Tag Archives: music

Future of music: files are over says WME music boss (or, why Apple bought Beats)

In February at the music industry conference Midem in Cannes, Marc Geiger of  WME (William Morris Endeavor), which represents artists across all media platforms, gave a keynote about the future of music. Geiger is head of the music department.

It is from six months ago but only just caught my ear.

Gieger argues that the streaming model – as found in Spotify, YouTube, Pandora and so on – is the future business model of music distribution. File download – as found in Apple iTunes, Amazon MP3, Google Play and elsewhere – is complex for the user to manage, limits selection, and full of annoyances like format incompatibilities or device memory filling up.

With unusual optimism, Gieger says that a subscription-based future will enable a boom in music industry revenue. The music server provider model “will dwarf old music industry numbers”, he says.

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Who will win the streaming wars? Although it is smaller players like Spotify and MOG that have disrupted the file download model, Gieger says that giant platforms with over 500 million customers will dominate the next decade. He mentions Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Yahoo, Pandora, Apple iTunes, Baidu, Android (note that Google appears three times in this list).

Why will revenue increase? Subscriptions start cheap and go up, says Gieger. “Once people have the subscription needle in the arm, it’s very hard to get out, and prices go up.” He envisages premium subscriptions offering offline mode, better quality, extra amounts per family member, access to different mixes and live recordings.

The implication for the music industry, he says, is that it is necessary to get 100% behind the streaming model. It is where consumers are going, he says, and if you are not there you will miss out. “We’ve got to get out of the way, we’ve got to support it.” Just as with the introduction of CDs, it enables the business to sell its back catalogue yet again.

A further implication is that metadata is a big deal. In a streaming world, just as in in any other form of music distribution, enabling discovery is critical to success. Labels should be working hard on metadata clean-up.

Gieger does see some future for physical media such as CD and DVD, if there is a strong value-add in the form of books and artwork.

You can see this happening as increasing numbers of expensive super-deluxe packages turn up, complete with books and other paraphernalia. For example, Pink Floyd’s back catalogue was reissued in “Immersion” boxes at high prices; the Wish you were Here package includes 9 coasters, a scarf and three marbles.

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This sort of thing becomes more difficult though as consumers lose the disc habit. If I want to play a VHS video I have to get the machine down from the loft; CD, DVD and Blu-Ray are likely to go the same way.

Geiger’s analysis makes a lot of sense, though his projected future revenues seem to me over-optimistic. People love free, and there is plenty of free out there now, so converting those accustomed to playing what they want from YouTube to a subscription will not be easy.

That is a business argument though. From a technical perspective, the growth of streaming and decline of file download does seem inevitable to me (and has done for a while).

Listen to the talk, and it seems obvious that this is why Apple purchased Beats in May 2014. Beats offers a streaming music subscription service, unlike iTunes which uses a download model.

Why Apple needed to spend out on Beats rather than developing its own streaming technology as an evolution of iTunes remains puzzling though.

Finally, Gieger notes the need to “put out great music. After we all have access to all the music in the world, the quality bar goes up.” That is one statement that is not controversial.

Here is the complete video:

Keep your CDs and DVDs: how the UK copyright law is changing but still does not make sense

The UK copyright law is changing in June 2014. The details of the changes are here. There is also a simplified Guidance for Consumers [PDF] document.

One of the reasons for the changes is to allow format-shifting, such as ripping CDs or DVDs to a smartphone, MP3 player, home media server, or cloud storage.

The changes will mean that you will be able to copy a book or film you have purchased for one device onto another without infringing copyright.

says the consumer guidance. However, the law does not allow making copies for friends or family, nor making copies of media acquired illegally.

You will be permitted to make personal copies to any device that you own, or a personal online storage medium, such as a private cloud. However, it will be illegal to give other people access to the copies you have made, including, for example, by allowing a friend to access your personal cloud storage.

Sensible; but note this provision:

Am I able to give away or resell media, such as CDs, that I have made personal copies from?
Yes, but you will infringe copyright if you retain any personal copies that you have made. Therefore, if you wish to give away or sell a CD you should first delete any personal copies you have made from it.

The actual legislation says:

The rights conferred by this Chapter in a recording are infringed if an individual transfers a personal copy of the recording to another person (otherwise than on a private and temporary basis), except where the transfer is authorised by the rights owner.

The intent of the law seems to be that you must keep your physical CDs and DVDs safely in the loft after ripping them, if you want to stay the right side of the law. What about destroying the media (rather than passing it on)? You would think that might be OK but the document does not say.

In the old world you could buy a record, CD or DVD and store it in the living room for everyone at home to enjoy. You could lend a DVD to a friend, during which time she could play it but not you, and then get it back and enjoy it again. Even with the new provisions, it is still hard for the law to cover what is normal in the new digital world.

For example, the focus on the new legislation is on individual rights. I cannot see anything covering the common and normal scenario of a media server in the home accessible by the whole family. If anything, the new law implies that this is not OK: the legislation specifies that the format-shifted copy “is made for the individual’s private use.” The guidance makes a point of including family among those who are not allowed copies:

Creators have a right to be paid for their work, so the law will not allow people to get content for free by copying from friends and family.

Is merely playing content different from copying it? Maybe, maybe not. If you can play it, you do not need to copy it, and you are forbidden from allowing others access to your private media in cloud storage, such as Amazon or Google cloud players.

I am not saying that a shared home iTunes or Squeezebox library is not allowed, as it also seems to me that the intent of the law is to allow normal activities like this, but it looks like a grey area to me.

Another tricky area is copy protection. Copy protection, such as DVD or Blu-ray encryption, is allowed, but only if it is does not prevent the kind of fair use backup and format-shifting described above. If your format-shifting is prevented by copy protection, you can complain to the Secretary of State who will ask the vendor to ensure:

that the owner or exclusive licensee of that copyright work makes available to the complainant or the class of individuals represented by the complainant the means of benefiting from section 28B to the extent necessary to benefit from that section.

where 28B is the clause which gives these new rights. What might be sufficient? What about a downloadable compressed MP4 video or MP3 music, for your copy-protected Blu-ray, would that do? That is not much of a backup for a 4K video.

While it is good to see UK copyright law beginning to catch up with reality, it will continue to be imperfect as well as impossible to enforce. There are now three common forms of private media licensing:

  • Physical media – the license travels with the media. For example CD, DVD, Blu-Ray
  • Individual downloads – a personal license to specific files. For example, iTunes, Amazon MP3
  • All-you-can-eat subscriptions. For example, Spotify.

The third of these makes most sense in the digital era and will I believe come to dominate. Framing legislation that works sensibly for all three cases, while protecting common-sense rights, is all-but impossible.

Neil Young’s Pono: an advance in digital music?

Thanks to the just-launched Kickstarter project, there are now firm technical details for Neil Young’s curious Pono project, which aims to solve what the musician sees as the loss of audio quality caused by the transition to digital music:

“Pono” is Hawaiian for righteous. What righteous means to our founder Neil Young is honoring the artist’s intention, and the soul of music. That’s why he’s been on a quest, for a few years now, to revive the magic that has been squeezed out of digital music. In the process of making music more convenient – easier to download, and more portable – we have sacrificed the emotional impact that only higher quality music can deliver.

There is a lot about emotion and the spirit of music in the pitch; but ultimately while music is art, audio is technology. What is the technology in Pono and can it deliver something markedly better than we have already?

Pono has several components. The first is a portable player:

  • 64GB on-board storage and 64GB SD card
  • 8 hour rechargeable battery
  • Software for PC and Mac to transfer songs
  • Two stereo output jack sockets, one for headphones, and one a line-out for connection to a home hi-fi system
  • Ability to play FLAC, ALAC, WAV, MP3, AIFF and AAC at resolutions (at least for FLAC) of up to 192Khz/24-bit. 

The Pono player will cost around $400.00, though early Kickstarter backers can pre-order for $200 (all sold now) or $300.00.

There will also be a Pono music store “supported by all major labels and their growing catalogues of high quality digital music”. The record companies will set their own prices, but high-res (24/96 and higher) music is expected to cost between $14.99 and $24.99 per album. Individual songs will also be available.

Here is the key question: will you hear the difference. Here is what the pitch says:

Yes. We are confident that you will hear the difference. We’re even more confident you will feel it. Everyone who’s ever heard PonoMusic will tell you that the difference is surprising and dramatic. Especially when they listen to music that they know well – their favorite music. They’re amazed by how much better the music sounds – and astonished at how much detail they didn’t realize was missing compared to the original. They tell us that not only do they hear the difference; they feel it in their body, in their soul.

Count me sceptical. There are two ways in which Pono can sound better than what you use at the moment to play music – which for many of us is a smartphone, a CD ripped to a hard drive and played from a PC, Mac or iPod, or streamed to a device like a Sonos or Squeezebox.

One is though superior electronics. Pono is designed by Ayre Acoustics, a high end audio company, and you can expect a Pono to sound good; but there is no reason to think it will sound better than many other DACs and pre-amplifiers available today. As a dedicated audio device it should sound better than the average smartphone; but Apple for one has always cared about audio quality so I would not count on a dramatic improvement.

The second is through higher resolution sources. This is a controversial area, and the Kickstarter pitch is misleading:

On the “low end” of higher resolution music (CD lossless, 16 bit/44.1kHz), PonoMusic files have about 6 times more musical information than a typical mp3. With ultra-high quality resolution recordings (24 bit/192kHz), the difference between a PonoMusic digital file and an mp3 is about 30 times more data from which your player reconstructs the “song”.

We need to examine what is meant by “musical information” in the above. The Pono blurb makes the assumption that more data must mean better sound. However, just because a CD “lossless” file is six times the size of an MP3 file does not mean it sounds six times better. Listening tests show that by the time you get to say 320kbps MP3, most people find it hard to hear the difference, because the lossy formats like MP3 and AAC are designed to discard data that we cannot hear.

What about 24/96 or 24/192 versus CD format (16/44)? Advocates will tell you that they hear a big difference, but the science of this is obscure; see 24/192 downloads and why they make no sense for an explanation, complete with accompanying videos that spell this out. Most listening tests that I am aware of have failed to detect an audible difference from resolutions above CD format. Even so, audio is subtle and complex enough that it would be brave to say there is never any audible improvement above 16/44; but if it exists, it is subtle and not the obvious difference that the Pono folk claim.

The irritation here is that digital music often does sound bad, but not because of limitations in the audio format. Rather, it is the modern engineering trend of whacking up the loudness so that the dynamic range and sense of space in the music is lost – which seems close to what Neil Young is complaining about. The solution to this is not primarily in high resolution formats, but in doing a better job in mastering.

Why then do so many well known names in music praise the Pono sound so highly?

While I would like to think that this is because of a technical breakthough, I suspect it is more to do with comparing excellent mastering from a good source to a typical over-loud CD or MP3 file, than anything revolutionary in Pono itself. If you have a high-resolution track that sounds great, try downsampling it to 16/44 and comparing it to that, before concluding that it is the format itself that provides the superior sound.

The highest distortion in the audio chain is in the transducers, speakers and microphones, and not in the digital storage, conversion and amplification.

The Pono Kickstarter has already raised $550,000 of its $800,000 goal which looks promising. Even if the high resolution aspect makes little sense, it is likely that the Pono music store will offer some great sounding digital music so the project will not be a complete dead loss.

That said, who is going to want Pono when a tiny music player, or just using your smartphone, is so much more convenient? Only a dedicated few. This, combined with the lack of any real technical breakthrough, means that Pono will likely stumble in the market, despite its good intentions.

Within the crazy audiophile world we are also going to hear voices saying, “you should have used DSD”, a alternative way of encoding high-resolution audio, as found in SACD disks.

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.

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.

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.