Friday, November 21, 2008

Toe in (Shameless Shilling)

So after praising MagnaTune to the heavens the other day, I decided to look a little more closely at them. I'd already read most of their site, and had even looked into some reviews of their service; but I did a little more exploring.

They offer memberships: subscriptions to their site. There are two levels: Streaming, and Download. You don't have to be a member to purchase music from them, but members get a few interesting perks. Anyone can go to MagnaTune and listen to their entire catalogue streaming: but a membership buys you the same streams commercial-free. You also get site features like playlists. The download membership goes a little further: you can then download any album on the site, free of charge. There are three "rules" of membership:

  1. they ask you don't give away more than a single album a month,

  2. you must manually download the tunes: no crawlers or spiders, not LWP or wget, and

  3. membership is not shareable/transferrable;

Memberships used to have a minimum 3-month term, but now they offer them for as little as one month. Like everything at MagnaTune, you set the price: a streaming membership starts at $5/month, downloads at $10/month; but you may pay more.

I've been intrigued by this idea, so when the minimum term dropped to a month, I decided to try it out. I purchased a month's download membership last night. So for one month, I am free to stream or download MagnaTune's entire catalog, if I so choose. And it cost me about what I'd expect to pay for a CD from Amazon or Borders (I didn't cheap out and pay the $10 minimum).

What I download is DRM-free, it's mine to keep, whether I maintain my membership or not. And I'm perfectly free to burn it to disk, put it on my iPod, or whatever. I can even give an album away to a friend every month. And I can download the music in WAV files: they're CD-quality copies.

And best of all, it's 100% legal. MagnaTune is essentially a record label, rather than a reseller: they have full rights to distribute their music.

The only real downside is, the music is necessarily all indie. If you like indie music, that's no problem. If you like to purchase what's on the radio, it might be a difficult fit. Although interestingly, some of MagnaTune's artists are now showing up for purchase at iTunes. So more mainstream people are discovering them.

So how do I like it? I found about a dozen albums right away that I listed as favourites and have been listening to as streams. My two favourites of the bunch I downloaded as WAV files, and will burn to CD this weekend: Acoustic Abstracts and Horizons, both by guitar duet Heavy Mellow, from Tennessee. (You can, of course, go and listen to both those albums in their entirety, with or without paying for a membership. Why are you still here? Go listen!) Very relaxed and relaxing guitar music. I've also got some very good cello and viola music in my playlist, as well as some more folksy stuff.

I haven't had to look too hard to find good stuff there, and I've already gotten my money's worth in about 16 hours.

Will I renew at the end of my month-long experiment? I don't know. I'll have to see how the month goes. But based on my two purchases at MagnaTune (Goode Christemas Musicke and this membership), I'm really rather impressed.

If they can stay alive (they've been going for 5+ years already), I anticipate I may well turn into a very loyal customer.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

It's not February

I generally buy two Christmas CDs a year. Yeah, that's a lot of Christmas music, but I like Christmas music. I also receive a fair number of Christmas CDs as gifts, because people know I like Christmas music.

I've occasionally purchased more than just two CDs, and frankly the convenience of online purchasing a la iTunes hasn't been a good thing in that respect.

Last year's purchases were A Traditional Christmas Carol Collection from The Sixteen and Christmas Carols from York Minster. The year before I purchased Christmas With The Academy and Christmas Songs by Diana Krall, both on iTunes.

This year's purchases are in, and I wanted to share them. First was The Best Carols in the World...Ever!. The title is cheesey, but the content is great. It's a collection of relatively rare (from an American perspective) carols done by a variety of reputable performers: King's College Choir and Medieval Baebes, for example. There are 52 carols in two CDs, which is a decent selection. It was definitely a deal.

The second was Goode Christemas Musicke.

This one is worthy of comment. Goode Christemas Musicke is almost the same concert as Dancing Day: the Dancing Day arrangement by John Rutter. Well, they're not the same: both start with Rutter's Dancing Day, but they follow them with different carols; but there is significant overlap. I think this album is performed slightly better, but the real improvement is in the recording. Where the Dancing Day album had some significant noise issues, this newer recording is impeccably clean.

But perhaps the most interesting thing is that the album is distributed through MagnaTune. MagnaTune is an online music distributor that handles independent musicians. They offer DRM-free recordings, and pay the artists directly. Every track is offered in full as a stream on their website, so you can listen to the entire CD before you buy it, and they let you re-download music you've purchased.

In short, MagnaTune is like an idealistic iTunes.

Perhaps most interestingly, MagnaTune asks you to give away three copies of each CD.

So I purchased Goode Christemas Musicke at MagnaTune and downloaded it in WAV format, CD-quality audio. Then I downloaded the album art and printed out a cover on photo paper. I burned a CD with the WAV files, then converted them to MP3 in iTunes and attached the album art. And now I have both DRM-free MP3 tracks from MagnaTunes and a full-quality CD copy.

All in all, an excellent deal.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Two Things

So I've been neglecting this blog recently: that's more laziness than anything else. But today I wanted to break the silence to mention two things.

First, there is an interesting editorial by Paul St. Pierre, "A voice from the grave's edge", apparently published in The Vancouver Sun. It's a most accurate and succinct write-up of the direction North American culture has taken in my lifetime. Whether one considers the changes in the USA since 9/11 or the Maoist speech controls in Canada, it's obvious to anyone who thinks that the world is changing, and not for the better. Ayn Rand seems less like a novelist and more like a prescient every day.

St. Pierre writes:
Our Canada is now very close to a condition in which everything that is not compulsory is forbidden. We have become prisoners of the state. Like modern jail prisoners, all our needs for balanced diet, climate-controlled shelter, approved and tested medication, mental health counselling, higher education, suitable entertainment, grief counselling and consensual safe sex are available free. The inmate lacks only freedom itself.

This one is well worth the read.

Second, I've been greatly enjoying West Coast beer, and really have to mention the seasonal offering from Alaskan Brewing Company. I discovered Alaskan's beers when I moved out here, and I've become a real fan. Alaskan Amber Ale is not the best beer I've ever had: but it's very, very good. And at around $1 per bottle at Costco (about the same on sale in Safeway or Fred Meyer), it's a real winner. Listen, I take beer seriously, and I've been drinking this stuff almost exclusively for the last month. Smithwick's and Guinness are better, but not much. This is really good stuff, and at a price point where I can't justify not buying it.

And this last summer, I enjoyed several bottles of the incredible Alaskan Summer Ale. It's nice to have a "summer ale" that's light in colour rather than taste.

But today I bought a 12-pack of Alaskan Winter Ale, and it's amazing. Check out the colour of this nectar:
From Alaskan Winter Ale

This is an insanely good beer. This is the sort of brew the ancient Teutons dreamed they'd drink in the halls of their pagan gods after dying in gloriously in battle. If you like beer and you have access to Alaskan ales, you need to get some of this.

Next to Sarah Palin, this is best thing to come out of Alaska.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Happy Election Day!

"VOTE, n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman's power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country."
-- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary