One of the talks I wished I hadn’t gone to at RMAF this year was the discussion hosted by Steven Stone. The title of the talk was “Are We There Yet: Past, Present, & Future of High-End Audio?”
I’m still not sure why this talk bugged me so much.
It wasn’t until he started talking about “The Future” that I realized how lost he — and many of “them” — are when it comes to some of the most recent changes to the “audiophile industry”. The tone, if not the text, was: The End Is Nigh.
In my job, I spend a lot of time talking about Cloud Computing and SaaS as “new” models for businesses. Software-as-a-Service is, roughly, equivalent to a leasing model. Cloud, by contrast, is a pay-as-you-go model — no set recurring costs as those are totally replaced by usage fees. While referenced obliquely in the talk as some kind of dingo come to steal the baby, I felt it worth discussing them because both threaten high-end audio. Sort of. But both are also very interesting — from a reduced-costs-to-the-consumer model at least.
With SaaS/Leasing, you don’t always get exactly what you want. In audio, this means being unable to use your files all the time on any device you want. If you want that, you go to iTunes or Amazon and buy your music. But if you’re willing to forgo that convenience and flexibility, you can get a whole lot more for your dime — said another way, your dollar goes farther with SaaS. The downside is that if you take a month off, you still pay for the service — it’s a contract, binding whether or not you use the service or not. Think Sirius or Pandora One.
So, SaaS is threatening because it’s limited. If all music is “leased” in the sense that you pay a monthly fee to a provider, you’re limited to what they have to offer in their library and to whatever resolution that library is offered in — it’d be like having to get all the premium cable channels in order to make sure you got access to all the music you might want. If your musical tastes are limited, you might do well with this model. Assuming you can deal with 320bps audio streams. Or whatever that industry settles on as their “premium” offering.
SaaS is great because it’s easy. There’d be no more pesky CDs. No more USB/SATA/SSD drives to worry about. No backups needed. You pay, you connect, you listen.
Cloud is threatening for many of the same reasons as SaaS, but would look pretty much the same to the consumer with one difference — you’d get a “music bill” at the end of the month that would look a lot like a bill from a utility company instead of the one from the cable company. Instead of paying $100 for water service (or 10 albums), you’d pay for only the gallons of water you “consumed” (you listened for X minutes, or to Y number of tracks). Pricing could easily be made variable as well — perhaps subject to demand as well as to “quality” — a hot new single might be $.25 per play for during the time when it was on the Top 100 chart, and others might be $.02 per play. Long songs, say an opera, might be $2 per play.
Cloud is great because whatever you listen to, that’s only what you pay for. And you still have no “headaches” related to backups or storage. All you “own” is a set of playlists.
Both would be subject to the market and a bunch of accountants, not enthusiasts. The bulk of the musical corpus would remain lossy — it’s cheaper to store and stream smaller files — and there’d be great scientific studies done which would justify this cost savings measure (on the part of the provider).
In other words, SaaS and Cloud would look a lot like today’s marketplace for the majority of users. It’s only us weirdo audiophile outliers that might be dis-served. Sort of.
I guess I’m not convinced that we’d all get left out in the cold — that is, any more than we already are. With one exception — Redbook might not remain the default standard format. I mean, CD sales are way down. Who knows, they might get discontinued altogether, and 320kbps AAC might become the default resolution at first release. Which would blow. But would it be the end?
Getting back to the original point about the talk — there, Stone was arguing that unless we audiophiles and/or the audiophile industry did something to recruit “the younger generation” of music lovers, we’re done for. Not only will we not own our music, but the music we can get to will suck (be lossy) and soon, all those who care will be dead and then it’ll be All Over.
I guess I find this very difficult to grasp. Yes, it’s true — this generation of folks from 20-30 years old has grown up in a world where music is an anytime, anywhere application. Unlike many 50-60+ year olds, the younger music listeners are multitasking while “doing music”. Yes, this might mean that they take music for granted, and that therefore it’s easy to imagine that the specialness of audiophile-quality musical playback would be uninteresting, effete, snooty, and therefore, lost.
Which is pretty much what the parents and grandparents of those 50-60+ year olds would have told them when they were 20-30 years old. The End didn’t happen then and it won’t happen now.
Yes, audio quality is going down. Sort of. I don’t know how many of you recall how hi-fi your hi-fi was back in the 1970s, but the hi-fi at my house wasn’t all that. I think the audio quality of that system is outstripped by an iPhone playing 320kpbs AAC files! Regardless, we all know (at least on this site) that “resolution” is only part of the game — quality mastering is perhaps more important. And what might be different today is that master-tape quality audio is available — the K2HD Gold disks are amazing!
So, even if CDs become as obsolete as vinyl records — I mean, seriously, who buys those anymore? — then we might have a problem. Especially if the service delivery model gets to dictate bit rate.
Audiophilia isn’t going anywhere, IMO. All I can predict is that the gear we use for audio playback and reproduction will get ever better — and those interested in purchasing such will be well rewarded by the efforts of those interested in providing it. New audiophiles are “born” all the time (I’m 41 and only been an ‘phile for the last 3 years) and this market is well established enough that while the market may not actually grow to dominate the audio scene, it’s unlikely to die out any time soon.
If I had to wager, my money would be on advances in computer audio being the new gateway drug to a deep, abiding, lifelong addiction for the millions to come after us.