March 2013 Archives

My interview in the UK’s Metro newspaper last week appears to have touched a raw nerve with many people. In that interview I claimed that mp3 downloads will be replaced by music at studio master quality. And it was this prediction that seems to have raised the most hostility.

This surprises me.

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It’s not like I predicted the demise of the toaster, suggesting we leave bread out in the sun to toast instead, or that the internet would be replaced by an elaborate network of paper cups attached by string.

Domestic internet connections have progressed from dial-up to broadband without complaint; it seems non-contentious that faster is better. But when it comes to music many seem to be invested in the paradoxical idea that worse is better. And apparently they are prepared to argue the matter quite forcefully.

I am not denying that there are powerful forces holding music back. Since 2007, iPods have had a maximum capacity of 160Gb: enough for 40,000 watered-down songs. In Apple's own words, that amounts to a lifetime's entertainment. But remember, that is a lifetime of low quality entertainment. Now, I don't know about you, but I have strong feelings about my own lifetime, and I feel I deserve more. Apple could easily increase the capacity of their iPods, but 6 years of silence on this matter suggests they are not that bothered.

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Thankfully, however, there are already signs that music quality for the common download is set to improve. There are a number of initiatives that suggest that the industry is on the move.

While Spotify's audio stream is currently capped at 320kbps, the maximum bit rate mp3 can offer, it is rumoured that it intends to move to CD quality. And as Jimmy Iovine considers how to compete with Spotify with his Daisy project, music quality is certain to form some part of his challenge. This upward pressure will undoubtedly hasten the demise of mp3 for streaming services.

Furthermore, the major record labels are beginning to recover their voice. Admittedly, they rarely distribute music at studio master quality. And when they do it is a highly restricted selection from their back catalogue, which they sell through the likes of LinnRecords.com. Clearly, they have been on the back foot since they handed Apple a monopoly for paid-downloads on their mp3 catalogues in 2003. But as the saying goes: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Thumbnail image for Neil Young's Pono music player

The Majors are discussing and evaluating fresh outlets, and whenever they do, improved music quality is always part of the package. Warner Music Group’s alliance with Neil Young’s Pono initiative intends to establish studio master quality 24-bit downloads as a mainstream proposition: something we have been championing at Linn since 2007. Neil Young’s hope is that a focus on music quality will appeal to music lovers and challenge Apple’s hegemony. And while I fear that Pono might confuse music consumers by creating a new audio format that can only be listened to on Pono equipment, the spirit is clear. Add to this the desire of both Amazon and Google to challenge iTunes (via Kindle Store and Google Play), and it’s even more apparent that the landscape is shifting.

The death of mp3 is hardly a prediction at all. It’s already dying. High quality music is on its way and it will arrive sooner than you think.