Friday, April 18, 2008

Strange Days or: How I stopped worrying and learned to love MP3's

At this year's CES, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion, the title of which was "High End Demo's in an IPOD World".  The premise revolved around the industry opinion that there are now millions of consumers that think compressed music is "the music" and high fidelity is dying because of it.  Assuming that anyone cares to hear the difference it ultimately leads to the question, "Where do you go to hear a truly high quality, full-resolution recording?"  

We all know there are not nearly as many audio retail outlets around and that audio is really no longer as prevalent a hobby as in the past.  But wtf?  Are we as an industry blaming the disappearance of hi-fi retail shops on the IPOD instead of a lack of consumer interest in traditional gear?  Does anyone out there think that just maybe, audio manufacturers have avoided change for the last 20 years and we are now paying the price?

Personally, I love MP3's (and other compressed formats).  Music is so easy to acquire and it is so inexpensive.  A buck for a DRM-free track on Amazon?  Fine with me, I can afford to take a flyer on something I have never heard before.

I mean, what's the risk?  That these same consumers will never experience the joy of sitting in the sweet spot grooving on minute details of the recording  and passing judgement on the image which might be pulling slightly to the left?

Guess what folks!  Even during stereo's heyday, 90% or better of all music listeners didn't know or care about the "sweet spot".  Hopefully they listened for the content, because it made them happy or sad, or provided nothing more than a pleasant diversion from the rest of their day.  Hopefully they still do.

This is what I love about personal media players and the ability to listen on demand to whatever you find interesting.  Consumers that embrace IPOD-type products are listening to more music than ever before, in quantity and variety.

We audio manufacturers have gotten so full of ourselves that we forgot why we got into the business in the first place... tunes.  We made the gear more complicated and expensive.  Plus we told the market that movies are cooler.  While the virtual world was moving on, making products simpler and more fun, the message we sent was "you have to do it our way".  We lost touch with our customers, and we won't get them back unless we change.

Let give you an example.  Recently I got back into playing music after a hiatus of over 30 years.  Once I was sure I was going to stick with it, I decided to set up a home recording rig.  The technology available for recording is amazing, but in most cases it is not simple.  My goal was to make music, not become an engineer.  I went through at least 5 iterations of gear and software, finding each too time consuming, and cumbersome to learn and use.  Then I found Garage Band, an Apple notebook and an inexpensive audio interface from Tascam.  Within an hour I was laying down tracks with nearly all my focus on the content, not the technology.  If this is not a lesson for our industry, I do not know what is.

I have learned something else as well.  There is no way to take music away from people, no matter how hard we might try.  And we have tried.  Along with gear, music got expensive.  The record industry spent millions trying to stop P2P sharing, blaming downloading for the downturn in music sales.  It could have nothing to do with the fact that before being available on-line, there was no way to hear new music without shelling out $15 -$18 per disc.  I still believe that an everyday, sub-$10 price for CD's would have kept that format alive for many years to come, and I also believe that greater access to broadband would force the music industry to find alternate means of selling recordings no matter what.

But it is too late and none of this really no longer matters.  The industry did not pay attention to its customers and they have taken the music back.  We can now listen to whatever we want and we can buy it so affordably, there is no reason not to.  We can afford to experiment again.  I truly believe that music appreciation is growing because of these formats.  Artists are connecting directly with their fans; it's amazing.

Check the growing sales of turntables, vinyl records, stereo receivers and bookshelf speakers.  Music is almost as important as oxygen.  It will always find a way to flourish.

And I know one other thing:  If there is music, there will be audio companies that provide the playback gear, although you may not recognize their names unless we wake up.


minim said...

Good to know NHT is in the hands of a rational human being who has not lost his perspective as so many have after a few years in the business.
I am a sound-obsessed recording engineer, but can at least justify my obsession as being a professional need. In spite of my job (and I do make high quality acoustic recordings of demanding materials uch as orchestra and choir), I can still enjoy music thoroughly played back at 128kb mp3 resolution.
I find that the most lost are the so-called audiophiles agonizing over the differences in $3000 cables, not having a clue how suggestible and vulnerable to self delusion we all are!

< > said...

If it can't be live, digital formats are great. CDs are digital afterall. I do however prefer the higher end of most of the codecs (320kbps mp3, FLAC), which fortunately online retailers are starting to offer.
If I'm going to pay about the same as a CD, I do appreciate all the detail. I can then downsample it for a portable.

Adam Richardson said...

I had similar thoughts at CES this year also. And the folks roaming the halls of the high end audio hotel were primarily older, and the music on offer in the rooms was almost entirely throwback music - Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, and of course classical. Prices on gear have just kept going up and up. The artificial division between audio and home theater doesn't help either. The industry has done basically nothing to foster a younger audience, and is rapidly going to have a Cadillac problem - its core audience will be dying off.

Anonymous said...

Chris, this is intellectual appeasement. What your saying is, they want it fast, cheap, & what, why does NHT have to play into that? When did a high quality company like yours ever play to the need it now market. Terrible idea.

Chris Byrne said...

Just a quick note to Steve. Then what vehicle do we use to discover new music? There is no quality radio any longer, only quantity. Services like Rhapsody help but you are stuck at the PC. The record companies are a joke.

I own thousands of CD's and LP's. I have bought more in the last 3 years because of inexpensive access to new music.