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Old 08-16-2007   #1
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Default A Blueprint For the Future of High-Resolution, 5.1 Music

Buried in the rubble of an audio disc format war, with no winner, lie the remains of two high-resolution audio formats, SACD and DVD-Audio. These formats held tremendous potential in their day and have left the audiophile and music enthusiast communities desperate for a high-resolution answer to their audio questions. A deeper casualty from the high-resolution audio format war has been the death of the concept of the album and the near death of music mixed specifically for surround sound. While Hollywood movies in the theater and on various disc formats, HD video game titles, and even Las Vegas shows like Love and Blue Man Group are designed to wow audiences with high-resolution audio in at least 5.1 channels, today’s music is increasingly being sold the easiest way possible – through low-resolution downloads for easy consumption on iPods and computers alike.

The question at hand is – do consumers actually care about the high-end audio experience? The quick answer is absolutely “yes”, however there are certain caveats. The idea of re-purchasing an entire collection of music is something consumers are actually willing to do as they proved the 1980s, as people migrated from LPs to Compact Discs, but when faced with an intolerable value proposition that involves investing in a $1,000 new player, a new receiver and as many as nine cables to connect the system, it is enough of a barrier to leave the masses sticking with less resolved CDs. Additionally, in order for consumers to be tempted to buy their music collection over again, labels need to offer enough compelling software. Anybody with a 5.1 sound system can blow their neighbors away with a demo of "Dark Side of the Moon" in 5.1 on SACD, but with none of the other Pink Floyd records released in surround sound or high-resolution audio, that $1,000 plus investment in surround sound equipment is just not that tempting, even for affluent consumers.

With over 50,000,000 surround sound systems already installed, most of which are centered around a DVD player, the obvious question is: how could major and indy labels miss the opportunity to resell their music in surround sound and high-resolution to this audience? Especially when the cost to create the music is already pretty much paid for. First, record labels are inherently lazy. They take the path of least resistance, and right now that is selling music by the download, which is currently a $3,000,000,000 business yearly and growing. However, that sales number is nothing compared the reduction in overall music sales from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. Any label executive when presented with this fact will immediately jump to blaming Napster and peer-to-peer file sharing for their precipitous drop in sales, but really the sales have been lost more to video gaming and home video sales on DVD. Components that can easily connect to your TV with one or two cables, and cost no more than a few hundred dollars, provide a stunning audio and video experience. A CD sold by a major label is an audio only experience that consumers are willing to dilute en route to their MP3 player. With no high-resolution or surround sound solution: who can blame them?

Major labels are sitting on a vault of music that could be a goldmine, but they are incapable of seeing that they can sell it over and over again in various formats, with meaningful changes and added values. Why is it that Microsoft can sell you a new operating system or a copy of MS Office every few years, but Sony Music cannot find a way to meaningfully repackage the Miles Davis catalog? Why is it that EA Sports can sell a copy of Madden Football to millions of gamers and football fans with incremental changes and improvements each year but MCA-Universal cannot find a way to release the Jimi Hendrix catalog on a format that gets you as close as technically possible to the master tape?

The largest problem plaguing major record labels is fear. Fear of new technologies. Fear of new business models. Fear of anti-trust lawsuits and beyond. For more than 50 years, record labels have fought every new audio technology that came down the path. Records were supposed to kill of sheet music. DAT tapes would kill of CD sales. The computer industry doesn’t suffer from such woes, and it should be no surprise that a player from the computer industry walked in and redefined the music business with a simple device and a legal way to buy music online. One look at the scoreboard shows that downloadable music represents a 3 billion dollar band-aid to a much more gangrenous, nine figure problem which is: the labels as of mid-2007, and with DVD-Audio and SACD lying in a technological morgue, don’t have a meaningful way to sell music to consumers that can compete with $50 video games and $20 DVDs. But, all is not lost.

Any reader of AVRev.com knows of the bigger and more heated format war currently raging between the HD disc formats of HD DVD and Blu-ray, with both vying for high-definition supremacy in the booming HDTV market. Both formats have one-cable connectivity with HDMI. They also have copy protection that is criticized by some but is better in the eyes of a record label than CD and DVD, which are predominately unprotected. A $400 HD player, and one cable being plugged straight into an HDTV can provide the beginning of an HD experience that can easily grow into 5.1 surround sound, in a way, that unlike the SACD/DVD-Audio format war has a value proposition that consumers might consider if there were titles worth investing in. So where are the Sony Music titles on Blu-ray with HD stereo music, remixes for surround sound and supplemental video segments, such as interviews, concert footage and HD music videos? Your guess is as good as mine, but much like a football fan is willing to spend as much as $200 for HD feeds of each game on Sunday, along with $500 for a Playstation 3, $2,000 for an HDTV, and $50 per year for a copy of Madden, clearly there is a willingness to spend. Major labels need to be man enough to break the mold, accept that “convergence” is upon us, and rally the troops to create a copy protected, high-value product, because consumers by the millions, far more than the home theater enthusiast or the Baby Boomer audiophile, are spending their money elsewhere and the irrefutable proof is in the yearly record sales.

by: Jerry Del Colliano
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