So Many Trees!
I told you in December 2001's "As We See It" about driving my 30-year-old Mercedes sedan back to Brooklyn from Santa Fe, the almost transcontinental drive doing much to cure my post-September 11 depression. Now I was taking the car up to northern Connecticut to garage it at a friend's for the winter. The timing of my trip was a little too late to catch the fall colors at their most glorious, but the way the low-revving, high-compression V8 devoured the gradients despite its 180,000 miles, and the way the heavy car's pneumatic swing-axle rear suspension coped with the local roads' sweeping curves, made up for the subdued show. As I enjoyed the drive, I marveled at how Connecticut had been settled with so little disturbance to its primeval landscape. "As it is, as it was, as it ever shall be," I mused.
Of course, I was completely wrong. According to A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson's entertaining account of hiking the Appalachian Trail (Broadway, 1999), New England's now ubiquitous trees are almost all new growth. A century and more ago, the original trees were chopped down en masse for lumber and to make charcoal to feed the state's smelters and mills. It is only since the rustbelt industries moved out and the farms closed down that the Connecticut forest has been able to reclaim the rolling hills that dominated my drive.
But I can be forgiven for my mistaken assumption as I drank in the views from the Benz. When a major change like the reforestation of New England takes place at a rate measured in lifetimes rather than years, there is a natural tendency for human beings to think that things have always been the way they are now.
Introductions of new recorded media also occur at a generational pace, and just over a year ago, I wrote about our inability to envisage change, even after the change is underway. In a November 2000 essay, I described a seminar Sony UK had organized almost 20 years ago to try to convince record-industry executives of the benefits offered by the Compact Disc, only to be met by mass indifference by suits who couldn't see the fit between the new medium and the existing market for recorded music.
In the December 2001 Wired (pp.78-80), Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig quotes a similar story about a presentation RCA engineer Pat Freely made to five Disney executives in the early 1970s. The RCA idea was to distribute movies on videotape—with an interesting wrinkle in that the tape would play only once. It couldn't be rewound for a second playing without being returned to the store, where a second fee could be charged (footnote 1). Far from being delighted by this precursor of "pay-per-play," the Disney suits were horrified by the lack of control it represented: "What's to stop someone else...watching for free?" Freely reported them as saying.
CDs and videos, of course, went on to create more wealth for the music and movie industries than anyone back then could have imagined. But confronted with the sprouting saplings, all the two groups of executives could see was the bare hills of the existing markets. And now, apparently as blind to the fact that it was both the open standards of the two media and the virtual lack of competing formats that led to their unprecedented success as I was to the history hiding beneath Connecticut's canopy of green, those same industries are confusing their customers with a multiplicity of competing media and, obsessively concerned with copyright protection, are treating as enemies the people who keep them in business.
I have spent a four-figure sum on recorded music each and every year since I became an audiophile, yet the record industry doesn't seem to care about my need for quality. News stories such as Jon Iverson's on restricted-use CDs and Barry Willis' on the RIAA's tacky attempt to piggyback a pathway into consumers' home computers on the Anti-Terrorism Bill, both in this issue's "Industry Update," therefore give me a mounting sense of despair. CD watermarking and playback restrictions remind me of the early issues of International Audio Review Hotline, where publisher J. Peter Moncrieff was so concerned about the threat to his income posed by Xerox machines that he printed his magazine in blue ink on red paper. No, you couldn't photocopy his purple prose—but you couldn't read it either!
And the shift toward regarding prerecorded software as something music lovers like me will have to rent rather than buy seems well underway. It was a year ago, at the January 2001 Consumer Electronics Show, that the CEA's Gary Shapiro demanded "Don't let the Play button become the Pay button." The "Big Five" record companies don't seem to be listening, Mr. Shapiro.
Coincidentally, on my drive up through Litchfield County last November, I passed close to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where J. Gordon Holt got his start in audio journalism with the long-defunct High Fidelity magazine. I say "coincidentally" because 2002 is Stereophile's 40th-anniversary year, and it was Gordon's reaction to what he experienced in mainstream publishing that led him to found Stereophile in the fall of 1962.
Change in magazine publishing takes place somewhat faster than the rate at which trees grow, and it would be naïve of me to state that there have been no changes in Stereophile in the 264 issues since Vol.1 No.1 hit the newsstands. But no matter how the minutiae of the magazine's content has, of necessity, changed according to the needs of its readers in the past four decades, we remain true to Gordon's vision: We primarily judge audio components by how they sound. And unlike the record industry, we put the concerns and interests of our customers first. As Gordon wrote all those years ago, "Stereophile isn't a showcase for advertisers. It is the readers' own publication, and because of this, we feel obliged to keep readers informed about what's going on....We stand for honesty, integrity, and all that."
Amen to "all that."
Footnote 1: This idea resurfaced in the 1980s as the similarly ill-fated RentaBeta, where you not only rented a tape but also a locked, blue-ABS-armored, rewind-disabled VCR on which to play it—once.