Newsletter #96 March - 2013: Time To Re-Bundle?

12 Mar 2013

Traditionally, sound quality has been a key factor in the development and uptake of emerging audio formats.  Some of these, such as the industry’s dalliance with quadraphonic sound in the early 1970s, failed gloriously.  Others have fared more profitably.  For instance, the audio cassette with its Dolby-enabled noise reducing properties and, more importantly, the CD and its promise of “perfect sound forever”.

The digital revolution has been very much the oddity in this trajectory, since it favoured convenience over quality.  In 1999, downloading MP3s over file-sharing networks was often a laughably haphazard experience (what mattered was having unfettered free access to millions of tracks) while the trademark white earbuds introduced by Apple’s iPod were designed more for promotional purposes than functionality.

Despite specialist services like Bleep, Beatport or Bandcamp offering lossless WAV files for a number of years, mainstream retailers still favour compressed and easily-downloadable digital files.

On one hand, this development has been understandable.  Most listeners are unable to distinguish 320 kbps from a CD.  But it also disconnected music from the growing trend towards Hi-Fidelity, Blu-Ray and Home Cinemas with surround-sound.  As highlighted at UMG’s recent Abbey Road ‘Open Day’ – we are now in a situation where an entire generation is prepared to spend big on a pair of branded Beats headphones, but, unless ripping tracks from CD or downloading FLAC files from nefarious sources, they are forced into buying or streaming substandard digital recordings.

According to speakers at Abbey Road, this disconnect might now offer a major opportunity.  For Pete Downton at Pure/Imagination Technologies, although music missed its ‘Blu-Ray moment’ in the late 2000s, that moment had now returned.  There was general consensus that the days of the MP3 (“a dial-up technology”) should be numbered and replaced by a more fitting HQ format.

Notoriously audiophile artists like Neil Young would surely agree.  Much of Young’s recent biography was given over to promotion of his still-to-be-launched music service PONO, complete with diagrams that equated the iPod with listening to music underwater.  PONO, by comparison, would drag you above the surface, rinse out your ears and – in their own words – ‘rescue an art form’.

But 14 years on from Napster, it’s still questionable whether mainstream music fans really care.  And, perhaps more importantly, would they value higher audio quality enough to pay for it?

Disappointing sales of SADC and DVD Audio – which, in 2004, probably did represent music’s equivalent of a ‘Blu-Ray moment’ – would suggest that this might be difficult.  The world’s most popular music service, YouTube, remains decidedly lo-fi both in audio and visual terms.

Indeed, in order to re-energise its online inventory, it might be more pertinent for the industry to look beyond sound quality and at some of the other standard facets of recorded music discarded in the move to digital distribution.  Facets such as lyrics, imagery or sleeve notes – all of which continue to inject value into vinyl and CD purchases and provide fans with an important connection to the world of composers, producers and studios.  A quick scan of Alexa.com reveals that some of the world’s most popular music destinations are A-Z Lyrics, Ultimate Guitar Archive and MetroLyrics.

These kinds of assets and information were stripped from digital products a decade ago, until they those products resembled little more than anonymous content files.  And they are clearly the kind of added extras that fans still crave.

If they were adopted across the industry, campaigns supported by the likes of the Music Producer’s Guild, such as Credit Where Credit’s Due, or latterly to embed ISRC codes into metadata, could surely have a transformative impact.  The unbundling of digital formats undoubtedly – and unwittingly – played a major part in contributing to a decade of devaluation in recorded music.  In a world of smart devices, as well as expensive headphones, surely it’s now time to re-gather that information and bundle it back in?

10 10

To celebrate our tenth anniversary (yes, unbelievably, it’s almost a decade since we launched with an event titled ‘Unsigned To Domestic Success In Rock Music’), MusicTank is launching a new initiative called 10 @ 10.

Over the next 10 months, we are commissioning a series of 10 short essays from free-thinkers and experts-in-their-field who will tackle some of the perennial issues faced by the music business and ask them the $64,000 question: what does the future hold?

Introduced by MusicTank chairman Keith Harris in his piece below, the rest of these essays will be published on a per-month basis for the remainder of 2013.

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