Back in November 2006, i began this series of editorials. Loyal readers realize how much i have been following the ongoing saga of digital music downloads. From peer-to-peer (P2P) networks via the early Napster to iTunes and MusicGiants... this saga is going almost exactly the way i had envisioned. My original article within this series, back in November 2006, gave various data showing the decline of the prerecorded music via the compact disc format (CD). In Part I the numbers show that from January 1 to June 30, 2006, shipments of physical products are down 16 percent. Of note was that iTunes and other online media providers sold $223,600,000, not counting the $181,100,000 in mobile (ringtones, music videos for cell phones, etc) or $64,800,000 in mobile music subscriptions. Analog lovers were holding the fort at $7,700,000 in sales.
Of course hardware manufacturers may not have been amused with my original article, and many readers chimed in as seen in Part II of this ongoing saga. Kurt S wrote, "So where do we get the high rez downloads? Aren’t most downloads compressed even compared to CD? What about limitations on how many computers can hold the download? I have two cars, a dedicated 2-channel room, a HT in the family room, a wireless music system for the backyard (to be expanded throughout the house before December), several PCs, portable CD players, but no iPOD because I perceive limitations of the downloads from iTunes." Kurt is correct as back in 2006, it was hard to find uncompressed music downloads. Less that 16 months later (today), audiophiles have many choices.
Why The Change?
First, high-speed Internet connections into home all across the globe have grown at an amazing pace. Virtually no one uses 56kbs phone line connections as we did a decade ago. ISDN and various types of broadband allows for connection speeds of at least 3Mbs or higher. To download uncompressed music, one would hope to have the ability to download a song within a minute or two. Call it nealy instant gratification. Naturally, an uncompressed 24-bit/96kHz song download takes longer than a much smaller 16-bit/44.1kHz Redbook (CD) download.
Other factors now making music downloads more attractive to the major recording labels are in retailers such as Wal*Mart seeking lower retail pricing of the physical format. Add to that, the costs of distributing physical media is increasing. Note the increased cost of oil, which helps make the physical CD, plus the gasoline it takes to deliver it to your local retailer. Therefore the music labels are being squeezed at the wholesale level during a time when every penny counts in the profit and loss column. These factors, plus increased online music sales and their inherent lower cost for distribution, have made the major recording labels a bit more accepting of changing their distribution policies. Also of note is that consumers are demanding higher quality music over the 128kbs lossy compressed files iTunes first offered.
Now iTines has 256kbs and higher music while online retailers like MusicGiants provides 24-bit/96kHz downloads. DRM be damned, it appears as though DRM may eventually be a thing of the past, and good riddance! Music lovers are tired of their music being forcibly tied to a single device (or two), plus any smart computer geek can easily hack away DRM, so what is the point of DRM?
i envision the next step being a $5 or so fee for monthly music subscriptions. All the music you care to download for an additional fee that will be processed by your Internet Service Provider (ISP). There will come a time when all the DRM, lossy compressed music downloads and other limitations will be replaced by monthly subscriptions. The music you have downloaded will play is virtually all computers and portable media devices. Microsoft tried something along these lines, per se, with their Plays For Sure initiative launched at CES 2007 and written about within my February 2007 editorial. Good basic idea, bad
So perhaps i was a bit early declaring the physical CD format, and the hardware that support it, as being dead. Like vinyl, the format lives today in a reduced capacity. Perhaps instead of reduced i should be saying 'greatly augmented to eventually being superceded' by digital downloads. Many audiophiles say they hear audible benefits from eliminating the CD replay mechanicals for their computer hard drive (or using solid-state memory) and other mechanisms for 16-bit/44.1kHz music playback. Add to that, today we have a wonderful variety of USB DAC units in the marketplace. Whatever the cause of CD's demise, the great news is that it is being replaced with something better.
Today, it is easy to download high-resolution music — both new titles and old favorites — with more albums coming available with each passing day. In addition, the ease of enjoying your music on various hardware devices is more flexible than it was years ago. Perhaps the Microsoft core vision of Plays For Sure where every device was guaranteed to play your music was a good thing! Sadly, it was very badly implemented years ago. My dream is that we get every online music store to provide universal file types, sans DRM, with lossless high-resolution music that can easily be upgraded via CODECs. Sure there needs to be hardware support as in the coming years 24-bit/192kHz may be superceded by higher rates, yet good CODECs can go a long way towards both up and down sampling. As always, in the end what really matters is that we all....