SACD – Too little, too late

Following on from my previous post, my worry is that with digital downloads taking over, will anyone care about a new kick-arse CD replacement, regardless of cost or quality?  I buy the odd album and track  from Beatport, and if I absolutely have to, from iTunes (that should win some award for the worst user interface ever.  If your musical taste doesn’t extend beyond the featured stuff on the front page you are probably ok, but as a method for browsing and discovering new music, it is abysmal), so I’m no stranger to digital media.  Oh, how I miss Audiogalaxy (before it went legit, although I just looked at it and what they are doing now looks extremely interesting).  I downloaded more music through them in one rainy Christmas holiday break (over a 56k modem!) than I have in the entire 8 years or more since.

However, I keep my digital purchases to either single tracks, or obscure albums that I’m unlikely to get on CD.  Beatport is great for that, as you can get heaps of tracks that would only otherwise be available as singles, and even today, probably only on vinyl.

Beyond that, I’m an album man, and I think that represents one of the fundamental shifts in the music buying behaviour of consumers.   Every forum thread that touches on this topic is full of comments bemoaning the quality of modern releases and how you are lucky to get more than a couple of good tracks per release.  I can’t really comment on that as I have no data to back it up, but I can’t help wondering whenever I am forced to listen to commercial radio and hear some catchy yet ultimately vacuous (and shit) track: does this guy have an ALBUM?  Would anyone seriously buy an entire album of this?
I wonder what the drop-off rate is on purchases.  It is frequently said that a movie makes most of its money in the first week, or first weekend even.  Is it the same for music, at least when talking about ‘pop’ music driven by radio exposure?
If you didn’t buy the album in the first couple of weeks, would you buy it at all?  If your desire to purchase the album was on the strength of one single that you thought was ‘funny’ or ‘catchy’, I’d hazard that it wouldn’t be a burning desire.  You may put it on your ‘watch’ list, and then remove it soon after once something else comes along.

Did ‘Baja Men’ release an album after their seminal ‘Who let the dogs out’ single?  I could look it up, but I really don’t want to know – if it was in the affirmative it would only piss me off that studio time was wasted on this tripe.  I bet it didn’t sell many copies though, and we are still waiting for a follow-up with baited breath.

Anyway, the quality or lack thereof of popular music is not the issue here – I don’t necessary blame technology for this: many commentators have suggested that people pirate music because there is so little stuff actually worth paying for, not that people don’t want to pay.

Although in a way, it could be to blame, and that is where I wonder about whether allowing people to buy single tracks so easily will have an effect on what is actually released.

I read with fascination the flap over the ruling that EMI are not allowed to sell individual Pink Floyd tracks through iTunes etc.  For example: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/8561963.stm (also check out http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/arts/music/12levi.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all for another mega-star band taking (and maintaining as far as I can see) a similar stance).

While this sort of stance wouldn’t be appropriate to every artist or album (the words ‘artistic integrity’ were used, so that rules out the majority), it is perfectly understandable for those guys.  It is interesting to note however then since that ruling was handed down, the band has relented and allowed the individual tracks to stay, for example: http://www.macobserver.com/tmo/article/pink_floyd_emi_agree_to_new_distribution_deal/.  Make of that what you will.

A comment by ‘Substance’ on that page is something I see echoed frequently:

And it’s a consumers world.  For years consumers were led by the RIAA in the direction of buying whole albums (that kept going up in price despite technology which made the printing of music ever cheaper) of mostly filler to get their hands on a few good tracks.  The ability to download individual tracks puts the power back in consumers hands and forces artists and their labels to put more emphasis on releasing quality, not quantity.

There is a pretty strong supposition here though: labels are releasing crap because they are lazy, and a kick up the pants will change that.  Well, they have been getting a kick for years due to people pirating music, and their only response has been to introduce tougher penalties and try protect their output via DRM (or rootkits in Sony’s case).  Bring out good music that people are happy to pay for?  Pffft, that would be far too difficult; after all, a $100+ million annual budget can only go so far …

The only comment I have to make is this: do I give a shit?  Really, why should I be concerned about the quality of music that Sony, Warner, BMG etc release?  When there are thousands and thousands of other labels in existence (not all of them tiny independents struggling to release cutting-edge music and pay the bills), why should I care about what Sony releases?

Why do people call them labels anyway?  What sort of identity does Sony have as a label?  Tell me, have you ever heard someone say “I’m really hanging out for the next Sony release”?  Who would say something that dumb besides a Sony exec?

Taking a leaf from the electronica world, to me a real label was something like:

… and plenty of others.  These were all labels that had an aesthetic about them, and each release was eagerly awaited.  Some of the more observant among you may notice a pattern: these are all somewhat (ok, very) old-school.  This is something that troubles me personally, as the number of good labels currently in existence is probably more than has ever existed in history, and I can listen to and purchase any of their output with a couple of clicks of a mouse.  So why don’t I know about any of them?

Speaking for myself, a large part of the reason is that I don’t really care.  I mean, I do, but not enough to spend time on it.  With the power of today’s technology, someone can set up a label almost as easily as I can purchase their releases.  There are thousands of disposable labels producing tens of thousands of disposable tracks (mostly download only).  I just find it hard to get excited about trawling through it all and buying a bunch of bytes which I could easily lose if my computer dies, or someone decides to change their DRM rules.

I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with the music, there are plenty (and plenty) of excellent releases.  Except now I need to rely on people like Chris Norman and his Synaesthetics (goddammit, I’ve used the word ‘aesthetic’ twice in one post – I’d better dust off my turtle-neck sweater) radio show to put me on to them.

One thing I heard through him is “youANDme – Ornaments Symphony“.  This is absolute magic, although in a horribly ironic twist according to the review it was produced using relics of the analogue age:

Label owners youANDme take the reins for the project, utilizing four turntables, one CD deck and a sampler to create the mix. The use of old-school methods is intentional here; youANDme are huge vinyl lovers and I strongly believe they would have released this on vinyl if it had somehow been possible. A far cry from artists such as Joris Voorn, who edit tracks extensively and use digital methods to achieve their results, youANDme treasure the risk.

If that wasn’t enough all the releases on this label are vinyl only, except as stated –  this mix, and just to hammer in the last nail, the Ornaments Symphony CD is an extremely limited edition and not legitimately available as a MP3 download.

For me anyway, this album has become an object of desire, and is currently sitting as a saved search in Ebay.  By the way, why the fuck does Ebay now have ads?  Don’t they make enough money already that they need to slow down everything with Flash Ads?  I’ve just installed Flashblock so I’ll see how that goes.

What perhaps needs to be remembered is that what is on the outside DOES count.  Sure, if the music (or whatever product it is) is crap, you won’t buy it, but if you are competing with hundreds or thousands of alternatives as is the case with music, how do you get noticed in the first place?  Lacking a physical product sitting on a shelf with great artwork on an unusual package format, you need to resort to tried and true ‘word of mouth’.  Only these days we have a lot more sophisticated tools to achieve this, such as online stores that tell you that other people who bought album (or more likely track) ‘X’ also bought ‘Y’.  Unfortunately the systems aren’t smart enough to realise you bought an album for your grandmother at the same time (which was probably burnt to CD so she could listen to it), but for the most part it helps.

(Maybe it is narcissistic to edit my own post this far back, but I notice on the newly launched non-Flash Beatport my other purchases are still coming up a month later as the ‘People Also Bought’ recommendations for Ettetra by Artette.  I feel slightly cheated as I was originally searching for the classic Apollo label (to find someone else using this classic name now, regardless of the reasons why the original is no longer used, is like reusing Blue Note.  You are asking to get fucked up by the Spirit of Jazz).  Anyway, it just goes to show how dodgy these recommendations could possibly be.  Although in this case just buy it.  Seriously)

Back in my day though, we had something called ‘liner notes’, which were written by the artist, or possibly some music critic from NME or whatever.  So instead of learning what little Johnny also bought, we learnt who the artist listens to, or what labels he or she gives a shout out to.  All these things were synthesised into a simple but quite effective network of influences and recommendations that prompted further exploration.  And of course if the CD was on a smaller label you were probably keen to check out more on the same label.

Sitting on the couch listening to the best quality that was available at the time (and for the last 30 years sadly), and perusing the liner notes or absorbing the artwork and really ‘getting’ what the artist was trying to achieve was a joyous experience that is getting harder to achieve.
Sure, all that stuff is available on the artist’s website – you could sit at your laptop or desktop and read it while listening to your compressed MP3s through shitty little speakers, probably while checking your email, Facebook page and Twitter updates.

It’s not the same is it?

And don’t tell me to get with the times – I do all that as well.  My computer at work is chock full of copies of my albums as well as a few hundred MP3s from iTunes and Beatport, plus heaps of free ones and numerous DJ mixes.  And I love it.  I use MediaMonkey as my player (the paid version too) and I’ve starred my favourite tracks so when I can’t be bother choosing something I just play those tracks.  How convenient!

But what does this do to people’s perception of the value of music?  If I put on a CD at home, I normally listen to it beginning to end because that is what it is designed for, and why would I have bought it in the first place if I skip half the tracks?  Plus why stress about a few tracks that aren’t quite as good as others?  Let it play while I do something more productive than hunt around for something else.  If I do buy a second-hand CD that ends up falling short, I rip the tracks I like and then give away the CD to the tip-shop or whatever.  It does happen …
But when I have a cornucopia of MP3s in front of me at work, I find it far too easy to skip around listening to a track here and there and in fact often listen to far too many of the same tracks far too often.  Plenty of perfectly good albums sit unplayed because something shinier caught by attention.

I’ll tell you now, if CDs were suddenly made illegal (I’m sure the RIAA would love that if DRM’d audio tracks were then the only alternative) and I now bought everything from iTunes, my buying patterns would shift considerably.  Firstly, I would sign-up for a US iTunes account to stop getting raped by the outrageous prices we pay in Australia.  Secondly, I would still buy albums, but only if the economics stacked up, i.e. if the number of tracks I was prepared to pay for outweighed the price of the full album.  After all, I’m not getting a physical product, no cover art or liner notes or nifty packaging so who cares if I only buy half?  If the tracks are cross-faded it is trivial to edit it out if I could be bothered.
The crux of the issue is what happens to all those tracks that I might um and ah about?  Like the really kick-arse intro track that goes for 52.5 seconds?  Is that worth $1.69?  Yes US readers, that is what Australians pay per track, and with the AU dollar being on parity to the US right now, it is just laughable, but not the good sort of laugh…
As an aside, I just had to check that price and fired up iTunes and was intrigued to discover that the top charting song at the moment an Australia (so presumably in the US too)  is “Tonight (I’m F***king You)” by Enrique Iglesias, brought to you by the fine people at Universal Music.  Good to know that the death of quality popular music has been reprieved for just a little longer.  I must admit the comments (http://itunes.apple.com/au/album/tonight-im-f-n-you-feat-ludacris/id409818369 and then click ‘View in iTunes’) are a fascinating insight in to the mind of the (presumably young) consumer, and simultaneously give me hope as well as prove conclusively that popular music really has gone down the toilet, and the fact these people also drive cars and are allowed to vote is not a pleasant thought.

So tying all this together, if someone like me, who is dedicated to the art, is willing to say ‘fuck it’ under these circumstances and just cherry-pick my favourite tracks, does that spell The Death of the Album?  After all, this is what a lot of people do already, and the younger generation are increasingly growing up with digital downloads so have less to lose so to speak.
Will it, as many people dare to dream, raise the quality of albums to encourage their purchase (and by quality, I use it in the context of ‘relative to the one or two popular singles that prompted someone to consider getting the album in the first place’ and not in the absolute sense of ‘not being a turd, however polished’)?
Or will it shift the way music is produced into a near continuous release of singles and mini-albums (know to us oldies as ‘EPs’, which is kind of odd because I would have thought an Extended Play would be longer than just a Long Play but I’m sure there is a reasonable explanation)?
From a download perspective, that could work.  You could even subscribe to a particular artists’ output and get it cheaper, but with the risk of some of it being lame (and non-refundable).  If they weren’t bound to fill an album each time, the quality of each released track would probably be pretty good anyway (although see my previous comment on my use of the word ‘quality’).  Not sure how this would tie in with touring though – it would be strange to tour the world to promote the release of your latest single, unless you did it really quickly.

How do you reconcile singles though, which would work fine online, to physical singles, which seem to be a dying breed?  I’m not even sure if my local record store has them any more.
Do you collect them up every 12 months and release an ‘album’?  For most pop music, nobody will be interested in tracks 12 months old.  Therein lies the fundamental dichotomy between online and offline purchasing behaviour – people who buy CDs like to buy albums and people who download, legally or not, are more likely to pick individual tracks.  Of course the reality is somewhere in between – but CDs, with their greater cost of manufacture and distribution, will probably lose out.

The other fly in the ointment is the fact that artists like Pink Floyd, who already release excellent albums where not only every track is good more or less but they are conceived as an entirety rather than a selection of individual tracks, are still being badgered to release downloads of individual tracks?  If these guys are in that situation, what hope does poor Enrique have of filling and selling actual albums online?

I’ll leave you with this thought – would something like Dark Side of the Moon have been written today?  Maybe, but would it have sold 45 MILLION copies?
Still, perhaps CDs and albums will be around a little longer – there certainly seem to be a lot in my local JB Hifi and they wouldn’t sell them if nobody bought them.  They even have a small vinyl section, and the choices there seem very much geared to the younger crowd – what a pity they probably aren’t listening to them on one of these babies: http://www.michell-engineering.co.uk/gyrodec_orbe_turntable.html.  It would probably change forever their perception of what music can sound like.

Wither CDs?

For me personally I look at my walls of CDs and despair that they are becoming relics for no other reason than fucking ‘convenience’.  They aren’t much less convenient that MP3 for most purposes (except going to the gym for example) – I know where everything is so I just grab what I want and stick it in the car, the lounge-room CD player, the one in the garage or the all-in-one system in the bedroom (which has an iPod dock which I have never used).  No computers, batteries or iTunes required.

And frankly they look fantastic in the cabinets, especially as they are grouped by label for the most part, so seeing two and a half shelves of FAX CD is just a joy to behold.  Same with Beyond, Global Underground, Em:t, F Communications, Kompact, Instinct Ambient and more.

And they sound superior!  That is what makes this all so farcical: the modern day music format of choice – MP3 – is rooted in the specifications of CD, and then compressed!  How is that progress? A modern day artist creating a digital download can now choose to master their recording to any specification they desire rather than be bound to ‘CD Quality’, and what do we get? Compressed garbage.

And it gets better – you can spend thousands buying fancy iPod docks, DA converters, upsamplers and multi-media systems to try and put back in what has been taken out of these compressed files.  I would suggest a conspiracy, but I say never put down to a conspiracy what can be attributed to stupidity.

How can all my SACDs sound far superior to any modern CD recording despite the fact that the source material is all old analogue (with the possible exception of the Depeche Mode – not sure what they would have used in 1990.  24-bit 96/192khz would have been pretty intense back then in terms of processing and storage capacity).  How can Dark Side of the Moon recorded in the 70’s sound better on SACD than what the latest digital file format has to offer? It’s bewildering.

So back to the title of this post – you can only wonder what would happen if SACD wasn’t a marketing FAIL.  Would it have raised the perception of what is possible high enough that at least our digital downloads wouldn’t sound like a telephone with a high quality microphone and speaker?  This may not prevent the death of CDs, but at least we weren’t taking a step backwards in sound quality.  In fact we might end up saying good riddance to CDs if we had a better alternative.

There is also the small issue of the fact that SACD actually allows for 5.1 surround sound as well.  Did nobody look around at all the DVD home cinema systems flying out the door of the local home electrical retailers and think that maybe people would also be interested in hearing their favourite music in genuine (not simulated) 5.1?  Was Sony really that stupid that they didn’t see that the world was ready not only for high quality audio, but music in 5.1 surround?  Not only ready, but able. They had a system sitting in the lounge room sitting idle most of the time that just needed the right signal fed to it.

Now, if I want 5.1 surround music I have to buy it on DVD as either a live recording of something or with some visuals added.  Why the fuck do I need visuals?  I have a brain and an imagination!  There are some great 5.1 DVDs out there though.  From my own collection I have the BT – This Binary Universe CD/DVD combo which sounds amazing. The “Meat Beat Manifesto … In Dub” DVD is great, and the DVD that comes with the “Leftfield – A Final Hit” has a bunch of their most popular tracks seemingly re-recorded in 5.1 as they sound brilliant. The Leftfield is a bit different as it actually has the clips to go with the track whereas the others are just visuals, and I tend to turn the TV off after going through the rigmarole of navigating the menus.

Still, yet again stop-gap solutions – none of these are high definition in the modern sense, and all are Dolby Digital only – not even DTS.

Actually there is one bright point: The Cure – Trilogy on Bluray.  This is how a concert should look and sound: beautiful high-definition recording and DTS-HD Master Audio.  Absolutely stunning.  Still bums me that I need to turn on the TV just to be able to press play in the menu if I just want the music.

Want to know the most depressing thing?  Go to Amazon and browse through their SACD collection.  They have a few thousand discs, but there are only about 5 that I am interested in and even then I am mostly interested in them because there is nothing else.  I like The Police, but getting their Best Of album on SACD isn’t a massive priority.  The rest is so niche and dated that just looking at the titles make me cringe and feel embarrassed.
What a waste – I have money to spend and nothing to spend it on.  And the chance of this changing is zero.  SACD is a dead format because it was simply left to die.  It didn’t die due to a ‘format war’, it just crawled into a corner at Sony HQ and withered away from neglect, sobbing with loneliness.

Is there another saviour on the horizon?

After all MP3 is just a software algorithm – it isn’t a big deal to support it and something else.  What the world needs is a new, high-quality codec, preferably lossless, and without the encumbrances of patents.

Enter FLAC – the Free Lossless Audio Codec.  This seems to tick all the boxes right?  And technically it seems to, but being an open source project it suffers from an image issue.  Maybe this is where the imbecile in charge of marketing SACD went to after he was ‘moved on’?  Check it out: http://flac.sourceforge.net/.  No offence to all the hard work, but is this going to save the planet from shitty sound quality?  I have a feeling of deja-vu.  Technically brilliant, but no-one knows about it, and hence no-one cares.

It’s just a codec right?  So surely it should be possible to get implementations for just about every music player on the planet by wrapping the open source reference implementation with the appropriate plugin layer?  Then all you need to do is get a few high-profile sites or artists releasing music at 24bit/96khz from appropriate masters (not just ripped from CD) and Bob’s your uncle.  Of course you still need a computer capable of outputting this bitrate and sample rate, but with HDMI and DisplayPort becoming more common this is less of an issue too.  Anyone with a home theatre system capable of decoding a signal from a Bluray player should be able to cope with it.  And presto!  High definition audio exactly as your deity of choice intended.  Unfortunately you still need the computer so not as instant as SACD, but addresses the main issue.

What could go wrong?  Well, my OS X machine at home suffers from the fact that I can’t yet find a decent media player that supports FLAC (actually I can’t yet find a decent media player at all for the Mac, at least nothing that compares to MediaMonkey).  So that is a bit of a let down. There is a plugin for iTunes that supports FLAC, but was last updated in 2004 or something ridiculous and I’m just not going to waste time with it in 2011.
Once again, am I missing something ultra obvious here, or does supporting probably the most popular media player on the planet not seem like a good idea to get widespread acceptance?

Maybe Windows Media Player has a decent plugin, but who uses that any more?

Not off to a good start, but maybe there are some good tracks out there to get the ball rolling.  Going from the FLAC homepage I visited HDtracks, which sounded like what I’ve been waiting for.  At this point I really began to believe that these guys looked at the way SACD was marketed and saw it differently to everyone else – instead of a massive failure they adopted the model.  Rather than get people into the concept of high definition audio by providing music that they actually might currently listen to, the word ‘audiophile’ is used far too often, and the catalogue consists of the same wankery of titles available on SACD.

So history is doomed to repeat itself – another promising format is going to stay a niche player because there is no reason for anyone to adopt it.  Once again I have a credit card in hand and nothing I want to buy.  And I like classical and jazz too.

How are we ever going to get the next generation interested in high-definition audio by playing them “Al Qantarah – Abbalati abballati! – Songs and sounds in Medieval Sicily“.  Oh, you have this album do you?

How is it possible that kids are growing up now with worse quality audio than the previous generation?  Just because there is more of it doesn’t make up for less quality – there is only so much you can listen to in a day so you may as well get the most out of it.

C’mon guys, surely there is a musician under the age of 70 who is prepared to release something as high-definition audio?

My vote goes to OTT to release something in high-def.  I already consider this guy the Alan Parsons of electronica – his production and engineering skills are phenomenal, and when you hear tracks like Around the World in a Tea Daze on a good system, you begin to understand how good music can sound.

I can but dream …

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