Apple, Record Labels Push Forward; Music Still Left Behind

Posted by: Damian Joseph on July 27, 2009

The Internet is all abuzz today about this Financial Times piece. In the article, it’s put forth that Apple (AAPL) is talking to the four largest record labels — EMI, Sony Music (SNE), Warner Music (WMG), and Universal Music Group (EPA: VIV) — about bundling interactive liner notes with albums purchased from iTunes. But they’re missing something big…

Ironically, music fans have reverted to the buying habits of their grandparents. There was a time when 45s -- small vinyl records with a single and a B-side track -- ruled the day. This was before full-length LPs became the norm. Today, people buy many more single tracks from iTunes than they do full albums. Apple and the record companies' hope is that they can get more folks to buy whole albums (read as more money for labels).

The story comes with a semi-confirmed rumor that Apple will be releasing a tablet computer before the holidays -- a giant iTouch basically. The tablet would be an entertainment platform for iTunes purchases: movies, shows, albums, etc. The new liner notes would be full booklets, with lyrics and artwork. And they wouldn't just be PDFs, they'd be interactive. The user could click on a song title in the artwork, for example, and it would begin to play without having to go back into iTunes to select the track.

Much has been written today about "reliving" the vinyl album experience: reading through the booklet, seeing the artwork in full size, and apparently for some people, sharing it with a friend on a beanbag chair. There's no doubt in my mind that these companies have seen the uptick in vinyl LP sales and want to cash in. It does at least sound like they listened to why people like vinyl so much.

But Apple and all the record companies are forgetting something huge: the sound quality of the music. Yes, all the aforementioned experiences make albums great, but awful-sounding MP3s or AACs will never suffice. Vinyl records and CDs are full-quality recordings. MP3s are compressed, lifeless shells of what once was music.

Maybe this will convince you. Forget about the "vinyls just sound warmer" arguments you've heard from audiophiles. Here's a better one. Music is not only heard with your ears, it's felt by your body. In fact, your ear is like an instrument that sound waves "play." The vibrations affect your eardrum and your brain translates the signal back to music. This works in other parts of your body, too. Ever feel the bass thumping in your chest from a car system, for example? Ever wonder why there are deaf ballet dancers? Compressed music cuts the higher and lower frequencies that your ear can't hear but your body would have felt. Erase those frequencies and you're erasing the music; you're damaging the listening experience.

Yes, art and liner notes are great, but if these companies really want to re-create the experience of an album, they'll start offering full-quality downloads. Granted, storage is an issue. Full-quality records take up a lot more space on a a drive than compressed tracks. But where's the option? At a time when we're syncing our iPhones and iPods nearly every day, it makes perfect sense to keep four or five full-quality albums on hand, maybe the most recently added, and leave the rest in a compressed form for casual listening. I don't need the same quality to enjoy a Misfits album as I do a Madlib record, for example. Hard drives are getting quite large these days, too. It won't be long before the idea of compressed music seems silly.

Also, not everything comes on vinyl. If I want to hear the full-quality recording of Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury, my only choice is a CD. At this point, that's worthless -- is it even necessary to recount the reasons why CDs are dead? Downloading an interactive booklet isn't going to persuade me to drop the cash on iTunes for the album. But for a quality listening experience...I just might.

TrackBack URL for this entry: http://blogs.businessweek.com/mt/mt-tb.cgi/

Reader Comments

gr

July 27, 2009 03:25 PM

liner notes about a making personal connection with the artist - not about selling albums

Paul Both

July 27, 2009 03:28 PM

As a sound engineer, you are giving false information regarding MP3 compression. I won't bore you with the details of the Nyquist theory or lossy compression algorithms but I will say, to imply that you cannot "feel the bass" in a compressed track is simply not true.

roymond

July 27, 2009 03:38 PM

Another thing I hope they don't overlook is music listening is an interactive sport. Not just the song you're listening to, but the next one, and the one after that...via the liner notes and the liner notes of every other song out there. If this new format is truly interactive, it will allow people to listen to songs by different artists produced by the same person, or all the songs where a particular guitarist contributes.

richard Goldwater MD

July 27, 2009 03:50 PM

You are completely ignorant of the science and utterly bigoted in your opinions. Blind comparisons cannot distinguish LP sound from digital recordings of LP sound. You confuse dynamic range compression which makes music easy to hear in automobiles but flat and dead otherwise from data compression that has NO audible effect. How dare you talk like an expert!

matt

July 27, 2009 03:53 PM

You can buy CDs for the same price iTunes charges for a compressed digital version and rip them yourself. Then you actually get a high quality, physical copy of what you're buying which you can rip into any format you want.

Ever try to sell a used mp3? Why would you ever pay the same price as a CD for a digital only version?

abhi bhadra

July 27, 2009 03:55 PM

I think you are comparing apples to oranges, and in this particular instance, oranges are extinct. Perhaps you can hold out for a download-able vinyl record that will drop out of your rotary telephone, complete with the mythical wondrous sound quality that exists in fevered imaginations. I wish you good luck and god speed.

erik cocks

July 27, 2009 03:55 PM

You are spot on with your assessment! However, these large companies know that the volume (read $) lies in the bells and whistles, not actual product quality.

You would think technology would allow us even better quality (tonal range, etc).

We as a society are getting away from consuming music for what it is- the sound experience- and that's kind of sad.

SB

July 27, 2009 04:00 PM

There are sources out there that do provide the option to download music as wav files.

Just because it is not on iTunes does not mean it does not exist.

Quality digital media is possible. You just have to know where to find it and be willing to pay more for it.

Min

July 27, 2009 04:00 PM

Sorry Damien, your reasoning, if one can call it that, about why vinyl is best and mp3/aac being a "lifeless shell" is totally off base to the point of being laughable. If you prefer the vinyl experience, fine. But your statements about sound quality only betray your lack of knowledge.

Ben

July 27, 2009 04:02 PM

"Ever wonder why there are deaf ballet dancers?" So, increasing deafness risk is desirable?

Amos

July 27, 2009 04:03 PM

Wow. What a whiney article with no real information. YOu may have noticed that all iTMS AAC files (there are no MP3 files) are now higher res than they used to be. One day, they'll probably be uncompressed, when the majority of networks and users can handle that. I don't think Apple or the big labels hate music. They're just trying to create the best possible experience for those who choose to by it digitally. Last time I checked, you couldn't download vinyl.

J

July 27, 2009 04:04 PM

And as a music producer, Paul is right and you got it wrong about MP3 compression in relation to feeling or hearing high and low end frequencies.

DUH

July 27, 2009 04:05 PM

PAUL BOTH IS A DOUCHE

Rob Miller

July 27, 2009 04:06 PM

They could also remove DRM, the number one reason I will never install iTunes. In terms of quality, they should use a better MP3 compression scheme. 196kb VBR would be a huge improvement instead of their craptacular 128kb/s CBR and isn't that much bigger, at least not nearly as big as FLAC or other lossless formats.

Kelly

July 27, 2009 04:07 PM

Anytime you digitize something from Analog to digital, you loose something of those vibrations you speak of. CD's are recorded with equipment that's designed to record enough of that sound digitally that most listeners won't notice a difference. Not even in their chests.

However, the problem with buying digital content on iTunes, etc. is that the content is compressed. A .wav file with the raw recording from a CD is going to share 100% quality with the CD, but it's going to take around 30 MBs for a single song. The mp3 and aac formats are designed to compress that .wav file into something closer to 5 MBs, which makes it better for transmission over the internet. However, both mp3 and aac are lossy compression techniques, which means that they lose some of the digital sound in the process. (JPGs are the same way in digital pictures. I wonder why digital camera's have not switched to using the lossless .PNG format for their default pictures, but that's another conversation) I do wonder why Apple does not employ lossless sound codecs for it's iTunes distribution. Especially since the iPod players are apparently capable of playing a lossless format championed by Apple: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_Lossless

My point to you is this: listening to a vinyl is always going to be better than a CD if the vinyl was made off of a raw analog recording device. (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Analog_recording_vs._digital_recording ) Also, you are right when saying that the sound quality of tracks purchased off of iTunes is significantly worse than the CD and the vinyl. The person converting the CD to an mp3 or aac file CAN adjust the compression rate to make it more or less lossy, but the file size changes accordingly. Of course, as the end user, it doesn't matter what you convert your audio file to. Once it's been compressed down to a certain size, bringing it back up will have 0 effect on the sound quality because you will have already have lost the data.

I believe however, in your criticism of Apple and the recording industry, you fail to take into account a very real problem which they face: bandwidth. By cutting the file size to 1/6 of the original, they are getting rid of 5/6 of their bandwidth costs! That's a huge amount. The Apple lossless compression format (mentioned above) apparently has a 40-60% size compared to the original after compression. Yet, even then, you'd be talking about an aprox. 300% (give or take some) increase in bandwidth costs to satiate the appetite of a small percentage of users who not only can but do notice the difference. Most people are not audiophiles and notice nothing.

C. Zeilig

July 27, 2009 04:09 PM

I beg to differ with the point of view espoused by Paul Both. As an audio professional, I get paid to deliver improvements in sound reproduction. If I don't deliver, I don't get to eat. Lossy compression of any kind simply does not deliver the full emotional intent of the performer nor the full emotional thrill to the listener. Go to a high end audio retailer with your favorite CD played back on the recent players with the new apodizing filters and hear for yourself.

Ryan

July 27, 2009 04:15 PM

Paul is absolutely correct. I'm a Software Engineer, and while I can't claim to know the inner workings of the compression of mp3s, I can say with certainty that it doesn't affect the music the way the article claims.

Neil

July 27, 2009 04:16 PM

By your logic, listening to music on headphones is fundamentally an inferior experience? After all, you will never 'feel' those inaudible 10hz and 30khz frequencies in your body from 100mW speakers a half inch from your ear.

I'd like to see a study, in which a large group of people with varying degrees of musical experience listen to the same music uncompressed and at a few different compressions, on a moderate quality home stereo. How many people could actually tell the difference between a 320kbps mp3 and a WAV?

musicman

July 27, 2009 04:18 PM

First he likes CDs, then he doesn't.

Kris

July 27, 2009 04:20 PM

I'm pretty sure this author is confusing data compression with waveform compression. Data compression is what allows mp3s to offer sound comparable to CDs while using much smaller file sizes. The real problem with todays music is not data compression, but waveform compression. Waveform compression is what cuts out the higher and lower frequencies of music, and the trend towards more compressed waveforms started long before MP3s became popular. Labels have increasingly compressed waveforms over the years because by cutting out the dynamic frequencies of music, you can amplify the track as a whole. The theory is that by making one song blast out of the radio louder than another song, the louder song will be noticed. This has been happening for years and is the reason why older CDs sound much quieter than new CDs when played at the same volume on the same audio system. MP3s have nothing to do with it. record companies are in charge of leveling their music, and the reason we no longer have dynamically ranged music is because music companies don't want their competitors music to be louder than their own.

Katherine

July 27, 2009 04:27 PM

I am a dancer and I love it when the music is like the beat of my heart. I can feel it and it is just a great experience. I cant feel it very well with an mp3 player.

Jeff

July 27, 2009 04:35 PM

When players have enough memory to hold a decent-sized music collection at the cd-standard sample rate, iTunes and its competitors will offer cd-quality songs. Until then, if somebody wants to sit in front of the stereo like the man in the old Maxell ads and be blown away by the fidelity of the reproduction, perhaps it would be better to buy physical cd's rather than download songs.

Billy Jones

July 27, 2009 04:35 PM

great article!

C. Zeilig

July 27, 2009 04:52 PM

Dr. Goldwater,
What is your medical specialty? Perhaps one of those neurosurgeons who uncritically accepted the purported "scientific" benefits of lobotomies. Listening to lossy compressed music is like experiencing life with a lobotomy. You might try digging deeper into the physiology of hearing.

Jim

July 27, 2009 05:12 PM

Rob Miller - maybe you didn't hear, but iTunes did drop DRM. I guess you can go ahead and install it now.

ToRobMiller

July 27, 2009 05:50 PM

To Rob Miller..

DRM was removed. That's what all of the iTunes Plus tracks -- all of them nowadays, are.

KTachyon

July 27, 2009 05:50 PM

Well... some people here are mistaking lossy audio and compression. Compression is only a mean to reduce space occupied by an audio file, doesn't mean it will destroy information on the file, it will only compress the file.

Mp3 and AAC are, in fact, lossy audio files, because they remove "soundwaves" that aren't usually heard by the average person. That doesn't mean that everyone won't notice... there are still people that can actually listen more than the average person.

The problem is that, while there are, in fact, some good lossless codecs, there are a few problems:

1. Compression - A lossless audio file will usually take too much space. Current audio players would become very limited.

2. Power - Some lossless audio formats have a really high compression rate, but they are useless for portable devices. They will use too much processor power and drain battery life to the point of rendering the device useless

3. Compatibility - Lossless audio formats are not really widely used. Most audio players cannot play them.

Mark Sigal

July 27, 2009 05:58 PM

Personally, I think there is something afoot in terms of Apple extending its platform tools to support creation of more dynamic e-books and albums.

Think of this pitch this way:

Steve Jobs: "Book and Music industry. You are getting commoditized because you have no differentiated platform for extending/re-inventing your product for the online age. We just so happen to have a set of tools that have proven compelling to the tune of 1.5B downloads, field-tested across 65K apps and with a current footprint of 46M devices."

Music/Book Industry: "There is no way we can re-create that value proposition, and we already see the writing on the wall with Amazon. If they are successful, they will be telling us how much money we can make or worse, go direct to writers and musicians, and design us out of the equation. How do we get started?"

This is the consummate 1+1=3 for a segment that is otherwise facing a 1+1=

For more fodder on this one, check out:

Old Media, New Media and Where the Rubber Meets the Road
http://bit.ly/zwTw8

Cheers,

Mark

Paul N

July 27, 2009 06:31 PM

People experience music differently. Many people have no interest at all, while others feel strong emotions when listening.

I enjoy music a lot, I used to love making mix cassettes of favorite tracks. Then I switched to CDRs. I ripped CDS & recorded vinyl to my computer.

I never switched to an ipod because of the lower sound quality. When my GF rec'd one as a gift I loaded itunes and found that you can use it to rip at CD quality. It also handles 48K / 16bit files which are better than CD quality.

I now have a computer hooked to my stereo. It has 250GB of ripped CDs & 48K vinyl/live recordings on it. All these wav tracks can be accessed & edited which cannot be done with Apple Lossless and is not worth the trouble for an MP3. I have a bunch of different ipods on which I keep different music.

Itunes is glitchy. Artwork will not download for most high quality tracks. Itunes will not allow you to add/modify artwork for any high quality tracks. All my ipods have occasional dropouts and may suddenly skip to the next track after starting a song. Very frustrating, but Its really my only alternative as I am running out space to store CDs & vinyl. Its also a lot easier when travelling. I don't have to carry CDs and cassettes in my car, now I can carry 200+ CDs in my shirt pocket.

roger

July 27, 2009 06:39 PM

I love how people say things like CDs are dead. Before that vinyl was dead yet there has been an increase in demand for vinyl, from purists, collectors, dj's and regular consumers. Even bands have grown tired of the "clarity" of digital, wanting to get back to "real" sound.

jkimball

July 27, 2009 06:52 PM

Neil: the studies have been done ad-nauseum...and have proven, conclusively, that self described audio philes can NOT tell the difference between a 100k sterero and a 5k stereo. The human ear is just not that sensitive.

Back in 2001 I ran my own tests, with friends, families and neighbours. I played everything from Bach to Zeppelin. The goal was to determine which of two sources was a CD and which was the MP3. The guess rate was ~ 50% correct.

A good quality MP3, lossy compressed, sounds as good as the original CD in 1/5 the space. Period.

People 'hear things missing' from MP3's like they taste 'a hint of the foggy southern hills with a touch of raspberry and whisper of pine' in a $6 bottle of wine.

*LAME, 70% VBR,320k max. files are about a 1.5 megabyte per minute with this setup.

Paul N

July 27, 2009 08:19 PM

Maybe you cannot tell the difference between compressed & uncompressed because you never listen to any uncpompressed music. Maybe you have bad hearing, whatever.

So called 'listening tests' don't prove anything. I can tell you there is a difference, because I can hear it.

Kole

July 29, 2009 05:20 PM

As a artist/songwriter, I like to support the people who make great music by buying the whole album, NOT just a song or 2 online. I've always been into CD art and I still read through the CD booklet when listening to an album for the first time

CrabbyVision

July 29, 2009 05:21 PM

A note to the MDs, sound engineers and other experts: I'm a physicist (really I am, if that means anything in this forum), and you guys haven't done your math.

Vinyl music is analog music, it's real number mathematics. The variations and nuances captured in the recorded piece could theoretically be infinite, but in reality limited only by the quality of the recording and reproduction equipment which could be very good.

For digital music (using binary math that to be used in electronic equipment requires the "numbers/words" to be chop off to a practical length) to capture the same variations and nuances of vinyl would require practically impossible space requirements. So, from the start, CDs and all forms of digital music -compressed or not- are handicapped when compared to analog recordings. MP3s are even worse but practical and convenient.

Here's an analogy (I'm a amateur painter as well): Painters prefer to paint "a plein air," on site or with the subject present, because one can tell when a painting was done from a photograph; it's flat, there's something missing, a "je ne se quoi" that the photograph cannot capture but the eye can.

So maybe the author of this article went just a bit too far to an almost sublime level of music perception, he's not wrong.

Mr Lucky

July 29, 2009 05:22 PM

nothing compares to live music generated by human beings - too bad there isn't as much live music performance as there was before any recordings.

C. Zeilig

July 29, 2009 07:58 PM

Nicely said CrabbyVision. There are some interesting studies which prove humans can perceive frequencies above which the cochlea cannot. Redbook CD's do not contain such frequencies.

Kumar McMillan

July 31, 2009 11:42 AM

Hey Damian, I'm sorry but you don't know how speakers work. Please try doing some research before posting this kind of nonsense. The average household speaker produces no more bass or high end than what is lost in an mp3. That's part of why the mp3 algorithm was created, to cut out wasted space!

JJ

August 6, 2009 07:19 AM

You do know that CDs are not 'full quality' as you put it - CD is a digital format and there has been some form of compression from an analogue source. Of course, if the music was recorded at 16 bit 44.1 K then yes - a CD is as the recording is - but you've over simplified and missed the basics.

Doug in Toronto

September 2, 2009 12:40 PM

Most of the music I enjoy isn't available in this format. I listen to 1920s-30s jazz and blues for the most part and rip tunes directly from vinyl to my PC, then convert them to play on on Ipod. Most of the material on my Ipod got there in that manner. Quality isn't an issue because the original source is considered poor quality by today's standards anyway. I'd rather have EMI and the rest spend some money on making our musical heritage available for current and future fans than making Lady GaGaGooGoo (or whatever her name is) into the flavour of the week.

Post a comment

 

About

What comes next? The BusinessWeek Innovation and Design team of Michael Arndt and Helen Walters chronicle new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

BW Mall - Sponsored Links

Buy a link now!