is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
The music industry is considering doing away with digital rights management, The New York Times reported on Tuesday. This change of heart might be interpreted as a white flag in the D.R.M. battle, an admission that software-based restrictions on digital media are problematic, at least, enough to hamper the labels’ ability to do business online.
Or, you can read it, as I do, as a strategic ploy to undermine the iTunes Music Store, which, as Apple has recently admitted, has turned D.R.M. against the very people it was meant to protect. Apple’s FairPlay digital rights management framework, by tying purchases made through the iTunes Music Store exclusively to the iPod and to no other handheld media players, has allowed the company to create a de facto monopoly on digital music sales, in which it’s very difficult for the major labels to peddle their wares over the Internet through any other vendor.
Even though it’s still just a rumor, this newly enlightened attitude is an encouraging sign, right? If it actually comes to pass, though, I seriously doubt it will be accompanied by an embargo on the industry’s questionable habit of suing consumers who download music from unauthorized channels. Concessions tend to come piecemeal, not wholesale, in this kind of economic disruption.
Nor will it mean that I’ll be any freer to do what I really want to do with digital music: create and distribute the equivalent of mix tapes online. A steady stream of new music makes its way into my iTunes library, some of it protected by D.R.M., some of it from less reputable sources. I’m no taste maker, but I hear a fair amount of interesting stuff, and I’d like to share it with people (this means you).
The Ghost of Mixtapes Past
In 2005, my good friends Naz and Andrew ran a little club, so to speak, in which the members essentially made MP3 compilations for one another every week — online mix tapes. I got a big kick out of this, because when it was my turn, I took the opportunity to present my choices as a kind of virtual album — with artwork and everything (See it on this post).
Similarly, going even further back, my friend Todd once ran a club where the members made compilations on actual compact discs (crazy, right?) for one another, and distributed them via mail. I also indulged myself with those discs, designing and packaging each one with more and more elaborate artwork through each round of exchanges. You can track the progression on the posts I wrote about the first round, the second round and the third round of exchanges.
Design Your Own Album
Spending most all of my days as I do immersed in the world of interface design, I rarely tackle much design that’s innately narrative or authorial. That’s why I so often enjoy and promote on this site those facets of graphic design that push us beyond the boundaries of contemporary Web design: illustration, photography, even self-indulgence. All of these are good for the creative soul; they prevent us from becoming narrow-minded craftspeople rather than prolific specialists.
To me, creating simple, small-scale album artwork falls into that same category. It gives me a chance to play, to act as a kind of author, to reach beyond the confines of my job description. I’d like to do it more often, not just when my friends create the opportunity for me through clubs like those I described above. And I would, too, except that there’s almost no point to it unless my audience can hear what I’m designing for. As with most anything I design, I want it to be more than just pretty, I want it to be useful too, as useful as possible, even if that means making it as entertaining as possible. If I’m going to create the artwork for a compilation of music, I’d like to be able to distribute the music along with the artwork, preferably as MP3 files, free of digital rights management.
Do Not Distribute
But, the current climate for such wanton distribution of digital music would seem to discourage that. Perhaps I’m overly cautious, but I’m reluctant to throw a dozen or so unprotected MP3’s on a page for general consumption, as much as I’d like to. In no way do I need to invite even the possibility of a call from one of the R.I.A.A.’s lawyers. (If you can persuade me that it’s actually safe to do this, let me know.)
So, beyond just ditching D.R.M. from their strategic plans for consumer sales, I hold out a little bit of hope for the possibility that the R.I.A.A. might allow some level of mix tape production, too (vain hope, perhaps, given that the industry has actually been clamping down on mixtapes in recent weeks).
Perhaps such a thing could be done by offering lower-quality MP3s for distribution in these scenarios, where someone like myself would essentially be serving as a marketer for their product, offering a ‘taste’ of the label’s wares. Or perhaps a competitor to the iTunes Music Store would allow small-time operators, again like myself, to assemble compilation albums within the context of their online stores, leaving me to push my audience to that destination to purchase the tracks as a package, alongside my custom artwork.
Or whatever. I don’t pretend to be expert enough in the machinations of today’s music industry to be able to offer a workable solution. But I do know that it would be a lot of fun for the industry to find a way to let us create mix tapes. It’s half the fun of music, and it would be a nice little boost to a fallow part of my creative brain.+