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You just can’t download an experience

March 17, 2014

Ever since the advent of the CD audio, music had been squeezed into ever more efficient digital formats. Sure the 44.1 sample rate is good and clean but it’s not great. And mp3 is a step or two down from that. But most people are fine with that. It seems that listening to music in general has become a very passive and disengaged process from what it used to be a decade or two ago.

I recently stumbled across this article on Forbes about how Neil Young has a company trying to design a HD audio service for people like professional musicians and others who would pay a premium and be willing to manage the large download files necessary to up the quality of digital audio. Neil Young developes Hi Res Audio service

Whenever you listen to music processed at a 96 or 192 khz sample rate, you realize there’s something missing in the cd/mp3 format. It’s probably why the analog feel and dynamic range of a studio master or a vinyl album just somehow sounds fuller, richer, and warmer.  Attempts have been made to create a High Fidelity Pure Audio Disk using Blue Ray format. It plays files at 96kHz/24bit.

One big problem is that files are huge and the playback devices for these resolutions aren’t readily available on a consumer level.

When I recntly posted this on facebook others quickly chimed in about what they missed about the vinyl album experience and it wasn’t just the sound quality. It was the experience. The release of something anticipated. An event that was shared with others. The cool artwork and interesting liner notes. The tactile sensory experience of cutting open the cellophane and pulling out the disk, putting it on the turntable, dropping the needle and seeing what was going to come out of the speakers. It was an event, an experience. One that you just don’t get with a CD, iTunes download, or stream.

This was consistent with some of  my past thoughts about the music industry over the past few years. Long gone are the days when very many recording artists can get rich selling recorded copies of their work alone. Anyone can make music and put it online for free or stream, or download. Sure there are a lot of good musical artists starting indie labels, recording decent stuff in their bedrooms with garageband. But there are also a lot of crap artists recording crap stuff in their bedrooms with garageband and trying to sell online with the big guys. For these folks the sad reality is no one is going to pony up $.99 except for maybe a few close relatives and some good friends. In a time of limitless non-sequencial music options, the reality is quality and creativity alone probably don’t matter as much as they once did.

Sure the music has to be good. Whatever style. It has to be produced well. It has to have hooks.  But probably most importantly the artist must be able to perform it really well. Because there’s a lot of streaming/niche channels filled with free and pirated content. But you can’t download the experience of being surrounded by others witnessing the performance at the same point in time.

I look back at the purchases I’ve made over the past few years. They were seldom $.99 downloads regardless of the quality or how much I like an artist.  But I did pay a pretty stiff ticket price to see U2 360 and Peter Gabriel Front to Back in concert. They were not even my all time favorite bands, but they had creativity and a serious show. Something I couldn’t possibly download. These were also events in my life. The U2 tickets were actually a gift from my son and we went together the year he turned 21 and I turned 50.It was also the year my mom and only brother passed away.  I’ll remember that trip and that concert for as long as I live. For Christmas, my wife bought me the Blu Ray video which wasn’t real cheap either. Same thing with the Peter Gabriel show. The followup DVD was exceptionally produced and justify the cost. I even ordered the raw board mix on USB as a keepsake from the show.  The value was in the experience not strictly the songs or even the actual performance. The good music is the raw material that makes the experience even possible.

The live performance. If you’re a musical artist and are not really good at live performance,  it I think it will get harder and harder to make a living.  Except for a very exceptional few, being a creative songwriter, vocalist, or recording artist is probably simply not enough to carve out a livelyhood.  Unfortunately people no longer pay well for just content. 

As for Neil Young’s Pono service. I think it will have a niche market. I think it will need to be more than just a download service of high-resolution audio. Maybe the product needs to be bundled with some exceptional artwork, artist video interviews or some other value added surprises that would make the download an event to look forward to. Not just an efficient way to push audio thru the internet. Then some will pay a preium price for it – myself included.

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