Pirates on the Sea of Garbage

For the past couple of years, the music industry has done little besides bitching and complaining about reduced profits and blaming it on those evil people who download music from the internet and burn it on CD-R. "Proof" usually consists of comparisons between the number of audio CDs and the number of CD-R media sold during the same period and the fact that there are MP3 files on the internet. I specifically write "proof" because neither argument is telling the whole truth (or even the major part of it) and can thus hardly be taken seriously:
  1. There are many legal uses for CD-R besides audio, e.g. backing up data or archiving those pictures you made during your last vacation.
  2. There are many legal uses for audio CD-R, such as backing up audio CDs you bought fair and square in order to listen to your music in a potentially hazardous environment (such as a car in summer) or recording your own music (unsigned bands, anyone?)
  3. The presence of MP3 on the net doesn't automatically mean people don't buy the CDs, they might just prefer MP3 over CDs in certain situations, such as portable devices. Moreover, MP3 can be a great way to advertise music since it allows people to check something out in the comfort of their homes rather than having to stand in line at a shop and trying to figure out whether they like the CD while some techno percussion is battering away in the background. People with access to MP3 may well buy more CDs because they can check out music conveniently they wouldn't have bothered with otherwise; this has also been shown in studies done in the early days of MP3.
Still, the music industry is on the decline, that much I believe them. And it's really no wonder at all and the real reason for that has little to do with "music pirates" (shiver me mateys! Harrr, harrr...) and P2P, the real reason is that the music industry has done everything they possibly could to shoot themselves in the foot and are now too blind to realize it's their own mistake and learn from it.

Originally I wanted to start this section with a rant on how much popular music sucked ever since the mid-70ies when rock stopped being cool and disco appeared. Given recent events, starting with the consequences of this development seemed a much better idea. What have we seen in the charts those past three decades? In the 70ies there was disco, in the 80ies there was cheap synthie-pop, then came rap and techno and nowadays everybody who got his 15 minutes (or less) of fame on TV is labeled a "superstar" and gets to sonically rape some cover song before disappearing back into the molasses (s)he came from. Now, what do all these things have in common? Right, they're all pure and unadulterated garbage (in increasing levels of severity). Musical proficiency? You gotta be kidding me! Recording quality? Gone completely down the drain. In the old days, recordings were made with good audio gear in mind and often when you put an old recording on a high quality stereo you're amazed by its natural sound and spatial properties. These days, music seems to be mastered for kitchen radios and computer speakers only: compressed and filtered to death and/or 100 tracks superimposed, which can only lead to flat and synthetic sound. Put something like this on a high-quality stereo and you'll wonder why you spent so much money on it (it's when you put on e.g. a Sensory CD that you remember where that money went). It's really sad: the technical possibilities are better than ever before, but recording quality has reached an all-time low. Given this deficiency, is it a wonder an amazingly large number of people use their computers for music? Of course all these things are great as a short-term strategy: you don't have to spend time and money to find and support real artists until they have a large enough fan base who identify with them, you just get some good-looking people matching current fashions, have them mouth nondescript lyrics written by some ghostwriter in a flashy video and buy it into the music stations, then get the playback tapes and dancers ready and rake in the money while confused teenagers on hormones are throwing stuffed animals and various pieces of undergarments on stage. Easy money. The only downside is that in the long run it causes irrevocable damage to your credibility and your product, which will not go unnoticed by your customers. Judging by their recent whining, music industry executives apparently thought this scam could go on indefinitely, though. Apparently there's one born every minute...

What kind of signals does an industry with this sort of product ethics send to its customers? Right, "we sell garbage", and consequently "music is garbage". The net result is quite obvious: people don't spend money on garbage; hardly surprising, is it? And isn't it amazing that the music industry is so busy shifting the blame to their own customers that they don't realize that their own short-sightedness is one of the major reasons for their current blight? Isn't it odd that many bands from underground styles are still doing pretty OK despite the bad state of the world economy, while strangely enough garbage-on-a-disk stopped being profitable? How come Deep Purple, AC/DC or Iron Maiden still play in sold out houses in front of 2--3 generations of fans, many of whom have the complete back catalogue at home (and payed for it)? How come there are people out there who religiously buy every release of a band, even if it only contains one song they didn't have already, or a different cover? Because these bands have built a loyal fanbase over the years, that's why. Not the sort of "fans" who listen to the band because listening to the band is currently in vogue but people who truly love their music. You can't buy that sort of thing, no matter how hard you try to manipulate the market, you need good bands and you need to give them time to grow even if the first couple of albums don't sell as well as you hoped they would. Where are the new bands who have the potential to create and bind fans the way the old rock dinosaurs did? Does anybody really believe people will remember even the names of the faceless drones populating the charts today in one year's time, let alone ten? But the music industry is too stupid even to embrace those who are fans already, but more often than not chooses to anger them by releasing special editions after the regular album, unlimiting "limited editions" or rereleasing the back catalogue with (usually) pointless extras or remasters nobody but the compulsive collector needs. All done in the quest for profit, even though the next best idiot should be able to see that this sort of strategy will come back to haunt you eventually. There's a limit on how much you can sucker your customers before they start boycotting you and once that happens it's not your customers' fault but your own. What's amazing in the light of all this is not so much that the music industry is suffering from reduced profits ATM but why they aren't suffering a whole lot more. If you sell something people want, people will gladly pay for it; this is is also true for the negation.

There are various other reasons for the problems the music industry currently has. For starters, the CD has been around for 20 years and many people now have all the old albums they love in this format; if nothing new comes out they like, there's no reason for them to buy any more CDs. The world economy isn't at its best at the moment, so people have less money to spend on things they don't need (in the same way you need to pay your rent or you need to buy food). Another important factor is that DVD boomed tremendously those past couple of years and the money spent on DVDs is money not spent on audio CDs. Yet another reason is price: nowadays, a CD costs a few cents to produce, but is typically sold for more than 15 Euro. Reducing the price to 10 Euro or less would encourage people enormously to buy, in particular new stuff they're not sure about. Pricing of audio CDs seems particularily bizarre in comparison to DVDs, which are a much more complex product, but can often be bought at a considerably reduced price after a couple of months. So there are many, many good reasons why the music industry's fat years are over without once having to blame CD-Rs or the internet, and the music industry's situation will not improve before they realize these issues and address them.

We're still a long way removed from such awareness, however. On the contrary, the music industry decides to wage war on their customers by selling broken CDs (also known as "copy-protected CDs") or dragging P2P users to court. I don't know what planet those music industry managers responsible for these actions are from, but here on earth selling broken goods and criminalizing your potential customers is rarely good business practice. The whole copy-protection idea is utterly ludicrous: "let's sell CDs which deliberately break the Red Book Standard in the hope of confusing computer drives" may well go down in history under "famous last words". The fact is that those discs confuse CD burners a lot less than they do CD players in cars or DVD players, so people tend to have less problems copying the CDs than actually playing them. Standards were created in order to avoid problems like these, and now the music industry believes they will improve their situation by breaking these standards and thus inconveniencing their customers -- just how stupid can you get? The music industry is on the road to oblivion, and they just fired up the afterburner. I don't know about you, but I will not buy broken disks!

Their latest attempt to get you to spend money on music is new high-resolution formats such as DVD-Audio and SACD -- a new format is always a great way to make people buy all their favourite albums in yet another format. Unfortunately, the good ole audio CD already has much higher potential than the measly stereos most people own can bring to the speaker membranes, so a high-resolution medium for the mass consumer market makes about as much sense as an airplane-class CW value for a child's tricicle (incidentally, true 24bit analogue resolution is physically impossible with current technology because the thermal noise in transistors alone is larger than the 24bit LSB). Many people are convinced they can hear a noticeable difference between those high-resolution formats and the traditional 44/16 CD format, which may well be true if they own a 10k Euro class stereo system and very high quality recordings, but people with typical consumer gear have a long way to go just to get something resembling 44/16 resolution to their ears, so it's pointless to increase the digital resolution in this context. On the other hand, people with really expensive hardware are such a small group that they're hardly of interest for the content industry. The problem here is not the digital section but the analogue one; increasing the digital resolution when the really limiting (and still rather expensive) factor for the vast majority of people is the analogue part is quite pointless. People may quite easily hear the difference between an audio CD and an SACD on really cheap hardware, though. How's that possible, you ask? On the one hand, they could hear deficiencies of the DACs at different resolutions (an ideal DAC is neutral at all resolutions, a cheap one is not), but the major reason is simply different masterings: they hear a difference because the source material is different, meaning the 44/16 version is not just the 96/24 (or whatever) version carefully resampled to the lower resolution but a different (and often deliberately worse) master to make the highres track appear superior. The music industry wants to sell something as an improvement over existing technology which is physically impossible to be an improvement for the mass market, so they just "help" people notice the difference, aren't they nice? The real reasons for the music industry to push high resolution formats are

  1. the hope of selling you all your favourite albums all over again and
  2. migrating the music market to a medium which offers copy protection and digital rights management (DRM). The rights of the content industry that is; from the consumer's point of view, DRM takes away all his rights.
If you want better sound, you should visit a real HiFi store -- in contrast to box shifters these also sell audio gear costing more than a car (but not exclusively) and offer decent service. Listen to some good recordings on e.g. Accuphase gear and compare that to the sound you're used to at home; that should give you a pretty clear answer to the question whether your own gear is limited by the digital or the analogue side. Then try to find something you like and you can afford (the latter will in all likelihood rule out Accuphase ;-) ) and enjoy your CDs like you've never heard them before. That's money far better spent than upgrading a consumer class audio system to a highres format, buying your albums again in that format and submitting yourself to retarded 5.1 upmixes and digital rights slavery.

In closing: I bought more than 400 CDs, most of them by small underground bands, and seeing the music industry in action recently I may just leave it at that.

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