Once upon a time, high-fidelity sound mattered to most people, and they were willing to pay for good stereo equipment to get it. But with the coming of digital music and MP3s, convenience in the form of compressed "loss-y" music trumped the quality of high-fidelity, high-resolution sound.
Instead of collecting vinyl or CDs, an increasing number of people bought individual songs for 99 cents on iTunes, and when Pandora and Spotify launched, they began to pay $10 for a monthly subscription fee for all of the ad-free music available in their extensive libraries.
New startups such as Neil Young's Pono, a high-resolution portable digital music player that boasts better sound than a CD or MP3, and Tidal, a high-fidelity streaming music service that claims to provide four times better resolution than Spotify or Pandora, have launched this year and promise to reintroduce quality sound. But do consumers care enough about quality to pay the additional cost, and will the music industry get behind the companies that want to provide it?
Reaction is mixed. Three audiophiles -- an audio journalist, a musician/sound engineer and a music industry analyst -- told International Business Times whether they thought consumers care about sound quality and whether or that interest will translate to dollars.
The difference between MP3s and high-definition or high-resolution music is “the difference between a bottle of Trader Joe’s Two-Buck Chuck wine and a 50-year-old Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” Steve Stone, a writer for Audiophile Review and The Absolute Sound, says. “Full-resolution music tends to have low-level information buried underneath ... overtones of a trumpet, reverb, someone’s foot tapping instead of a drum,” he says. “It’s like looking out over a scene through optical glass vs. looking through a window that hasn’t been washed. Loss-y MP3s,” he continues, “require your brain to do more work to fill in the spaces. It’s hard to get into.”
Although he thinks paying for higher resolution is worth it, he still thinks music lovers like to collect music, whether in material or digital form, and he has issues with Tidal not having its own version of iTunes Match.
Noah Landis, Neurosis keyboardist and an audio engineer for the past 25 years, listens to MP3s on the road for convenience -- “the sound isn’t horrible, it’s just flatter-sounding than high-def” -- but sees a place for high-definition streaming music for audiophiles at home, even if they have albums, CDs and great audio equipment. The idea of listening to Tidal at home on his good speakers -- essentially leasing out music he might not own at $20 a month -- makes sense to him.
Although he could definitely hear the difference between his MP3s and Tidal in his car, he says he wasn't sure he would want to pay both for the Tidal subscription and the extra data rate it would cost for his phone. "That's paying twice," he says.
As both an audiophile and an analyst of consumer behavior, Paul Verna, senior analyst at eMarketer and former pro audio editor at Billboard, thinks that there's a market for high-quality sound, but he believes it's niche rather than mass market. Most consumers don't have the right equipment to hear high-definition music, Verna says, and in any case, they demand high-definition visuals but not audio.
A niche market
When HD was first pushed, he says, it wasn't clear people would care. "Now," he says, "when you see a TV that’s not in HD, it looks weird. At 4K, in visual media they see a difference. But in audio, they don’t hear a difference."
Tidal tests this indifference theory on its website. It invites listeners to take a sound quiz in which they toggle between two versions of the same song -- one in “loss-y” MP3s and the other in “lossless” high-resolution music -- to see if they can tell which is which.
Many Gizmodo readers took the test recently and say that they had a hard time figuring out the difference -- even with great headphones. Regarding high-fidelity sound, one commenter put it succinctly : “[N]ever stop[ped] hearing, but certainly stopped caring after about 2001.”
When asked if marketing might change that indifference, Verna says that high-def audio startups might need a marketing push to have consumers reasses their audio priorities, but then there's the pesky problem of those who grew up on MP3 quality. It might not only be that they can't tell the difference between the compressed sounds of MP3s and higher-fidelity music; they might actually prefer the MP3 sound to technically higher quality.
He referred to a test that Jonathan Berger, a music professor at Stanford, gives to his incoming students every year. He plays recordings in different formats, from MP3 to higher quality, and asks them to choose what they like. Each year, he reports, more and more students end up preferring the music in MP3 formats over higher-quality-sounding formats -- the "sizzle sounds" that MP3s bring to music with which they're familiar.
Ultimately, Verna thinks high-quality music services will be a hard mass-market sell. There may be an uptick in vinyl sales -- "still a fraction of the percentage of music sales in general" -- and people are spending more on expensive Beats headphones. In the latter case, however, he says, "It's all about the bass. That product is made to optimize the low-end frequencies in hip hop and pop."
"I think the public at large, they probably do care about sound quality, but they don’t care enough," says Verna. "The days of marketing music on the virtue of sound quality ended in the late 1970s with Steely Dan and Pink Floyd. We’re seeing the triumph of convenience over quality.”
Following the money
As the streaming music service sector is getting more crowded and competitive, sound quality may not be the only differentiator. Artists and their labels may pick and choose who gets their music catalogs (for the price of higher royalties), and we may see the segmentation of genres as a selling point.
Held by the Scandinavian company Aspiro Group, Tidal has received accolades from artists who have said that their music finally sounds the way it was meant to, as the muddy sounds of compressed MP3 is replaced by the "lossless" high-definition sound. But in addition to aesthetic gratification, artists may begin seeing financial gratification as well. It cannot be a small thing that after a decade of receiving paltry amounts in royalties -- songwriter Aloe Blacc wrote in a recent Wired piece that "it takes roughly 1 million spins on Pandora for a songwriter to earn just $90" -- Tidal is upping the ante.
Andy Chen, CEO of both Tidal and its holding company Aspiro Group, told International Business Times that it pays its artists double the royalties of other steaming services. When asked what consumers were paying for when they paid $20 for Tidal when other streaming services were $10, Chen answered, "Artists get twice as much. It's not like we simply charge twice. It's a win-win for everyone."
When asked to comment about whether he thought Taylor Swift removed her entire back catalog from Spotify in advance of the release of "1989" because of the royalty issue, Chen would not comment. But he did add, "Let's just say we still have all of Taylor Swift's catalog."
Willard Ahdritz of Kobalt thinks that the music industry needs to progress from its "two sizes fit all" model -- namely, the 99-cent download and $10-a-month subscription -- and begin segmenting prices tailored to different users. The airline industry, for example, segments seats up to 250 different fare classes, and McDonald's offers more than Big Macs.
"You have people who are happy to pay $400 a year,” he says, “the people who bought five CDs a month -- the high-end users. I think it’s an enormous untapped market, and I think that will be the next generation of music services.”