Universal Music's Latest Bet On The Future: People Will Buy Music On Plastic Discs, Right?

from the oh,-so-it's-like-a-CD,-only-more-expensive dept

The years when the compact disc was the preferred audio format were some of the most profitable years in the recording industry’s history. Both vinyl fans and cassette collectors purchased albums they already owned in the new format. Why? Convenience. It replaced vinyl’s bulkiness with something that could be carried around comfortably by the hundreds, if needed. It also solved the cassette’s biggest issue, saving music fans from the tedium of manually rolling the tape to a favorite track via the inexact science of button mashing.

The CD was simply a more convenient format and claimed to be damn near indestructible if properly cared for. (Sadly, the jewel box was rarely up to the task of being the CD’s protector, as the all-important CD-holding center pins/braces usually disintegrated upon purchase.)

Clearly, the recording industry would prefer a return to that era, as it has made several attempts to woo buyers back to its shiny discs, offering a variety of audio improvements. The latest advancement in plastic disc technology comes via the Universal Megalith Music Group.

Universal Music Group recently did a low key introduction of a new hi-res audio format called High Fidelity Pure Audio. The launch was kicked off at the Dolby headquarters in London on June 20th and the format became available in France first, which seemed like a great place to dip the product’s toe in the water without having picky audio journalists noticing.

So what exactly is this stealth format? High Fidelity Pure Audio (HFPA) is basically a Blu-ray disc that delivers 96kHz/24 bit audio recordings in three lossless formats: uncompressed PCM, DTS HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD. Most discs include the option to download MP3 and lossless FLAC versions of the songs as well. The discs will also play on any Blu-ray player or PS3 device.

If you haven’t felt your heart skip a beat or a surge of mild interest, don’t bother checking your pulse. You’re very much alive, in contrast to the offering before you. Yet another attempt to reinstate a long-gone profit margin which will be greeted with the sort of public indifference that can scarcely be bothered to expend energy on a shrug.

If this were a novel experiment, it might be greeted with enthusiasm from a few high-end stereo afficionados and loads of ridicule from everyone else. But it’s all been done before and even those willing to throw lots of money at an audio system have bought a ticket for this ride too many times before.

Didn’t we just play this game about 10 years ago with the DVD Audio disc and SACD, formats that both failed miserably? While it’s laudable that Universal is even considering bringing a higher fidelity product to the marketplace, haven’t they learned anything from history?

UMG has not. Or if it has, this new format isn’t the based on anything it’s learned. People may decry the quality of compressed audio, but nothing else comes close to it for portability and convenience, Bobby Owsinski points out.

[I]mprovements in fidelity happened along the way in most formats, but almost as a byproduct of the technology. Nowhere in this stream did the majority of consumers choose to replace a format simply because it sounded better.

UMG may think there’s an underserved niche market that needs to be filled, but any physical music format at this point is really a niche. I don’t think it’s actively trying to fill a void as much as it’s trying to see how many people are willing to purchase something again in a shiny, new format. That’s really not how “repeat business” is supposed to work.

I have to imagine the costs of this effort are going to outweigh the profits, which in an industry that has spent 15 years hollering about how uncomfortable its deathbed is, makes absolutely no sense at all.

[Personal note: visiting the Google-translated High Fidelity Audio Disc site, I was greeted with the following message, possibly indicating I may not be the target audience for this product.]

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Companies: umg, universal music

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Comments on “Universal Music's Latest Bet On The Future: People Will Buy Music On Plastic Discs, Right?”

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91 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

has anyone worked out the answers to the greatest questions of our time yet?
‘why the hell do the entertainment industries never listen to what their customers say or what their customers want? why do they insist in doing what they want and THINK that their customers want? would it not be cheaper and easier and progressive to cast off this ‘we know everything’ attitude and please those they want to get cash from?

quite amazing how those with plenty of money and power have no fucking sense!!

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re:

why the hell do the entertainment industries never listen to what their customers say or what their customers want?

Because there is way less risk and effort in maintaining a government-granted monopoly. People are fickle. Maintaining a relationship and understanding and changing with your customers is particularly difficult when your product quality is entirely subjective.

If you manage to become the only hot dog vendor, you quickly realize that customer satisfaction is far less important to your bottom line than keeping out new vendors.

Keroberos (profile) says:

Re: Re:

why the hell do the entertainment industries never listen to what their customers say or what their customers want?

Because, the entertainment industry has zero experience in figuring out what the customer wants. Their business models are built upon lack of competition in their market–the only music available came from the established recording industry who told you what you were going to listen to in the formats they chose to give you, the movie industry, same thing. Now that their stranglehold on the market is slipping–they bumble around trying to turn back the clock. How else could you explain why they have ignored or demonised the greatest entertainment marketing tool ever created?

Also, those in the industry that are in charge of finding new stuff have colossal egos–how dare these upstart customers think they know better than them what they want.

The Real Michael says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Now that their stranglehold on the market is slipping–they bumble around trying to turn back the clock. How else could you explain why they have ignored or demonised the greatest entertainment marketing tool ever created?”

Look at how the music labels attacked Pandora, just because the latter’s service doesn’t allow the former to dictate company policy, i.e. shove all their acts in everyone’s faces.

The Real Michael says:

Re: Re:

Funny enough, I always prefer to have the tangible product. That way I own what I purchased and can make a digital backup anytime.

That said, I’m not sold on the Blu-ray music discs. The music labels are clearly trying to echo the movie industry with this move, but I suspect consumer demand is almost nonexistent. Only the most discerning audiophiles would be interested — an enthusiast’s market …that is if the music were of serious merit. Unfortunately, 99% of what the major labels peddle is pure, unadulterated garbage.

That Totally THX says:

Re: Re: Re:

I liked physical CD’s too, until the loudness wars got out of hand. That’s when I stopped buying them. I wonder if this latest attempt will suffer from the same problem? Clipped audio with no dynamic range, now available in high def at a store near you! 😉

There was a time long ago when I actually looked forward to audio going 5.1 and high def. Properly mastered, 5.1 music can sound amazing, as evidenced when watching a movie which has a decent soundtrack. The music industry never really embraced it though, not in any meaningful way anyways.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I’ve noticed that CDs released in recent years have a higher audio level than those released in the mid-80s. I’d say that’s an improvement in technology.
My main home audio system is a Pioneer SX-315 surround sound system to which I have my DVD player and DVD/VCR attached (I listen to CDs with the DVD player). It seems that most CDs have surround sound, including those I’ve burned from downloaded music.
(BTW, I haven’t bought a prerecorded CD in a long time.)

That Totally THX says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Faux surround sound (i.e. Prologic IIx, etc) is not the same thing. Not even close, though it will do in a pinch for stereo sources that need it.

The loudness war isn’t just about high audio levels (to the point of clipping). It’s also about having the dynamic range compressed until there is none left.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war

That totally sucks.

Anonymous Coward says:

lossless audio format of penultimate audio quality… been listening to that for quite a few years now… welcome to the party?

I guess semi-professional DJs will like this since they have to buy CDs to make sure they are on the up and up… but then there’s the whole performance rights things going after people at weddings so they can double dip so hell if I know how licenses work anymore and in which country you can do what with what you legally buy.

Topi says:

To be fair, I buy CDs more often than not because the current car I drive does not have a standard way of allowing MP3 connectivity without getting a secondary market radio. And if I buy digital I’m forced to get some blank CDs to burn onto if I want it in my car, so CDs are still rather valuable to me at least. Having something physical when it comes to games or CDs is still largely important to me. I buy songs on iTunes, I purchase eBooks on a fairly regular basis. I guess to me, I still love the ‘antiquated’ idea of owning tangible objects.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Let them eat cake.

you can afford a decent modern head unit.

It’s not a matter of can I afford it. It’s a cost/benefit thing. The cost (in dollars, time, and hassle) is higher than the benefit for me. My stereo sounds great, and my solution works well. If it ain’t broke, and all that.

I’m not complaining about my stereo, I’m just pointing out that there are use cases where a CD makes a whole lot of sense.

Jake says:

If stereo equipment capable of deriving much benefit from all this didn’t cost more than a decent used car, this might –might– gain a modest following, but as it is, the only real market for these things are the kind of fuckwit who buys Monster Cable products and genuinely believes their stereo sounds better for it. These guys seem to make quite a bit of money off such people, but I don’t think their business model scales very well.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: My dad was an audiophile

My dad was an audiophile, and when he died, his sound system that he left my family really does sound awesome
(My sound system isn’t a bose, it consists of Von Schweikert VR3 speakers, a Tascam CD-RW2000 CD Player/Recorder, a Tact Audio RCS 2.2 X Preamp, a Rotel Power Amplifier RB-1090 and a Michell Engineering Gyro Dec Turntable with a Grado Prestige Gold 1 cartridge).

To be fair, this Blu-ray new format would really sound awesome if there were a new player for it. That being said, I’m perfectly happy with the Vinyl revival and CD-Rs I burn from lossless sources such as Bandcamp and Beatport. If there’s gonna be another digital audio format, it should be Blu-ray quality but downloadable over the internet. The Major labels are insane if they ever think they’re going to get relevant again (except to distribute label-less indies who have made it on, say, Billboard, like Ingrid Michaelson, Macklemore and Anamanaguchi)?

out_of_the_blue_ray says:

"I have to imagine" -- Techdirt's usual basis for a rant.

Since Blue-Ray already existed, as do “hi-fi” digital formats (pffft! but that’s off-topic), then “the costs of this effort” are minor, and in any case, it’s likely a prestige item. Don’t worry that UMG will go broke on this.

What about Techdirt’s constant calls for “innovation”? — Well, turns out that when attempted by those Techdirt sees as enemies, then any and all attempts are jeered at. The biases here make it entirely a matter of WHO, not what.

You’re not forced to buy this. It’s just a way of delivering gigabytes of data to a niche, as you even state. But I bet some pirates are already looking for the illegal downloads.

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: "I have to imagine" -- Techdirt's usual basis for a rant.

There is nothing even remotely innovative about putting music in an already existing format on an already existing blue ray disc.

It’s like me moving coke (that someone else made) from a glass (that someone else made) into a bigger glass (that someone else made)… Wow, I’m a hero.

S. T. Stone says:

Re: "I have to imagine" -- Techdirt's usual basis for a rant.

Show me how this innovates over CDs, the FLAC audio format, and anything else done in the digital music marketplace over the past five years, and I’ll gladly agree with you about how this counts as an innovation.

Until then, I’ll sit over here and laugh at how the RIAA thinks it can get people to buy music on plastic discs again.

ozamora (profile) says:

Just provide the Hi-Res, Loss-less audio file

Convenience is key here. They can invest on this next-generation DVD-A/SACD, but will never replace the convenience of a digital archive at hand.

I really would care if there was a Spotify type of service that provides streaming of Hi-Res, Loss-less music, as well as any provider that is willing to sell the same version of the track online.

And for the ones that are worried about “re-selling” their music, then this Blu-Ray disc comes handy.

Anonymous Coward says:

I still buy physical CDs from time to time...

…but the catch is, I *never* buy them for the music itself. Physical media is only useful or interesting to me now if it has added value, like special editions that come with big artbooks or other neat things. Hell, the last physical discs I bought were for the special edition of Coheed and Cambria’s Afterman:Ascension/Descension double album, which was sold when Ascension released and Descension was months away. The Descension disc in the box is completely blank and you’re meant to burn your high-quality Descension track downloads to it yourself (which I still haven’t bothered to do, because NOBODY USES PHYSICAL MEDIA THESE DAYS).

Long story short: sell me on the extras and the disc is a complete afterthought.

R.H. (profile) says:

Sell the FLAC?

Why not just directly sell the (lossless compressed) FLAC files to the customers and skip the relatively expensive disc pressing part of the problem.

Although, I know the answer to this question. If you sell studio quality lossless audio, then people never have to re-buy for a new format. I wonder what percentage of the record industries revenue for the last three decades have come from people buying music they already owned in new formats?

madasahatter (profile) says:

Re: Sell the FLAC?

“I wonder what percentage of the record industries revenue for the last three decades have come from people buying music they already owned in new formats?”

Good question because many have transitioned from vinyl/tape to CD to digital, spending money for each at transition. At this point the size of hard drives makes buying music tracks from iTune or Amazon more practical for me than buying a disc.

Another overlooked issue is demographics. I suspect the age range for most active media purchasing is roughly 15 to 35 with purchasing tapering off until about 50 or so and remaining relatively low and flat. With an aging population worldwide demographics mean that media sales will decline as the percentage of young declines.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Sell the FLAC?

I suspect the age range for most active media purchasing is roughly 15 to 35 with purchasing tapering off until about 50 or so and remaining relatively low and flat.

I don’t know the actual statistics, but I stand as a counterexample. I’m in the 50 year old range and buy more music now than ever before in my life.

But none of it is from RIAA member labels, so maybe it doesn’t count.

JEDIDIAH says:

Re: Sell the FLAC?

The real problem is that you already have that problem with MP3. It is a terminal format and a vanishingly small proportion of people are interested in something snootier.

People already have the last copy of The White Album they are ever going to need to buy.

They don’t have to buy another one.

The extra layer of gratuitous DRM on this new format doesn’t even blip on the radar.

The Real Michael says:

Re: Re: Sell the FLAC?

That’s what the labels are really banking on: demand for high-fidelity renderings of their back catalogs. They see how people bought blu-rays of older movies and believe that they can transpose that success over to music, but it’s not going to work. Vinyl, 8-track, cassette, CD, SA-CD, digital. How many ways can they repackage the past? Their failure to innovate coupled with the lackluster artists in their repertoire has brought their business to its knees.

Even the perception of their popularity is faked: they can pay robot companies to artificially add views and likes to their YouTube videos and Facebook pages. Seriously, who in their right mind believes that over a hundred-million people care about Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and J-Lo?

Anonymous Coward says:

Niche format

Is it true that “any physical music format at this point is really a niche”? According to this, CD sales are down but still the dominant format:

“Unsurprisingly, physical music continued its yearly decline, with sales down by 12.8 percent in 2012. Despite this big drop — including a 13 percent drop in CD sales — physical remained the dominant format for music purchases, the study found.”

I always buy CDs when I have the option because I’m free to rip them to any format I want, and unlike MP3s and AACs they don’t come with my name and account ID embedded. CD’s are also their own backup medium, which is another plus.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Niche format

I always buy CDs when I have the option because I’m free to rip them to any format I want, and unlike MP3s and AACs they don’t come with my name and account ID embedded. CD’s are also their own backup medium, which is another plus.

Also, you can get rid of them once you rip the data from them (Thank you, US Supreme Court for upholding first sale!).

Anon says:

Too Little Too late

To replace a media with the “new improved”, there has to be a quantum leap in price, quality, and/or convenience.

CD’s were that; no more (a helluva lot less) warps, skips, and other problems; simler random access than cassettes; sound quality that didn’t deteriorate and was audibly better than records unless you had the $500 record player with the diamond stylus… One of my first (classical) music CD’s, you could hear the piano pedals squeaking as they were pushed.

SACD and Audio-DVD did nothing for this. Once the sound quality was moe than good enough, who cared about the slight improvement. Most people don’t have hearing that good or discerning.

Similarly, DVD was a massive leap over VHS, which was a massive massive massive leap over 8mm film. Blu-Ray? Who cares? 90% of movies don’t need HD – how badly do you need “Meet the Fokkers” in HD vs. 480i? As a result, DVD is still around and Blu-ray is lackluster.

MP3 and DIVx or streaming? A huge jump in convenience. I can fit a wall of music CD’s in my pocket. I can convert a video (or buy it) so it can be watched on a portable phone or iPad.

So this is just stupid. Where’s the quantum leap? Super L-cassettes, laser discs, SACD – the improvement of quality, convenience or price was simply NOT there. If bluray had an option for something like “50 hours of 480i on one disc”, it might have helped – here you go, the complete Gilligan’s island on one disc. the Complete Dallas or Roots or A-Team on one disc… It would have offered a convenience that DVD could not match. Instead, Blu-ray was just an expensive DVD. Very few movies (Avatar?) benefit from the higher video quality.

PopeRatzo (profile) says:

Not too bad

If they’re willing to include downloaded mp3s, and the sound quality is better, it’s not a horrible idea. I think musicians might like this new format.

It also allows for richer artwork. One of my friends just released a beautifully packaged CD of some of his work, and he did pretty well with it. Sold them at shows, and a lot more people bought them than I expected.

As long as they’re not crippled with DRM or malware, I think it’s actually kind of a good idea to sell music on something that you can hold in your hand.

I don’t think it works for people like Lady Gaga who are trying to support an entire industry and management with their work, but for musicians trying to make a solid living, this is a good idea.

Simon says:

I’m pretty sure they know this is a niche offering. 99% of music buyers probably don’t have the audio equipment to do the higher bitrates justice. However the 1% that do typically spend a lot of money for incremental quality improvements, so given this utilizes existing technologies and the cost is only in the mixing / production, why not offer this to those buyers that want it?

To be honest, I’m kind of disappointed in Techdirt’s spin on this. They’re appealing to a hardcore segment of music fans and adding value over the “free” MP3’s available via the Pirate Bay.

Simon says:

Re: Re: Re:

If you’re an audiophile that’s spent tens of thousands of $$$’s on equipment, you’d be happy to pay a little extra for music that’s been mastered and encoded at higher resolutions that utilizes your investment in hardware. It’s not for 99% of people, but mocking Universal for putting an offering out that appeals to the “Superfan” seems unnecessary.

Mr. Applegate says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I bet just like many Blue Ray Discs out there where they basically just copied the DVD master into the Blue Ray format, the music wasn’t remastered for the new format. They simply took the master they had and re-encoded. Since the old master probably isn’t that high of a quality you aren’t going to get that much more out of it.

Not to mention unless you have spent $$$$$ on gear and a room to listen in, with that ONE (only one person in the room sitting in exactly the right spot) sweet spot it is all for naught anyway. Raise your hand if you listen to music in a large room, alone, with one listening position and don’t raise an iPad, book or anything else to disturb the acoustics.

You say you can hear the difference, but can you? Did you do an “ABX Double Blind Audio Test” If you didn’t then you only believe you can hear the difference. You can even build your own http://sound.westhost.com/abx-tester.htm (I have).

Mr. Applegate says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Erm,

Audio Engineer?

If not (and even if you are and that room is not for your job) then you sir would be a true audiophile in my book. Nothing wrong with that at all. My problem is with all the people that think $$$ equal quality audio, and I have seen some very high end gear poorly installed with truly awful results, while they owner stands there and brags about all the money spent and how great it sounds.

I was a Live Sound Engineer for a band for many years (a long time ago) and now volunteer as a Live and Recording Sound Engineer for a local theater. My high frequency hearing isn’t as good as it used to be, but probably still better than most. I am always amazed at the number of people who claim to be audiophiles that don’t have a clue what the music they are listening to is supposed to sound like.

rhobere says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Any audiophile that’s spent tens of thousands of dollars on equipment likely already has the ability to burn FLAC audio to a blu-ray, especially since computers come with blu-ray burners out of the box now. Its the exact same thing so why would they need someone to sell it to them. No “superfans” will buy into this unless they’re complete idiots, just like anybody else that buys into it.

Karl (profile) says:

Multi-channel Audio

If there was ever a hope for physical media, it would have been in multi-channel audio. Most of the compressed formats (at least in the early years) were geared towards streaming media over an Internet connection, and it only used two channels (sometimes not even two).

Until recently, multi-channel audio file sizes were larger than anyone could comfortably download. It simply would have been more convenient to buy a disk, exactly the same way it was more convenient to buy a DVD when that format came out.

In fact, the only people who were seriously developing multi-channel audio were the movie industry, who wanted to be able to offer 5.1 audio. If the music industry was smart, they would have worked with the movie industry to supply a single, unified multi-channel audio format that worked in DVD players as well.

It still would have been a fairly niche market, but it would still have been better than the stuff they’re peddling now.

Of course, with bandwidth speeds the way they are, that opportunity has long passed.

Steve says:

Dynamic Range

Normal CDs support much better audio than they generally ship with. By applying audio filters before burning the master, the technician can make the music sound louder, at the expense of sound quality. Apparently this sells CDs, so they do.

There are detailed descriptions that call this “death of dynamic range”.

Hanno (profile) says:

This is largely voodoo

All these high quality audio formats are largely voodoo anyway. Why? Because if you have a mp3 with some decent bitrate (for mp3 it’s said to be around 192 kb/s) and a good encoder, you already have what is called audio transparency. That means a human ear cannot hear the quality loss due to the compression. (and mp3 is mostly an outdated technology, with modern codec technology – aka opus – you can get it with even lower bitrates)

There are lots of people out there claiming that they can hear the compression artifacts compared to a “lossless” file or even a 24 bit file. But they can only do so as long as they know which file is the lossless one and which not. In a blinded test you cannot separate them.

Codec-developer Monty has written about that a while back in detail:
http://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: This is largely voodoo

There are lots of people out there claiming that they can hear the compression artifacts compared to a “lossless” file or even a 24 bit file. But they can only do so as long as they know which file is the lossless one and which not. In a blinded test you cannot separate them.

Even the author of that link recommends lossless. Check it out:

It’s true enough that a properly encoded Ogg file (or MP3, or AAC file) will be indistinguishable from the original at a moderate bitrate.

But what of badly encoded files?

Twenty years ago, all mp3 encoders were really bad by today’s standards. Plenty of these old, bad encoders are still in use, presumably because the licenses are cheaper and most people can’t tell or don’t care about the difference anyway. Why would any company spend money to fix what it’s completely unaware is broken?

Moving to a newer format like Vorbis or AAC doesn’t necessarily help. For example, many companies and individuals used (and still use) FFmpeg’s very-low-quality built-in Vorbis encoder because it was the default in FFmpeg and they were unaware how bad it was. AAC has an even longer history of widely-deployed, low-quality encoders; all mainstream lossy formats do.

Lossless formats like FLAC avoid any possibility of damaging audio fidelity [23] with a poor quality lossy encoder, or even by a good lossy encoder used incorrectly.

A second reason to distribute lossless formats is to avoid generational loss. Each reencode or transcode loses more data; even if the first encoding is transparent, it’s very possible the second will have audible artifacts. This matters to anyone who might want to remix or sample from downloads. It especially matters to us codec researchers; we need clean audio to work with.

Sheogorath (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: This is largely voodoo

I haven’t run across an Ogg Vorbis file in years.
You have, but being on a PC (obviously), you don’t know that the samples of songs on Wikipedia are all encoded in Ogg Vorbis. I know this because I use a smartphone, and thus am unable to play these snippets directly, having to download them instead.

Sheogorath (profile) says:

So what's actually new?

Most discs include the option to download MP3 and lossless FLAC versions of the songs as well.
Or my version: purchase CD and rip it onto my PC, then import the resulting WAV files into Audacity to create MP3 or FLAC files. Same discs, same tracks, same file formats, zero bandwidth usage. While it’s technically illegal here in the UK (though not for much longer, thank Hargreaves), all the record companies know the BPI have always turned a blind eye to it, thus conferring implied permission.

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