Audio quality in the digital age

10 years ago with the introduction of audio compression technologies such as MP3 & AAC, it became possible to shrink digital audio file sizes and enable distribution across the Internet. While there was a distinct loss in audio quality (file sizes were typically one tenth of the original), the average music fan didn’t seem to mind and convenience ruled.

At the same time, sample and bit rates for digital audio recording were expanding as hard drive prices dropped, giving engineers and musicians the ability to work with higher quality digital audio. Since the early days of digital there has been ongoing debate in the professional audio world about the loss of ‘warmth’ inherent in analog recording technologies. Higher digital bit and sample rates make it possible for engineers to approach the sonic ideal, bridging both worlds.

As hardware storage continues to shrink and broadband speeds increase, music providers have increased file sizes, enhancing audio quality for portable and computer devices. Bringing back high quality audio to consumers can create scarcity in the marketplace, which music creators sorely need. A bootlegged MP3 can’t compete with an audiophile, metadata rich, listening experience.

The question is: “Will consumers support higher quality audio?” Engineer, producer, and musician Cookie Marenco, founder of Downloads NOW! says 96kHz downloads (super high quality) are outselling 44.1kHz downloads (CD quality) by 10 to 1 at her artist’s download stores. Last Sunday’s New York Times article, In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back examines this issue.

What do you think?

Has the appreciation of nuance and dynamics been lost to the generation that grew up on iPods, and what does the future hold?

Leveraging Internet Music Distribution

In a recent survey by British think tank Demos, researcher Peter Bradwell found that music listeners who participated in illegal file sharing behavior spent more money on music than listeners who did not admit to using illegal services. Two key paradigm shifts created by Internet distribution come to mind:

  1. Distribution, whether as playlists, recommendations, or downloads, is largely controlled by fans, not record labels or content creators.
  2. The per unit cost of ‘digital copies’ is essentially zero.

This creates a situation in which even an unlicensed transaction has value for the content owner; a possible new fan, and marketing data. The first challenge is to leverage that value. The second is creating legit services that provide a vastly better user experience than illegal file sharing at a competitive price. In addition, why not simply license file sharing behavior, leveling the marketplace? I know, easier said than done. The issues of copyright infringement are significant, but a major roadblock is the complexity of the traditional royalty model.

People will pay for innovative, superior products. Apple is a great example. Everyone grumbles about the proprietary nature of their business model, but folks are still lining up for iPhones in a recession. The music industry has the potential to transform itself, ushering in a new era of compelling, competitive, Internet marketing and distribution services. Executing will take hard work, visionary thinking, and cooperation.

CD Baby and Snocap

The story of CD Baby’s partnership with Snocap struck a real chord with me.


Technology has played a powerful role in the transformation of the music industry, starting with wire and tape recorders, the phonograph, and the electric guitar. In the 1980s other musicians and I would joke about “phoning in our parts.” It’s not a joke these days. When I worked for Liquid Audio in the early days of Internet music we had intoxicating conversations about the future of music discovery and distribution. CDs would go away; would people pay for individual downloads, subscribe to huge online music libraries or swap music in P2P networks? Would recorded music lose its revenue generating power all together and become a promotional tool for other income streams? How would all of this impact independent artists and the traditional record industry?


As these early predictions come to fruition, technology is still seen as a key lynchpin in this change process, and I think rightly so. The power of the Internet cannot be underestimated and if the software tools used in today’s music production are any indication, we will continue to see technology drive huge shifts in the way people discover, consume, and monetize media. One of the pitfalls of this phenomenon is the large footprint that any significant technology displays.


Reading Derek Sivers blog describing CD Baby’s partnership with Snocap ( “What happened with CD Baby and Snocap” ) I was reminded of similar experiences during my time with Liquid Audio. Developing, implementing and managing any large-scale technology is a daunting proposition. The technology quickly takes on a life of its own, with needs that have nothing to do with its original vision. This is not unlike what happens in publicly funded social service organizations. The federal agencies designed to help the neediest kids and families in our country are bureaucratic silos, designed for upward accountability. At times it is literally impossible to deliver the simplest help to real people because the needs of the system are so complex.


Derek Sivers is smart and brave. He saw the potential Snocap offered from the perspective of his original vision and embraced the technology despite his doubts. As the snowball got bigger and bigger he was not afraid to pull the plug. The lesson here is not that technology is good or bad but that it can entrance us and at times distract us from the truth that set us on our path in the first place. Is the music in the world today any better because of the technical miracles that surround us? Beethoven’s String Quartets, The Rite of Spring, and Robert Johnson managed to appear before anyone could imagine Pro Tools or the Internet in their most delusional fantasies. As we plow ahead in this brave new world, let’s not forget that music is the best.

US Copyright Board Ruling

The recent ruling by the US Copyright Royalty Board creates a dire situation for small, independent purveyors of streaming Internet music. I am a composer myself and certainly want to be compensated for my work but I believe this decision is not in the best interest of artists, record labels, or the audience.

The music industry has become so centralized in recent years that the opportunities for new music discovery are shrinking daily. Internet radio has opened an array of new possibilities. It is a medium that is in its infancy and could provide a powerful balance to the corporate forces of the music industry. Unfortunately, this ruling will most likely be the end of the independent Internet radio provider. This is a bad thing.

I happen to believe that people who are not musicians or hard-care music fans have a much broader appreciation of music than the record industry thinks. The public is starving for access to diverse, high quality music. Eclectic music programming like that provided by Santa Monica based KCRW is an oasis in the desert to many of us.

New music discovery is key not only to the growth of the audience but also to the industry itself. The record business has become so large and cumbersome, and so philosophically driven by the sound-alike hit mentality, that there are no longer viable business models that distribute music and provide discovery tools (such as radio and Internet radio) for anything on a scale less than gargantuan. This bloated reality has created the decline the industry is currently suffering. Without discovering and nurturing new talent, the industry will die. Artists like Patty Larkin, Bill Frisell and Oliver Mtukudzi will probably never go platinum, but they will create high quality art for decades and their audiences are fiercely loyal. We desperately need business models that will support an eclectic array of new music.

Radio has traditionally functioned as the key marketing arm for the record industry. Internet radio and music discovery systems like Pandora provide the general public information that is available nowhere else. Streaming radio creates the possibility of distributing eclectic music programming from sources such as KCRW, beyond the local market. For the struggling record industry, the long-term potential benefits of streaming Internet music are huge. It would be a shame to see this opportunity destroyed by short-term thinking. The losers will be not only the Internet radio providers, but also more importantly, independent artists and the fans who love their music.