Things were going just hootingly for the music industry until someone invented MP3’s and spoilt the party. This advent was a veritable boon for the music listening public for whom music became more accessible and portable. It also became cheaper (or, in many cases free) and they weren’t tied to buying albums any more – they could choose which tracks to buy off an album leaving vast volumes of unwanted filler behind. This left the music industry, used to cleaning up by selling full, physical albums at exorbitant prices, somewhat out of pocket. The music industry has bleated, encrypted and litigated its way though the intervening decade before finally deciding to apply a bit of ‘creative’ thinking to the situation. “If they want files for these computer contraption thingies” they say, “let’s give them files”.
Several groups are developing new rich music media file formats that hope to take the act of listening to music into the multimedia age (apparently it didn’t arrive there yet). The resulting formats are, somewhat predictably, predominantly based around full albums. The music industry wants us to buy albums. Albums, they say, are meant to be listened to as a whole. Well that may be true if you’re Mastodon, but considerably less so if you’re Peter André. Reading between the lines of the industry rhetoric it’s clear the bottom line is the order of the day – albums are a lot more profitable. Each of these attempts to recreate the experience of an album in digital format and enrich it further with other extras. So the ‘race’ is on to become the next ubiquitous file format. There are 3 contenders in this valhallan battle. Here I’ll cover each separately.
The iTunes LP
Being the only format already to make it market (launched August 2009) would seem to give them a head start on the pack. However, this evidently hasn’t translated into a resounding success, which is perhaps a sign of the music buying public’s nonchalance regarding such a format, but more likely to be related to the fact that the music industry has something else on the burner and are thus not wasting time releasing on iTunes LP’s. Which bring me on to…
Dubbed CMX (Connected Media Experience – snappy eh?) the music industry’s apparoach to this concept was to club together and throw a bunch of their ill-gotten cash at it. Originally scheduled to launch around the same time as the iTunes LP, presumably to cut them off at the pass, this has now been delayed until ‘quarter 2 2010’. We don’t know the precise details but we do know just enough to say that it is conceptually virtually the same as the iTunes LP, however, already there are obvious flaws that hobble it out of the starting blocks. Firstly, it’s Flash based, so it won’t play on an iPod, and initially probably not on any portable media player. Given the ubiquity of the last decades must have electronic accessory it’s hard to see how CMX can catch on. Secondly, it looks likely that the music will only be playable as part of the CMX file. Which means that it won’t function in iTunes, and you can’t put them on your MP3 player either!
This is still speculation given that the details of CMX have yet to be released. However, given that Apple are unlikely to support this format, and the music industry will not be quick to forsake a format that they’ve poured a load of cash into we would seem to be at a stalemate. But there is a 3rd way…
The new kid on the block it may be, but MusicDNA was created by one of the very arch-criminals responsible for this bloody mess in the first place – Karlheinz Brandenburg co-creator of the MP3. Unlike the iTunes LP and CMX, MusicDNA isn’t merely a repackaging of the digital file format into an album like experience, it has a whiff of the future about it. You see MusicDNA has smarts. It carries a bunch of metadata as per the MPEG-7 standard which carry information on stuff like tempo, instrumentation, mood as well as all the usual stuff, all captured at the point of encoding. This will allow applications like iTunes and services like Pandora and Last.fm to create weird, wonderful, and most importantly, powerful ways to recommend and playlist stuff for you. Also, the MusicDNA file is alive. It contains dynamic components that update when the file is opened. This will allow artists to include stuff like tour dates and blog posts that would always be up to date. You can copy (read pirate) MusicDNA files, and they will play just fine, however this dynamic content will no longer function, a feature which the makers say will help guard against piracy. I’m not so sure.
MusicDNA comes with a plethora of applications to encode and run, as well as the facilities for developers to build their own applications to make use of all its magical features (like iPhone and Facebook apps). It’s also MP3 backwards compatible which means it should play on anything that will play MP3′s (although I’ll believe this when I see it). Although the format made it to market (well, it’s not quite in the wild yet, but has ‘launched’) before the tardy CMX format it currently has no backing from the major labels (although a couple of independent labels are on board) and is unlikely to get it until CMX is abandoned or fails. So, short of a sudden upswell of public demand, MusicDNA would seem to be at a bit of handicap.
The question is, does the world really need a rich, album based file format? Albums are more and more becoming the bastion of hardcore fans, music lovers/collectors and audiophiles. In all cases, owning a physical copy of the album is usually the order of the day. In the latter two, audio quality is a key concern, something that none of these formats tackle. Barring the spaceage extras that accompany MusicDNA, all these extras are already available, usually offered as a DVD, with premium copies of the physical equivalents, so immediacy is all they’ve really got going for them. It’s difficult to see this becoming a Betamax vs. VHS or HD DVD vs. Blue Ray style standoff – all those formats offered features not previously available. MusicDNA is the only format with the differentiators to make it a viable alternative to the ubiquitous MP3 (and indeed AAC), but are these value adds really enough to sway the hardcore as well as change the general record buying public’s buying habits? It seems unlikely.
In addition to this, there are signs that the MP3 itself could soon become obsolete as vast numbers of music consumers are moving to increasingly mobile streaming services like (music industry sponsored) Spotify.
The final nail in these foetus’s coffins is the fact that these files will almost certainly be charged at a premium. Given that the music buying public are hard pressed to pay anything for their music, it seems a stretch to expect them to fork out more. When you add to that the fact that, due to the extra effort and expense (not to mention expertise) involved in producing these formats, smaller record labels and self releasers will unlikely bother, these formats would seem to be a lost cause.
In the end, all this talk of recreating the album experience is somewhat moot. It’s unlikely that CD’s and vinyl are likely become obsolete any time soon and simply recreating this experience in digital form is fulfilling a need that doesn’t exist for anyone other than the record labels. Albums have a place in the future of music consumption, but it’s not the form that the music takes that is going to evolve, it’s very way we discover and experience music. I’ll tackle this in subsequent articles.