Ups and downs in music innovation
More and more people are listening to more and more music, on a wide variety of devices, many of them mobile. From the vinyl LP through to MP3, we’ve seen major changes in delivery technologies, though many music lovers would say quality has suffered along the way. This week I’m taking a look at trends in the way we listen to music.
photo credit : http://www.com2gever.com/musique
Music for all
In France, "[…] 99% of people, of all ages and social background, listen to music", comments Christophe Waignier, director of resources and strategy at SACEM (the French music publishers and authors association). "Seventy percent of French people say they couldn’t live without it, and 86% listen to it every day, for an average of 2 hours 25 minutes.” That’s a massive proportion of the population.
Rather than buying albums to keep as physical objects, the trend today is to pick and choose from gigantic online music catalogues —Deezer, Spotify, etc.— containing millions of tunes, often by paying a monthly subscription. So does that mean music today is suffering a fast-food phenomenon, and becoming a throwaway commodity?
Does progress necessarily mean improvement?
Music delivery systems have come a long way over the years. Remember those scratchy vinyl LPs? Cassettes with tape getting tangled round the player heads? The CD revolution was supposed to put an end to all that, with single-sided laser disks that didn’t demand such careful handling. Then came MP3, which virtualized music altogether, meaning no physical medium was required at all. Fantastic, right? Well in one way, maybe, and in another way not quite. Specialists tell us the analog sound of the vinyl LP is way superior to that from a digital CD. And that the digital compression inherent to MP3 technology brings an inevitable quality penalty, even more unforgivable when you consider that music in MP3 format can cost as much as on a CD.
A major backlash appeared in 2009 with the Slow Listening initiative launched by US critic Michaelangelo Matos (Rolling Stone, New York Post, The Guardian, etc.). The movement soon became a bandwagon, with discerning listeners advocating music as something important that requires a conscious listening effort instead of just playing in the background as audio wallpaper. Naturally, serious listening would put the emphasis back on music quality.
Innovations in music quality
Judging from recent developments in music delivery technologies, the message might just be getting across, which is reassuring. Here’s a selection of innovations that focus on sound and listening quality.
Pono, Neil Young’s high-quality player
Neil Young at the Primavera Sound Festival 2009 (credit : alterna2)
Neil Young, the musician who masterminded the Pono system, claims that “PonoMusic captures all the feeling, spirit and emotion that the artists put in their original studio recordings”. In October 2014 the company Pono Music will be releasing a very-high-quality digital music player (the PonoPlayer) that reproduces music in studio master quality. Tunes downloaded from the PonoMusic store will offer listening quality hugely superior to that of an iPod, smartphone or even a CD player. Significantly, to develop PonoMusic Neil Young raised no less than 6.2 million dollars through crowdfunding from 18,220 music lovers on the Kickstarter website. Clearly, not everybody is indifferent to music quality.
High-definition music on iTunes Store?
But guess who owns the biggest catalogue of high-resolution music in the world. That’s right: Apple, which systematically requires record labels to provide it with tunes in high-definition 24-bit format. Its Mastered for iTunes catalogue uses original masters. For reasons of download convenience, these files are compressed anyway. But according to music specialist blogger Robert Hutton, Apple is about to offer music lovers tunes in high-definition 24-bit format. Judging from take-up of the Pono project on Kickstarter, it certainly looks like the demand is there. Time will tell.
Apple invests in BeatsMusic music streaming service
Pretty much everybody has heard of sites like Deezer and Spotify, where you can listen to music online in streaming mode. Until very recently, Apple had stayed out of the streaming service business, but that’s changing with BeatsMusic, a streaming service that claims to stand out from the competition in offering a “human” service. BeatsMusic boasts highly personalized playlists to help listeners find their way around the existing catalogue and point them to new releases matched as closely as possible to their declared tastes. Specifically, it employs DJs and record label specialists (which it calls “curators”) to guide individual listening choices. Might we see a realization dawning that there’s more to quality than technology alone!
So what about in-car entertainment?
According to a SACEM study in early 2014, the car is the number-one listening location.
Graph translation :
99% of French people listen to music
86% listen to music every day
Number-one listening location: the car
Where do you listen to music?
Every day or nearly Once or twice a week
In the car
Away from home
In public transport
In the street
BeatsAudio is well aware of this: “Much more than just a way of getting from A to B, your car is one of the rare places where music really matters. BeatsAudio™ offers an immersion listening experience that lets you experience your favourite tunes like never before.”
Several carmakers have taken up BeatsAudio. In March 2014 Chevrolet announced it would be enhancing its in-car infotainment offering in 2014 with the Beats Music streaming service via a 4G link to its Chevrolet AppShop. And BeatsAudio also features on the Fiat 500 Abarth and some Dodge models.