Welcome to our new weekly roundup of music business analysis.
Every week we'll be taking a look at the latest movements in the industry, but unlike regular news posts the aim is to extract lessons and insight to help you plan your future in music.
Of course, in typical UG
style, we'll be poking fun at the barmy end of the music business when appropriate.
First, it's time to pay tribute to a music format which transformed music listening.
The CD is 30 years old today. Best of all, it remains the most popular album format after all this time, unlike singles which ran off to have an affair with digital stores like iTunes
UG readers were concerned last year when we reported on claims that major labels planned to stop printing CDs
by the end of 2012, but here we are in October and there's no signs of "disc-mageddon" so far. Still, streaming services have seen spectacular growth in 2012 and look set to become the dominant format before long. Spotify has been available in Europe for much longer than the US, and labels there are starting to see more income from streaming
than physical releases. The tide has turned indeed.
But is streaming the ultimate format? Labels are already preparing the next generation of music format with a focus on HD
audio. Apple has been nudging producers to submit high-resolution audio files to help future-proof iTunes all year, but Neil Young
thinks it isn't enough.
Now Neil Young has launched his own ultra-high-resolution music player called Pono
. It uses regular digital files, but insists on a staggering 192Khz/24bit resolution for all files.
There's a catch to Pono, though. Neil likes to argue that original tape recordings suffer in quality when they're "downgraded
" to CD files, but this isn't true. Good mastering engineers know how to prepare music for a format without losing any quality, and the final CD format of 44.1Khz/16bit is enough resolution to capture every audible sound without a loss in quality. It's exactly why CDs have lasted so long.
Audiophiles like to argue otherwise, but in reality the vast majority of music wouldn't benefit from a higher resolution (and it's arguable whether other types would improve either).
Whether it's true or not, major labels are re-mastering their music in the Pono format to exploit listeners who don't know any better and are happy to buy into the hype.
We haven't even mentioned how ugly the player looks. Hey Neil, is that a Pono in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?
Speaking of majors, Universal
is about to become the big baddie of the music world now it's officially bought EMI
for £1.2 billion ($1.9 billion).
But the rest of the industry isn't happy about the merger. The deal makes Universal the biggest label ever - it's basically Sauron
from "Lord of the Rings
" and we're all just hobbits without a clue of what dangers await us.
Why is this bad? Imagine you live in a country where everyone can vote, but one person has 10 million votes. That's Universal (alright, I made up the figures but let's keep this simple). You might think it was a little unfair for one person to have that many votes, and that's exactly how the rest of the music business feels.
It means that any future music platforms that launch will need Universal on side if it wants to succeed because it controls so many popular artists (The Beatles
and Beach Boys
are just two of the many artists it just nabbed from EMI, and that's before you consider everyone on Universal).
Universal's support will literally make or break a new service, which means it gets to decide the future of music and how it's delivered to listeners. In the age of the internet, this matters.
It always sucked that majors ran the music world, but for one major to be in charge? The consensus is universal: it sucks.
Thanks for reading our first weekly music business discussion.
We have a couple of questions to encourage the debate:
How long will CDs last?
Do ultra-high-resolution digital files really improve on CD quality?
Should one major label have a controlling vote in the music business?
Let us know your opinion in the comments. UG staff will be taking part in the discussion, so feel free to pitch some questions.
Tom Davenport (Twitter)