop?” So then, Rosanne, you don’t have to include liner notes for me to keep buying your records, but I wish you would.

However, I will forgo the pleasure of hearing “The Other Side of Bakersfield: 1950s & 60s Boppers and Rockers from ‘Nashville West’, Vol. 1” until I can buy the CD. It has been nominated for a 2015 Best Album Notes Grammy and as indicated above, the iTunes version has no digital booklet. How is it that a Best Album Notes nominee can have those notes forsaken in iTunes?

According to a recent NPR report there are around 800 million iTunes users and most of them are buying singles. Singles customers are not interested in liner notes so it doesn’t look good for those of us who buy iTunes albums and also find liner notes important. Couple that with droves of listeners opting to stream music and there is scant motivation to include electronic booklets. We will have to forage for information on blogs, critical reviews, and musician/record label sites. We will search, however ungainly, for what should be readily at hand.

Out of those 800 million iTunes users I can’t be the only one who enjoys poring over liner notes… 100% of the time.


Photographs: matt kollasch | ©

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