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You gotta love Neil’s honesty. We owe it all to artists to stand up to what they believe in and drive us forward. Without them, we would have nothing.

“Still the searcher
must ride the dark horse
Racing alone in his fright.”

“I’m finding that I have a little bit of trouble with the quality of the sound of music today,” says Neil Young. “I don’t like it. It just makes me angry. Not the quality of the music, but we’re in the 21st century and we have the worst sound that we’ve ever had. It’s worse than in 1978. Where are our geniuses? What happened?”

I can’t agree more.  We need a new format that breathes life into the music industry by improving the quality of the sound that we listen to.   If you are under the age of 22, I will bet that most of you have never really heard a great audio recording.  You don’t even know what I am talking about.

This issue is vital to the future of the music business.  What we have today with the proliferation of ear buds as the primary listening medium and compressed MP3 files is a low res music experience that is the bottom of the barrel, lowest common denominator form of a listening experience there can be.  Really listening to music is simply lost on most people these days, and as a result the art form has lost the majority of its value.

It commonly accepted that crappy sounding music is the norm and people, by and large, have no idea what they are missing.  The MP3 has stripped the emotional value from music today and has reduced it to a commodity.  The audio business has truly been compressed and marginalized and is nearing extinction.  We cannot let that happen to the music business.

As artists, “We can’t control the back end of the donkey, laments Young.  The donkey has two ends, products like Beats and Bose and every little product that comes out for your car, the whole thing – is all about the back end of the donkey.  There is nothing talking about the front end of the donkey, that’s what I’m talking about.  You don’t have to that rich to do this, you just have to be smart…  We are in the low res world, make no mistake that is right where we are…

“I look at the internet as the new radio.  I look at the radio as gone…  People change and do their music, people trade it they do whatever and Apple makes it very possible for you to store stolen or traded songs in the cloud, they opened up the door so that that can happen… its acceptable.  Thats the way it is… Piracy is the new radio, that’s how music gets around, thats the real world for kids, thats the (new) radio… Lets let them really hear it.

“I’m hoping that some people who want the hi-res would have the choice in buying it.  It has to be convenient, people should not associate hi-res with inconvenience.  That’s a myth, we’re living in the 21st century and all of these things are possible.  The technology exists, the internet is fast enough to support it…  If Steve Jobs had lived long enough, he would be eventually have done what I am trying to do.”

Quality.  We need a new format that will deliver better quality sound to drive the business forward.  Period.  Here is a true clarion call for innovation, and something that we all need to pay attention to.   Neil Young cares about music. He is successful enough that he could sit back and ignore the realities of the marketplace today, but instead chooses to push the agenda forward. Awesome. I would not be surprised to hear a new song from Neil about a donkey.  Maybe I can sing backup on it.

See the video with Neil Young and Walt Mossberg from All things D here.

Here is a brief description of some of the technical issues from Thinkdigit.  “The renewed focus on audio quality in some circles has a sense of déjà vu about it. Some of it recalls the 1970s, back when the term “high fidelity” was thrown around to indicate quality stereo recordings. We also saw this go around again at the turn of the millennium with the introduction of SACD and DVD Audio formats, which brought 24-bit fidelity and surround sound to audio mixes, although neither took off at the time.

So what’s going on here? In a word, it’s about data. More data translates to better-sounding audio files—but those files are largely unavailable to most consumers. Granted, to the casual listener, Amazon MP3 and Apple iTunes Store sound pretty good, as they’re encoded as 256Kbps MP3 and AAC files for the most part. Amazon has some MP3 files encoded at variable bit rates, but most of them center around the 224Kbps to 256Kbps range. AAC generally sounds slightly better than MP3 when encoded at the same bit rate, although recent improvements in MP3 encoding algorithms have largely rendered this academic.

Aside from music purchases, 256Kbps is also iTunes’ default encoding rate for when you rip audio CDs in iTunes (although you can change it), and it’s the size iCloud uses to deliver tracks to other PCs or mobile devices on your network if you’re a subscriber. I’m just using Apple products here as an example; Windows Media Player, Winamp, and countless other apps do similar things. Any way you cut it, 256Kbps files sound a lot better than ones encoded at 128Kbps, which is what Apple used years ago before it removed DRM from its iTunes Store tracks. Granted, 256Kbps files take up twice the space as 128Kbps files, but on today’s devices, that usually isn’t a problem, and the improved sound quality is worth it.

The thing is, 256Kbps still isn’t enough. Higher-resolution, uncompressed, 16-bit audio files match the sound you get on an actual CD. 24-bit sound files even sound better; the increased headroom matches the format most artists and mix engineers have been working in over the past decade or so.

Cheap consumer electronics manufacturers abused the phrase “CD-quality” for many years, but in this case it still has meaning. True CD-quality files take up anywhere from three to 10 times as much as space as an MP3 or AAC file, depending on the latter’s bit rate; 24-bit files take up even more space. They come in several formats: FLAC, WAV, AIFF, and Apple Lossless. (FLAC and Apple Lossless contain some data compression but only in a method that doesn’t affect sound quality. FLAC is much more widely supported than Apple Lossless, though.)”

And finally, The Tennessean wrote a great piece on the lure of high fidelity and what some people in Nashville are working on to bring it back.
More to come.  This is a big issue.  Chime in on what you think and how can we move this agenda forward.

Here is a list of 9 trends and challenges that were recently published as part of an overall report on Digital Music by Redwood Capital.  You can download the entire report here.  What I find most bothersome about all of this is that it is a very backward looking, rationalization and justification about the collapse of the recorded music business and the fantasizing about protection of the label’s assets and proliferation of the traditional business model.  While it may be a good snapshot of some of the major issues the industry has faced and a good way for people to orient themselves, this is hardly the way to think about the future.  No wonder the investments made in music startups over the past decade or so by the VCs and Investment Bankers have not panned out.  If this is the way VCs and investors look at the world of music, I got to tell you, we are all in a lot of trouble.

I have pitched and have had many deep discussions with investors over the years about the music industry and have learned one thing that is holding the entire industry back.  Investors say they care about the music business, but when it comes right down to it, they don’t care about the musicians.  Not one of them would bet on a new label or artist driven business model.  They all wanted to back technology or distribution, but not musicians.  Pathetic.

I have taken the liberty of annotating some of these “treneds and challenges” below:

1) Rampant Piracy Continues

Despite a decade of aggressive attempts by the industry to reduce illegal downloads and peer-to-peer file sharing and preserve what remained of the old model, the biggest challenge facing the industry is still the fact that consumer attitudes towards paying for music have been forever changed, especially amongst the ever-important younger demographic. This places tremendous pressure on industry players to provide the consumer with an experience that exceeds that which can be achieved illegally and for free. The solution likely lies in packaging music with other products and services that consumers expect to pay for, such as mobile phone service, Internet connections, ringtones, concerts, merchandise, etc., and taking advantage of improvements in broadband speed and access to provide a service that can’t be replicated for free. – Certainly this is true for recorded music and something that we predicted nearly 8 years ago in our book on the Future of Music. However you cannot expect a healthy market when you have to “package” what you are trying to sell with something else as the primary means of distribution.  New forms of music experiences would certainly trump “bundles”.

2) Strategy of Major Labels

Despite numerous attempts to cut out the labels as middlemen, and the potential damage they have done to their relationships with the public after years of suing their customers, the major labels still have tremendous clout in determining the fate of the various new distribution models and emerging companies. While backing by the major labels by no means guarantees any degree of success, opposition from the labels is an obstacle that is extremely difficult to overcome. That being said, many of the larger players today began without the blessing of the labels, but once they became too big to ignore the labels were willing to make a deal. – Again I would argue this perspective assumes that the existing music, the existing catalog is more important than the new music, or the music yet to be created.  Tens of millions of dollars have been wasted and countless hours of negotiation sunk into trying to secure licenses to existing major label content by many companies trying to recreate the distribution model for an asset class in severe decline.  I will go out on a limb here and say that the new music matters far more in the future than the existing music, and that licenses from the major labels are far less valuable than the labels think they are.  Perhaps an order of magnitude less.

3) Legal Complexity

Many US copyright laws were written when the only form of music distribution was printed sheet music and as such, obtaining the proper licenses from all relevant content owners is extremely complex. Given the relative youth of the digital music industry, the law is being written and applied haphazardly and has been difficult to interpret. International differences make it difficult to offer consistent products on a global basis. For example, currently Pandora is legal in the US, but illegal in the U.K, and vice versa for Spotify. Developing a business plan in this environment is extraordinarily difficult. – Of course this is true if you are building a business based on catalog.  New labels and music companies that are forming to support new artists can completely eliminate this issue by creating licenses for their content that bundle all the rights in one global license that can be easily acquired.  By using this strategy, new content businesses can outrun old content business and begin to take over the landscape.

4) The End of DRM

The recent decisions by the labels to finally eliminate digital rights management for many applications should represent a landmark change for emerging growth companies in the music space. This greatly reduces a longstanding barrier by allowing compatibility of content and devices across platforms. By decoupling content and devices, consumers can now download a song from their choice of providers and listen to that song on their choice of devices. – Excuse me but the labels had nothing to do with the elimination of digital rights management.  That was eliminated long ago when people began trading MP3 files while all the attempts to distribute “legitimate” digital music failed. This is just the labels saying uncle.

5) Mobile Strategy is Critical

Whereas it has been extremely challenging for content owners across all digital media sectors to monetize online content, consumers do not expect mobile content to be free to the same degree because they have been conditioned to pay for such services. Therefore, we believe that online models that don’t have credible mobile strategies will continue to struggle, and killer mobile apps will prosper. We believe that one of the primary reasons for MySpace’s acquisition of Imeem was Imeem’s mobile capabilities. – Here I agree with the basic premise that a mobile strategy is critical, although have yet to see one that works.  Do people really want to listen to music on their phone?  Is that the killer app?  I expect that something far better is around the corner, more integrated into your life at the moments where you can and want to listen to music.  The damage being done to people’s hearing by the “Ear Buds” sold with the iPod and nearly every other mobile listening device is limiting the experience and holding back the growth of mobile music more than anything.  MP3 sound like crap.  Ear Buds are destroying people’s hearing.  No wonder hardly anyone wants to pay for digital music.  Anyone who focuses on improving the sound quality of mobile listening will find a explosive opportunity.

6) Dominance and Importance of the iPhone

With iTunes’ almost 70% US share in digital downloads, and the iPhone quickly taking market share in the smartphone category, alliances with Apple and/ or apps on the iPhone have become critical to success. Rhapsody, Spotify and Sirius have all launched iPhone apps in the past few months, and MOG’s is expected shortly, and this should give each an important boost in marketing their products. Without the iPhone app, customers would have had to spring for another device to use those services. With customers hesitant to even pay monthly service fees, adding a hardware requirement would have been an insurmountable obstacle in reaching a large customer base. We believe that Apple has been smart in its willingness to approve apps even from services that compete with iTunes. – I love my iPhone, I think it is the coolest thing ever invented.  But I also know that worldwide, the iPhone is just a speck on the landscape of mobile phones.  Will Apple really dominate this space over time?  I doubt it very much.  The vast majority of people cannot afford to buy Apple products.

7) Importance of Wireless Broadband

The widespread availability of broadband in the home and the office in the past decade has enabled computer-based downloading and streaming to develop entirely new methods of discovering, purchasing and listening to music. Many of the previously mentioned business models revolve around this experience. However, the next frontier for the developing models is to take the experience mobile without frustrating consumers. Now that consumers have accepted that cell phones are also music players, the market for mobile music has dramatically expanded, given that 139 million smartphones were sold worldwide in 2008 (Source: Gartner). To date, while streaming services such as Rhapsody and Pandora are a great way to listen to music at one’s desk, the experience on a mobile phone is mediocre at best, given dead spots and dropouts, and in the case of Rhapsody, low bitrate streaming. We suspect that many early adopters have tried these mobile services, only to get frustrated and go back to listening to MP3s on their iPods. Spotify’s and Slacker’s ability to cache playlists may prove to be a good workaround until wireless broadband availability and quality catches up. – I am a firm believer that you do not have to worry about storage and bandwidth, that they will always expand faster than you think they will.  Agreed.

8 ) Consumers Remain Willing to Pay for Exciting New Technologies and Products

Consumers have proven that they are indeed willing to pay for new products and technologies that enhance the music experience or provide new uses for music. The tremendous initial growth of the ringtone market is one example. US ringtone sales grew from almost zero in 2002 to a peak of $714 million in 2007, before dropping 24% in 2008 (Source: SNL Kagan) as consumers ultimately figured out how to create ringtones on their own for free. iTunes has created new value added products that sell at a premium, such as iTunes Pass, which automatically delivers all new product, including exclusive extras, from a specific band to its fans, and iTunes LP, which adds album art, videos, and other extras to an album purchase. Shazam is another good example. Shazam is the second most popular music app on the iPhone and claims 50 million users. Shazam is a unique technology that enables users to use their mobile phone to identify and tag any song they hear in public or on the radio and immediately purchase the song. The app is so popular that Shazam is now charging customers $5 for the premium app, and is limiting free users to five tags per month, and its usage is accelerating. – Completely agree.  This is in line with my basic premise that the new stuff matters far more than the old stuff, and if you can deliver a unique experience to a fan, especially one that is fun and sounds incredibly great, they will eat it up.

9) Convergence of Models

Most streaming services also offer the ability to purchase tracks either with their own ecommerce model or with links to others, most often iTunes and Amazon. To date, most ecommerce models have not offered streaming services, likely out of fear of cannibalization as well as licensing requirements. We believe that as streaming catches on with a broader audience, the e-commerce players will have to offer both. Apple is now more likely to move in this direction with its purchase of Lala, and increases our level of confidence that the streaming model is the wave of the future. – I believe as we wrote about in the Future of Music, that a utility model is the only way to make money with recorded music in the future.  Until music become always on and always available and feels like it is free to you, the market will continue to decline.  It is not so much the convergence of models but the ascendance of a model that will work.  The broadband mobile carriers are the ones that can make this happen.  It is a winner take all business strategy for the company with the balls and commitment to bake paid media distribution into their basic business model.

Comments anyone?