Bits won’t save music

In the early 2000s, when internet piracy was killing the recorded music business, some record companies had an idea. “Let’s keep doing what we’re doing,” they suggested. “But let’s do it with slightly better sound quality and a much bigger price tag”.

Enter DVD Audio and Super Audio CD. They offered better sound quality than CD, and they were miles ahead of the 128Kbps MP3s being swapped on Napster and Kazaa. But as formats they’re footnotes, loved by the odd audiophile and completely ignored by the mainstream.

Meanwhile, piracy continues and the business of recorded music appears to be in terminal decline. Not to worry. Some record companies have an idea.

“Let’s keep doing what we’re doing”, they’re suggesting. “But let’s do it with slightly better sound quality and a much bigger price tag.”

I think I’ve heard this song before.

More cowbell

This time it’s not about a physical format; it’s about a bitrate. Labels are considering providing music in 24-bit format, and they think we’ll be willing to pay more for it.

We won’t.

There are three reasons for that. The first is that people who don’t currently pay for 16-bit music on CD aren’t suddenly going to go “woah! Eight more bits! I renounce my piratical ways!”

The second is that there isn’t that big a difference between 16-bit and 24-bit anyway, especially not if you’re listening on Apple earbuds, through your Xbox 360 or via your mobile phone.

I’m told that the key music provider for The Kids these days is YouTube, which happily combines points one and two: we’ve got a generation whose expect music to be there for free, and they’re listening to it on crappy laptop speakers.

The third reason is that a lot of popular music is so ridiculously compressed that better quality files will actually make it sound worse. I once listened to Oasis’s debut album on a stupidly expensive bit of audiophile kit, and the recording was so harsh it felt like my ears were being stabbed. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ famously overcooked Californication sounds progressively worse the better the audio equipment, and any music that’s been involved in the the loudness wars will suffer from the same problem.

It’s not all bad, certainly, but music that’s been tweaked to sound really loud on clothes shops’ PAs, Capital FM and YouTube is not music that’s going to enthral you with its subtlety and grasp of dynamics. For the overwhelming majority of popular music, moving to 24-bit won’t make the slightest bit of difference.

What we’re seeing here is an old music business strategy: take what you’ve got and try and sell it in a slightly different wrapper. It worked with CD, so they tried it again with DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD. That wasn’t so successful, and I’m willing to bet that 24-bit downloads won’t be either.

I blogged a link to some graphs about the decline of the music business a few days ago. The message from the numbers is simple: the music business profits depend on albums, and nobody’s really fussed about albums any more. Boosting bitrates – and upping prices – won’t do anything to change that.