23 February 2011

24-bit Audio on iTunes?

This is so unexpected and implausible that I have a hard time knowing how to parse it. Music industry heavyweight Jimmy Iovine just dropped at an HP news conference that his label (UMG) is working with Apple to introduce 24-bit audio music downloads to iTunes. Standard (Redbook) CD audio and compressed audio formats (mp3, AAC, etc.) are all 16-bit. Heretofore only advanced audio formats like SACD, DVD-Audio, and HD FLAC have supported 24-bit, all of which require special stand-alone players or (usually) upgraded computer hardware and software to play. Current Apple portable players do not even support 24-bit playback, and that limitation is a hardware issue. You'll need a new iPhone. Iovine recognizes this: "we have a long road ahead of us."

Iovine has a twofold interest in this. He's both an industry exec on the content side and a partner with Dr. Dre on the hardware side (Beats Audio), which licenses its branded technology to companies like HP. Selling 24-bit files lets the labels charge more, or a second time, for the advanced format, plus you have to upgrade your hardware to hear it. And you'll want better headphones like, you know, Iovine's own outrageously overpriced Beats by Dr. Dre.

This is clearly just a marketing move, and I can't see how it will get very far, very fast. The biggest practical problem, apart from hardware requirements, is that 24-bit files are huge, on the order of 100mb for a 4.5 minute song. On typical crappy DSL, during peak traffic, you could be a couple hours downloading an album. And your average listener on average equipment won't be able to tell a 24-bit track from an iTunes 256k AAC track, especially with non-acoustic music. If HDtracks pricing holds, 24-bit will cost you $2.50/tr over iTune's current $.99/tr pricing. Not sure there will be many takers. HDtracks is surviving but clearly not thriving, and it is aimed directly at audiophiles who care deeply about audio quality.

At least one recording engineer has already done a takedown of Iovine's idea, saying flatly, "A consumer will never need 24-bit. Ever." I agree. It takes great equipment and ears to hear the difference. This is not a consumer format. And the bigger issue, as he notes, is in the mastering. Iovine and Co. have sucked every bit of dynamic range out of modern pop recordings during mastering to make them "louder," and the main advantage of 24-bit is, yes, more dynamic range that would certainly not be used. I've blogged in the past that good mastering is almost everything, and CD-quality audio is plenty good, even for my picky ears.

    The Beats Audio team have taken the 24-bit concept to the other major labels and retailers, perhaps suggesting they can claw back traditional sales revenue from the growing subscription market, where the likes of Spotify will be unable to compete because the new file sizes will push up streaming time and costs.

As much as I hope this really does take off, it's just marketing. Mp3s are plenty good enough for mobile listening, even if not for critical listening. CD-quality lossless, which can already play on any player, would be entirely adequate for almost any purpose, but that would hardly be what all marketers are looking for—the Next New Hot Thing.

19 February 2011

Six Degrees of Alt Country

I went out to dinner with Tani last night and ended up dissecting for her my conflicted and selective love of country music. It's complicated. There is country music I simply don't like (most of it), and that's not a problem. There is country music I simply love (mostly alt country), and that's no problem either. Then there is country music I like, but am embarrassed to like. That's a post all its own.

Lady Antebellum won the record of the year Grammy for their latest album, which is a perfect example a country music I simply don't like. It's just power pop with fiddle and fictionalized southern sentiment. But I'm also sympathetic to the Philadelphia Weekly's Caralyn Green (um, minus the bit about Ryan Adams), speaking of Lady A's first album:

    I love country music. Neko Case is my goddess. Gillian Welch is my savior. Ryan Adams is my lust-object for life, and Uncle Tupelo is second only to Wilco.
    But Billboard Hot Country chart-toppers/crossover poppers Lady Antebellum? I dunno. It's possible they border a little too country even for me.
    'Cause when I say I love country, I mean I love alt-country. The thing is, even though I adore alt-country, I recognize its hypocrisy. Most alt-country fans, if not artists, are all like, "I dig country, but not, y'know, country."
    That statement's begging for a kick in the head. What we mean is we're down with banjos and fiddles and yearning hearts and vowels that twang, but not with Lady Antebellum's brand of CMT, all-American, Wal-Mart country, and all the Jesus-speak, Old South nostalgia and professed sincerity that accompany the genre. We're distancing ourselves from the folks who drive pickup trucks without irony. And on many levels, that's just elitist bullshit (though I certainly question Lady Antebellum's Civil War allusions and sentiment that "home is where the heart is, just south of the Mason-Dixon Line"). . . .

True enough. If Neko Case is country, I'm a country fan. But if Lady A is country, I'm really, definitely not. Is this a question of elitism? Well, a little. Lady A is radio music for casual listeners, and I rarely like that kind of music regardless of genre. But I enjoy Brad Paisley and Justin Moore and can't wait for Aaron Lewis's new album to come out. That's all country-country, of a certain stripe, but it's also for me a guilty pleasure. Not because I feel some sort of antipathy to rural or heartland culture—I'm a country boy myself, after all—but because it's so overtly sentimental. I shouldn't enjoy having country-country flip my sappy switch, but I do. So there.

Oh yeah, the six degrees. I've posted before about my fascination with the small world phenomenon, that we are all linked together in social networks that are shockingly small. I was just going to post about my very short list of non-mainstream musicians whom I think are truly unique talents. It's not a formal list, but five immediately pop to the top.

Neko Case is number one, and it turns out that she is closely linked to two other of the anointed, Nick Cave (toured with him) and Andrew Bird (recorded with him). And Cave and Bird are definitely not alt country. Six degrees, clearly. Any connection between Neko and Fleet Foxes? Meh, shared a ticket at the Newport Folk Festival. And with Devendra Banhart? Not that I can find. Ah well, my faith in both six degrees and the cosmic connectedness of alt country is nevertheless unshaken.

17 February 2011

Looking Back from the Future of Music (Zune edition)

We've had a Microsoft Zune Pass subscription for over a year. Zune Marketplace is one of the biggest subscription services out there, with about 11 million songs. For $15/mo. you get unlimited "rented" downloads on up to three Zune-compatible devices, and streaming on any PC, plus 10 free tracks/mo. to keep forever. The file quality is great, with 192 kbit/s WMA for streaming and 320 kbit/s MP3s for purchase. The selection is basically comprehensive for the major labels and decent-to-good for indies.

The Zune Marketplace collection is big enough to scratch most itches, and allows you to dig pretty deep with even narrower interests. Here is a selection test I did a while back: There are thirty-five recordings known to me of Rachmaninoff's Vespers, my favorite choral work. Many have been issued on tiny, obscure labels and/or are out of print as CDs. But at least twenty-one of these are available on Zune Marketplace. If you like Gaga or Cee-Lo Green, Zune of course easily has you covered. But even if your tastes are more esoteric, like mine, you are well served. It goes a long way towards putting a universal library of music in your pocket.

The Zune software is great, much better than iTunes. Tani has had a Zune HD for quite a while and has loved it. I just got myself one, finally, and it is the bomb. Best Player Ever, especially at current prices. Great build, great sound, and the best interface on any player. The only thing slightly lacking is its wi-fi performance, but if this were the last music player I ever owned, I'd be just fine. I'd been waiting for the rumored Zune HD2 to come out, but am skeptical now that it ever will. The Zune brand, I just read today, is probably on its way out, at least under that name. The Zune staff has already been reassigned. Future Zune players will either disappear entirely or live on in a different form (as phones or, maybe, portable gaming devices).

And that's the future of portable music players, it seems. Convergence. Nobody wants to own two or three devices (phone, mp3 player, portable gaming device, whatever) when one will do. And everybody already has a phone. Sadly, premium music players are on their way out, as greater segmentation and adoption in the multifunction phone market effectively replaces them. I totally buy the rumors of an iPhone mini.

But subscription music services, and their fantastic value, will keep growing. And what a value. The three of us in our family have played 31,469 tracks on Zune in the past 14 months. If my math is right, that means each play has cost us $0.015, a penny and a half. Even my most-played CD has cost me many times that per play. At retail cost ($15), that means a 1000 tracks would have to be played from a CD to equal the value. Only free would be better. Like Pandora. And in fact, I think the girls would be pretty happy if all they had was Pandora. You can see where this is going . . .

And book publishers still want to charge me $15 to read one of their ebooks once?

15 February 2011

Esperanza

It's 3:00AM. I've been burning it long and low for weeks trying to finish my dissertation before my program ejects me, which it has threatened, nay, promised to do in April. But tomorrow, after years of work, I submit.

But that's not what has me excited today. More that two years ago I posted on Esperanza Spalding, a very talented bassist and a jazz prodigy. She's on my short list of genius ├╝berartists who will always inspire me, but will never be popular. Past a certain point, creativity usually becomes prohibitive of popularity. It's transgressive and challenging, and that's not the stuff of entertainment.

But if any of my ├╝berartists is going to win hearts and fans, it would be Esperanza. She really works hard to cross over to non-jazz people, and has kilowatt charisma. And tonight she really broke out big, winning the Grammy for Best New Artist (NYT). (New? After three albums?) Apparently this was a bit of a surprise, "the first jazz musician to receive the award in decades, if not ever." She beat out Justin Bieber and was not riding the wave of a hit album.

People just love her, as a person and as a musician. And sometimes the great, banal beast of the Recording Academy just rolls over and gives a great artist her due. Esperanza, congrats.

10 February 2011

Looking Back from the Future of Music (I)

Several months ago I clicked on a featured YouTube video because the screenie showed the headstock of an electric bass. I play (a very little bit) the electric bass and I'm always looking for cool bass videos. This wasn't a bass video, really, but it turned out to be a music video I really liked.



I have no idea who Stephanie Strand is, but looking at her other videos, I'd says she's a 20-something just out of college, in no way a professional musician, but a very talented amateur. She also won the genetic lottery and has a contralto voice that is sweet enough for pop but smokey enough for blues. Her music is just hooky and angular enough to sound fresh while being utterly familiar. She recorded this with GarageTunes, which she admits she's just figuring out (hence the funky drums), and did everything herself with a couple hundred bucks of amateur gear. And it sounds better than a great many studio (over-)produced tracks.

216,534 views of Strand's video to date, and strong comments. I liked one in particular: "You are extremely talented. In another era, recording companies would be rushing to exploit your talent and appeal. You may not be a well schooled musician, but nothing about your performance seems amateurish. To my ears your voice is a striking blend of Karen Carpenter, Billie Holiday, and the French actress/singer Jeanne Moreau."

"In another era . . ." Well, perhaps. But more likely she would never have been discovered by a label. No one but friends and family, or some locals at open mic night, would ever have heard her. She'd never have recorded and been heard by over 200,000 people in just one year. She'd probably never have made a cent on this song or any other. Now she gets Google ad revenue, and she's put Gutters & Drains out as a single on iTunes and Zune. I liked the song enough that originally I ripped the audio stream into an mp3. But now I've bought it off Zune, and I've clicked on her ads to support her. Maybe she's only made a quarter from me at the end of the day, but that's 100% more than she would have made from me just a decade ago.

And that's the future of music. Talented, anonymous people recording songs in their bedrooms, and finding hundreds of thousands of fans. Tell me again why we need the record labels?

As it turns out, even online music stores are tipping into a steep decline. Read this. People aren't even bothering to steal music any more. Now read this. DashGo is an indie music label. A year ago they were getting $25 from iTunes sales for every $1 from YouTube ad revenue. In twelve months that gap has closed to just 2:1. "Every day a few thousand people buy our content on iTunes. Every day on YouTube a few million people stream our songs."

If the music labels thought the death of overpriced CDs sucked, they ain't seen nothin' yet. The paradigms of music distribution are being totally smashed. "It appears if something’s not free, it gets no traction," says Lefsetz. "Used to be it was free on the radio. Then it was free on TV. Now it’s free online. And so ubiquitous that there’s no incentive to buy. . . . YouTube is free. Monetization is being figured out along the way. Maybe we need to admit music is free and work from there."