Category Archives: music industry

You cannot resell music downloads, says New York court. Bad news for ReDigi

A New York court has concluded (PDF) that you cannot resell music downloads.

The case is Capitol Records vs ReDigi, a web site which lets you trade in pre-owned legal downloads.

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The argument from District Judge Richard Sullivan is that reselling a music download is impossible, because you cannot transfer your download, you can only copy it:

Simply put, it is the creation of a new material object and not an additional material object that defines the reproduction right … the fact that a file has moved from one material object – the user’s computer – to another – the ReDigi server – means that a reproduction has occurred.

But by that argument, don’t you make a “new material object” every time you copy your iTunes download to a new directory?

Sullivan says:

As Capitol has conceded, such reproduction is almost certainly protected under other doctrines or defenses, and is not relevant to the instant motion.

The concept of “fair use” does not protect ReDigi either, according to the judgement, since it is a commercial transaction and not merely storage or personal use.

This is a decision with far-reaching implications. In essence, it says that once you pay for a music download, your money is gone forever. Your download collection has no resale value, nor can you legally transfer it to anyone else. The only way you might get your money back, oddly, is if your collection were destroyed; I have seen provision in some insurance policies for downloaded assets.

Who is going to stop you from transferring your collection to another person privately? That is different, a question of enforceability rather than legality.

You are better off buying a CD; the used CD market is deeply depressed, but does at least exist. Ripping a CD to your hard drive is illegal in some countries (including the UK, as far as I am aware) but I do not know of anyone being pursued for this, and there is a better argument for personal, non-commercial, fair use.

If the music industry could convert us all to streaming subscriptions, that would make more sense in the digital world. That said, it is unfortunate that streaming services like Spotify pay very little to artists in comparison with download services like iTunes.

Farewell to the Squeezebox

It looks as if Logitech has discontinued the Squeezebox, a range of devices for playing music streamed from the free Logitech Media Server. Logitech also runs a streaming service on the internet, Mysqueezebox.com, which supports internet radio, Spotify integration and more.

The Squeezebox devices are no longer on sale on Logitech’s web site, and a press release announces the Logitech UE range. This includes wireless speakers which play music via Bluetooth, a Smart Radio that connects to internet streaming radio and other services, earphones and headphones.

But what of Squeezebox? Here is the nearest I can find to an official announcement:

We’ve just announced our new brand, Logitech UE, and with it merging the design/engineering capability of Logitech and the Squeezebox product with the music know how of Ultimate Ears. We are positioning this new brand to serve music lovers across a wide range of music listening device, and amongst them the Logitech® UE Smart Radio.

Important for you to know, The UE Smart Radio can play alongside your Logitech Squeezebox products, but will operate and be controlled separately and will no longer receive updates. The team is working hard on releasing in a few weeks an optional software update for existing Squeezebox Radio users. This update will allow Squeezebox Radios to upgrade to the new Logitech UE Smart Radio experience.

Rest assured that the Squeezebox platform you’ve been enjoying over the years will continue to provide you access to a rich world of music and we’ll continue to address any questions or troubleshooting on our Logitech.com support page.

The news is sad but not surprising. Logitech is struggling with declining revenue and losses, and there are various reasons why the Squeezebox system no longer looks strategic. It works alongside iTunes but does not fit all that well with Apple products, it has always been a little bit too techie, and the era of filling huge hard drives at home with your music is probably in decline, thanks to internet streaming. I have been meaning to post about the good results I get from Google Music on the Nexus tablet, and of course there is Spotify.

I still love Squeezebox. If you want the uncompromised quality of lossless audio combined with multi-room support, where each player can play something different, it is a fantastic and cost-effective system. The Squeezebox Touch, reviewed here, is appreciated by audiophiles for its high quality audio.

Squeezebox might still be a viable for a company like Slim Devices, the original creator of the system, but makes less sense for a mass market company like Logitech, which acquired Slim Devices in 2006.

My thanks to the Squeezebox team for transforming audio at home for me and thousands of others.

Update: if you are wondering what is the future for Logitech Media Server (LMS) see this thread which has comment from a Logitech engineer. There is a new media server called UE Music Library (UEML) which is simplified compared to LMS and has no player control: the UE Radio can simply select music from the library and play it. No random play in UEML. UE Radio will not play music from LMS as far as I can tell. LMS is not going to receive major updates but will be supported with maintenance fixes for the time being.

High resolution downloads from Kate Bush

The official Kate Bush website is selling high-resolution 24-bit downloads of her new album 50 Words For Snow. There is even a detailed explanation of why the downloads are on offer and how they are created, credited to Bush’s organisation “The Fish People.”

The Fish People state that CD technology is old (true) and inadequate (controversial):

…despite the huge improvements the CD brought with it, the state of technology at the time introduced some limitations in the quality of audio that could be recorded and stored on the CD. The many advantages of the CD mean that it has continued to be the default consumer format for many years. However digital studio technology has moved on immensely.

According to this account, Kate Bush mixes her recordings to an analogue 1/2 inch 30ips tape. Then she masters this to 24/96 digital, which as she states:

increases the dynamic range and frequency response of the digital process well beyond the levels perceivable by the human ear.

The master is normalised for CD’s 16/44 format, which means the volume is adjusted to use all the available headroom. However for the downloads there is no normalisation, and if the description is to be believed, the files are the same as those used for the studio mastering.

Curiously the files are offered in uncompressed .wav, which makes for a bulky download:

With these files we also wanted you to be able to hear the recordings as close as possible to the way it sounded on the analogue master. For this reason we have chosen only to make available 24/96 .wav files in an uncompressed format. By not using compression we avoid any further possibility of introducing errors or noise into the files. The downside of using uncompressed files is that the files are large and will take a long time to download.

This is unnecessary since formats like FLAC and ALAC compress the size of the files but do not lose any musical information; you can expand them back into WAV without any loss.

The files sound excellent as you would expect. It is worth noting though that efforts to identify audible difference between 16/44 and 24/96 in blind listening tests have been mostly unsuccessful, suggesting that they sound either the same or very very close to the human ear, when careful level-matched comparisons of the same master are made. If the high-res files sound different from the CD, it is more likely because of other factors, such as additional audio compression (as opposed to lossless file compression) which does change the sound, or additional equalisation applied when mastering the CD.

Another quibble I have with this offer is that it gives the keen purchaser a difficult choice. Do you want the CD with its attractive hardbound mini-book and artwork, or download which costs more and comes with no artwork but may sound better? The keen fan has to buy both. By contrast, recent Peter Gabriel CDs have a code that lets you download the high-res files as well for no additional cost.

That said, kudos to Kate Bush for making available such high-quality downloads.

Kate Bush fears the death of the album as an art form

In an interview on the BBC Today programme singer Kate Bush expresses her fears for the music industry:

… a lot of people in the industry are very depressed because record sales are very low, I think a lot of us fear the death of the album as an art form. And I love albums, I understand that people just want to listen to a track and put it on their iPod, and that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, but why can’t that exist hand in hand with an album, they’re such different experiences? I mean a selection of songs, not just a song or a track. It’s just a completely different experience. I suppose the worst case scenario is that people would actually get to a point where they can’t afford to make what they want to make creatively. The industry is collapsing.

Is she right? When technology advances, not everything gets better. Music used to be expensive to distribute, now it can be done for almost nothing. There is not really any scarcity, and without scarcity, goods cannot command a price. Scarcity has to be imposed artificially, via DRM (Digital Rights Management), or trust basis, or inspecting data traffic.

There is still some money in digital music sales, of course, and still some money in CDs and other media too. The physical package is under obvious threat though, and good things will be lost: the cover artwork (which never fully recovered from the decline of the 12” LP record), the thrill of breaking the shrink-wrap on your new acquisition, and more crudely, the income this generated for the industry (though in most cases not so much for the artist).

That is the negative view though. The positive is that music has never been more available than it is today, and the barriers to a musician wanting to be heard have never been lower. Digital also enables new kinds of art, maybe multimedia packages, or releases where the user can create their own mixes, or interactive products which combine music with online experiences and interaction. The Who’s new Quadrophenia deluxe box is disappointing in terms of content, but its Q:Cloud site, which is unlocked by possession of the CD, has an amazing collection of material that goes beyond what would ever be printed and packed into a box. 

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An ugly dialog from Spotify

I am a big fan of Spotify, mainly because it works so well. Search is near instant, playback is near instant.

I understood when, under pressure from the music industry, it limited the value of the free version by restricting the hours of play and the number of times you can play a specific track.

This is ugly though:

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Spotify says:

From today, all new Spotify users will need to have a Facebook account to join Spotify. Think of it as like a virtual ‘passport’, designed to make the experience smoother and easier, with one less username and password to remember. You don’t need to connect to Facebook and if you do decide to, you can always control what you share and don’t share by changing your Spotify settings at any time.

Why care? Privacy? Because you might want Spotify but not Facebook?

I would put it another way. I am wary of putting Facebook at the centre of my Internet identity. If others follow Spotify’s example and the Web were to become useless unless you are logged into Facebook, that would give Facebook more power that I would like.

If for some reason you want to withdraw from Facebook, why should that affect your relationship with Spotify? It is an ugly dependency, and I hope that Spotify reconsiders.

See also Cloud is identity management says Kim Cameron, now ex-Microsoft.

Amazon.com offers U2 band members for sale

The last throes of physical media for music has spawned the appearance of fabulously expensive box sets which include a little bit of what fans want – like rare concerts, outtakes or new surround mixes – and a lot of what they probably will look at once and put away for ever, like paper memorabilia, badges and trinkets. In many cases vinyl records are included. It is all in the box, so if you want that little something, you have to get the lot, even if you do not have a turntable.

An example is David Bowie’s Station to Station box set, currently £96.92 at Amazon’s UK site, which has badges, vinyl, cards and a fan club certificate, and is also the only official source for a 5.1 mix of Bowie’s classic album on DVD.

Another is the Who’s Live at Leeds 40th Anniversary Special Edition, which includes vinyl album and single, poster and book, along with the only release on CD of the Who’s 1970 performance at Hull. Originally released at around £80, it sold out and now commands high prices on the collector’s market.

Now it is U2’s turn, and the band or its label seem determined to out-do the others in both unnecessary packaging and extravagant price. The Achtung Baby 20th Anniversary Über Deluxe Box Set, due in October, is £329.99 in the UK or $588.57 on Amazon’s US site. You get a magnetic puzzle box, 6 CDs, four DVDs, 5 vinyl singles, 16 prints, a book, a magazine, badges, a sticker sheet, and a pair of sunglasses.

However, it seems someone at Amazon has a sense of humour. Check the last words of the editorial description:

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Curiously those words do not appear in the UK description.

Now you can rip SACDs

Sony’s Super Audio CD (SACD) is an audiophile format featuring high resolution and multi-channel sound. The discs are are copy protected, and until now it has not been possible to create an exact copy. Of course you can capture the analogue output and re-digitise it, and certain players from manufacturers such as Oppo enable you to capture digital output converted from Sony’s DSD (Direct Stream Digital) format to high-resolution PCM (Pulse-Code Modulation); but still, it is not an exact copy.

Ripping an SACD is still not that easy. The crack depends on getting hold of an early model of the PlayStation 3 that has not been updated to the latest firmware. Recent PS3s do not play SACD at all, plus you need firmware of 3.55 or lower, before Sony removed the capability of running an alternative operating system. There is no downgrade path, so it is a matter of scouring eBay for one that has not been updated.

Once you have the right hardware you can follow the instructions here  to rip the SACD:

SACD-Ripper supports the following output formats:
- 2ch DSDIFF (DSD)
- 2ch DSDIFF (DST) (if already DST encoded)
- 2ch DSF (DSD)
- mch DSDIFF (DSD)
- mch DSDIFF (DST)
- mch DSF (DSD)
- ISO (due to the 4GB FAT32 size limit on the PS3, files will be splitted when larger)

There is some discussion of the procedure here from where I have grabbed this image:

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Is it worth it? Good question. There are SACD enthusiasts who swear that DSD reproduces sound with a natural fidelity that PCM cannot match. On the other hand, researchers conducted a test showing that listeners could not tell the difference if the output from SACD was converted to CD standard PCM. I have also seen papers suggesting that DSD is inferior to PCM and may colour the sound. Expect heated opinions if you enter this debate.

Nevertheless, there are many great sounding SACDs out there and the format is not completely dead. Universal Japan, for example, issues SACDs made of SHM (Super High Material) at premium prices, and whether it is thanks to the super super technology, or simply clean mastering from good tape sources, these are proving popular within the niche audiophile market.

The fact that these discs cannot be perfectly ripped is part of the appeal from the industry’s perspective. Now that is no longer the case, and the torrent sites will be able to offer DSD files with full SACD quality.

Warring models of music distribution

How should we pay for the music we listen to? In the digital, internet era, it seems to me that there are three business models.

In the first model, you pay for a lifetime right to each album or track you want to add to your collection. This is the most similar to what we are used to from purchasing physical media like records or CDs. You do not own the music of course; all you have ever purchased is a licence to listen to it.

Until now the digital equivalent has been downloads as offered by Apple iTunes or Amazon’s MP3 store. However, Apple has now announced iCloud, which extends this model to de-emphasise the actual download. You download a track to play it on your device, but there is no problem if you have more licenced tracks than you have space for; you can just download the ones you want to play. You can also “upload”, but when you do this, you do not really upload the tracks, but rather just inform iCloud’s database that you are licenced for them.

The second model is where you subscribe, giving you the right to play anything that your music provider has to offer. The most successful example is Spotify, which has a superb client for Mac and PC that offers near-instant playback of any of 13 million tracks.

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An advantage of this approach is that it is naturally social. Since everyone has access to the same library, you can share playlists easily.

The third model is where you do not pay at all. In pre-digital days, you could listen to the radio or swap tapes with friends. Now almost anything is available, legally through Spotify (though now restricted to 2.5 hours per week and 5 times per track), or illegally through countless sites easily found through Google, or through copying your friend’s hard drive stuffed with music.

Personally I am a fan of the second model. I think musicians should be rewarded for their work, and that all-you-can-eat licencing is the best and fairest approach, taking advantage of what technology enables. Buying a lossy-compressed download with a restrictive licence is also poor value compared to buying a record or CD.

I get the impression though that the music industry is set against the subscription approach. Apple seems reluctant to embrace it, hence iCloud is still tied to the first model. Spotify still has it, but the company now seems to be putting increasing emphasis on downloads and locally stored music, which is strange given its original concept, as well as making its ad-supported free streaming account less attractive.

The business reasoning, I guess, is a belief that selling music piecemeal is more profitable, and exploits the collecting instinct that has served the industry so well in the past.

The risk is that the third model will sweep it aside.

Why Spotify should stick to streaming, not copy iTunes

Today Spotify announced iPod support. Essentially it has reverse-engineered enough of the Apple iPod’s protocols to let you connect an iPod and sync a Spotify playlist to it.

The catch: in order to sync a playlist you have to buy MP3s for all the tracks it includes.

Spotify has great software and I love the service, though sadly it is now crippled for free users. It already supports smartphone users through an offline feature, combined with a mobile app, though this requires a premium account.

The new model is different. Instead of being an offline cache for streamed music, it is old-style MP3 purchase. In fact, the promotional video presents the new feature in simple terms: you can now purchase and download your Spotify playlist.

So what is Spotify now? A streaming service, or a download service? Was the crippling of the free service done with this in mind, to push users towards MP3 purchase? Is this another symptom of music industry pressure? Will Spotify further cripple its streaming service, to promote download purchases?

Personally I have little interest in yet another MP3 download option. For iPod or iPhone users, Apple iTunes wins on usability and integration, Amazon MP3 on price.

I have great interest in subscription though. Spotify has been liberating in this respect. Want to play something? Just search and play, instantly. That is what Spotify does so well. It should stick with it, rather than moving back into the download era.

First encounter with Spotify sixth play bar – but what is the reason?

When I fired up Spotify today I was greeted by this large banner:

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Free listening has gone, unless you are happy not to have repeat listens. After five times, that’s it.

I sacrificially endured playing Winchester Cathedral by The New Vaudeville band five times over. I discovered that simply starting a track does not seem to count. On the sixth attempt to play the full track though, I got a slightly modified version of the above banner, and then a message along the top of the Spotify app:

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As a point of interest, this particular track is on a large number of different compilations of 60’s compilations. Spotify seems to consider each appearance a different track. So I was able to endure a sixth play of the track by picking a different compilation.

Why has Spotify made this unpopular change? The suggestion in the official blog post is that it was forced upon the company, either by financial necessity or the insistence of the music industry:

It’s vital that we continue offering an on-demand free service to you and millions more like you, but to make that possible we have to put some limits in place going forward.

There are over 9000 (mostly negative) comments post, but as far as I can tell no further official comment there.

Spotify’s chief content officer Ken Parks was available for interview and quoted by various sources; for example he told the Reg:

We’ve shown that the model is doing extremely well, but as things stand we need to tweak the service to ensure everyone has access to legal music in the long term.

Similar tone, but still no hard information. As for CEO and founder Daniel Ek he tweeted:

Things are not always what they seem…

which if it means anything means “watch this space” I guess.

The affect of the change is easy to predict. There will be more subscribers, but fewer users. Spotify will be less attractive to advertisers, but will get additional subscription income. Since it is still a good deal with the basic subscription, I would expect income to increase overall, but that is only a hunch.

I like Spotify’s performance and usability. The one thing I have against it is the annoying tendency of tracks to disappear suddenly. I played Paul Simon’s latest, So Beautiful or So What, on the service and enjoyed it. Then the next day it had disappeared. Even subscribers to the unlimited service do not get everything, only those tracks which the various rights holders permit.