Time magazine has just reported that Irish rockers U2 and Apple are holed up working on a “top secret” new format for digital music that they claim “can’t be pirated” (not true) and will make buying music -both full albums and individual tracks- “irresistible” to consumers. Really?
The recording industry is on its last legs, there is absolutely no denying it. Some would say it’s dead already, and any sales are nothing more than the rigor mortis of the industry’s corpse.It’s hard to put an exact number on the figure, but all you have to do is Google a phrase like “declining CD sales since 2000” and look at the graphs and read the articles.
Sure, the numbers are not exactly consistent, but the consensus is that sales are going down. All the way down. What’s more, this trend does not look like it’s going to reverse itself anytime soon. The reasons are obvious too. Why would anybody pay for something you can get for free?
There are, of course, the optimists. These are the voices out there claiming that sales of digital downloads are “exploding”. There are others saying that vinyl albums are making a “huge” comeback, and that this classic 12 inch format has a real shot at saving the music industry. But is there any validity to these claims?
Let’s take a look at one of the more reputable sources. According to Billboard, as of the beginning of this year (February), sales of digital downloads had eclipsed sales of CDs for only the third time ever. Three times! One…two…three.
So paid digital downloads are hardly going through the roof and eclipsing the dwindling sales of CDs. According to these same Billboard stats, out of 22.99 million total albums sold, 11.18 million were digital downloads and 11.10 million were CDs.
Also, digital downloads have a definite unfair statistical advantage because of something called TEA sales. This stands for “Track Equivalent Albums”, where the sale of ten individual tracks count as an album sold.
The entire figure is rounded out by Vinyl sales which accounted for only 3% of total sales. Wow, a whopping 3 percent! One…two…three.
That’s supposed to save the record industry? Sure, Vinyl sounds great and is highly collectible, but anybody who thinks it’s going to save the music industry is nuts.
Nonetheless, U2 and Apple are adamant that they can, and will, rescue music sales for starving recording artists all over the globe. They’re being quite cagey about exactly how they’re going to do this. In the Time Magazine piece, Bono waffles on about a complete “audiovisual interactive format”. Didn’t Apple already try something along those lines with iTunes LP?
As for their claim that “it can’t be pirated”, that’s absolute nonsense: if it’s music it’s sound, and if it’s sound it can be recorded. If it can be recorded it can be pirated. Argh matey!
So we’ll just have to wait to see what the ace Bono and the boys have hidden up their sleeves is, if any. In the meantime, here’s a look at a few of the other measures the record industry has taken in order to save what is absolutely a sinking ship.
Appealing to self described music nerds and collectors who are into anything off the beaten path, in 2007 the German company Optimal Media developed VinylDisc. This is quite literally a standard compact disc that can hold 70 minutes of music. However, the top side of the CD is a vinyl record that can store three minutes of music. So yes, this is essentially two obsolete formats sandwiched together.
To be fair, nobody ever thought this format was ever anything more than a collectible novelty item. There were many notable bands ,with followings that are sizeable by underground standards, who decided to put out limited edition releases on this format for their ardent fans. These bands included the now defunct The Mars Volta, who released a VinylDisc edition of their 2008 album “Bedlam of Goliath”, where the vinyl side was a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Candy and a Currant Bun”. Again, however, these releases were limited to only a few thousand copies for the die hard fans and collectors.
In September of 2011, Sony sold the last portable MiniDisc player, a product that they had launched in 1992. It was around for nearly 20 years, but it never really took off. This was not for lack of music enthusiasts who praised the optical-magnetic and rewriteable MiniDiscs. Sony’s idea was to give users the best of what was at one time both worlds—theability to record ambient sound and live music which cassettes offered, and the fast seek time and computer compatibility of Compact Discs.
However, the price of a MiniDisc player was far out of the reach of teenagers. The cheapest player never cost less than $250. Moreover, despite Sony’s slick, multi million dollar marketing campaign -which included this advertisement from 1997- it just never became more than an item that had followers that although faithful, were few and far between. When Apple came out with the iPod and the beginning of the 2000s, it was all over for the MiniDisc.
Can superior sound quality translate into increased sales? Are people willing to pay for high quality audio? Can this save the fledgling recording industry?
If it could’ve, then DVD Audio, or other file formats like SACD which have far superior sample rates than any other format that exists, and can be played on 51 channel surround sound systems would be selling like musical hotcakes. Right? Well, that is of course not the case. These formats sound incredible, and have to be heard to be believed. Still, they haven’t been able to capture the attention of the general public, only the most steadfast audiophiles.
Only time will tell if U2 and Apple can save the day. We have 18 months to wait according to the Time magazine article.
It’s not the first time Apple and U2 have worked together either; at the beginning of this month the band and the IT behemoth teamed up to release U2’s latest album Songs of Innocence for “free” during the ridiculously overhyped iPhone/Apple Watch rollout on September 9th. The stunt backfired, and Apple later had to launch a support website to help out dissatisfied iTunes users who were unhappy that they were having trouble deleting an album – an album that they never asked for- from their iTunes libraries. Could it be that U2 and Apple are out of touch with the common consumer? That’s a definite possibility.