Notes From the P&E WingA LITTLE BREATHING ROOM FOR THE RECORD BIZ? 4/01/2007 8:00 AM Eastern
CD sales are down — way down. Digital downloads are up, but not nearly enough to compensate. Media piracy is rampant. Old news, right? It's been the music business scenario of the past decade (has anything really changed since 1997?) except that CD sales, which once topped $14 million (U.S.) a year, are now less than $10 billion. So how have we handled this crisis? Not very well.
We're still releasing albums in the same 16-bit, 44.1kHz CD format that was all the rage in 1982. And we still expect the consumer — who is now accustomed to buying a $200-million-dollar budget movie on DVD for $18.99 — to drop $18.98 for an album that costs a thousandth of that to make. Okay, the movie recouped some of that money before its DVD release, but do we really think we're providing enough value in a CD? Finally, rather than leading the way, we in the music industry have let a computer company define our pricing and the structure of the future of music distribution. And that computer company (as well as consumers) has opted for convenience over quality.
But have we really given them a choice? Isn't there an alternative? It's true: Many proposed solutions involve long-term paradigm shifts in production, marketing and distribution. But here are two potential solutions that could provide some breathing space while those longer-term answers are being implemented.
Idea #1: Phase out the outdated, resolution-challenged CD. Instead, release audio in a high-resolution, hi-definition, 24-bit/96kHz format on DVD. Think about it: A track on a current audio CD is hardly a step up in quality from a $0.99 MP3 download on your computer. But a hi-res DVD is not only a serious step up in quality, but it's also copy protected. Why not release all new titles on DVD — or Blu-ray or HD-DVD, or any hi-res format — in 5.1 surround? Let's relegate the 2-channel, 16-bit version to being the digital download format for your iPod or Zune. Convenience. And for those who don't feel the need to invest in 5.1 audio, the DVD stereo version would still be high-definition widescreen as compared to the CD/MP3 standard def, 4×3 — 96k/24-bit vs. 44.1k/16-bit. Quality.
Current estimates indicate there are nearly 100 million DVD players in consumers' homes. Whether purchased for DVD-Video, DVD-Audio or as part of a gaming system, they all play some form of hi-res surround audio. That's a much larger share of the market than when we first switched from vinyl to CD. Gamers and movie-makers insist on surround sound. Why is music the only industry still stuck in stereo, a format first introduced more than 60 years ago: Patti Page, black-and-white TV and AM radio. Television delivery is moving from standard to hi-def. The movie industry is moving from DVD to hi-def DVD. Gamers are moving from low-res 2-D gaming to hi-def 3-D. The music industry? We're enthusiastically embracing a format that in recent tests has been found to be less satisfying than a 50-year-old analog cassette. The MP3 player, while portable and convenient, can best be described as the emotional equivalent of watching The Lord of the Rings on VHS. Why are we the only entertainment format going backward in quality?
Idea #2: Instead of cutting the budget per song on a 15-song album, why not simply reduce the number of songs? A 10-song album should cost 33 percent less than a 15-song album to make, with less stress on the writers, producers and mixers. Let's not even discuss the fact that the last three to five songs on that 15-song album are more than likely filler anyway. Just because we can doesn't mean we should!
It's imperative that we don't leave the task of music distribution to electronic hardware manufacturers whose only interest is selling electronic hardware. The solutions I'm offering aren't the only ones out there, but we need to stop living in the 1980s and start looking forward. If we don't, music delivery will be left behind in the 20th century while the rest of entertainment lives in the 21st.