Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Decide What to Be and Go Be It

Author Alistair MacLeod once said starting to write a story without a vision of its ending to guide him was like handing a cabdriver $20 and saying, "take me somewhere." I was reminded of this when the largest African-American-owned bookstore in the USA abruptly announced it would close. If you are in either the music or consumer audio industry, there is a lesson here for you.

[Image credit: Ric Stultz.]

It's not that sales are down at the Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe in Harlem. In fact, co-owner Marva Allen told Marketplace Radio that "sales are up 37 percent." Though currently successful, the store is ceasing operations because the owners recognized their business model is unsustainable in the long term.

This would be a sad end if Ms. Allen was solely in the business of selling books.  But if, as she says, her vision is giving ethnic writers an advantage in the global marketplace, while preserving [books'] purpose of entertaining, imparting knowledge and honing creativity, then operating a bricks-and-mortar bookstore in one New York City location is now an impediment rather than an enabler. Closing it to pursue new projects, though painful, was the only choice to sustain the vision. Read her farewell manifesto.

How does this relate to music and consumer audio?
  • If you are in the business of selling music on CD, your business model is unsustainable … industry reports show not only declining CD market share, but an accelerating rate of decline.
  • If your business is manufacturing audio components designed for customers who play physical media in dedicated home listening rooms, your business model is unsustainable … the mobile generation doesn’t listen this way and may still not listen this way even after they start nesting.
  • If you are selling MP3-quality digital audio downloads, the rise of similar-quality streaming services may soon make your business model unsustainable … a post-iTunes world is distinctly possible.
  • If you are aksing listeners to pay for MP3-quality streaming, your business model is unsustainable … the software industry would call this a “reader,” and the reader is always free.
To survive long-term, look beyond your current business. Develop and execute a sustainable vision.

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #39            

Artist: Linda Ronstadt
Title: What's New
Genre: Vocal
Year: 1983

At the height of her popularity, Linda Ronstadt recognized that her business model — "rocker chick" — was unsustainable. Abruptly changing direction, What's New was the first of a three-album series of American standards featuring Ms. Ronstadt backed by Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra, followed by Lush Life and For Sentimental Reasons. As she told inteviewer Peter Sagal in 2007, "I needed a catalog of songs I could still perform when I got old."

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Can the Cloud Satisfy an Army of Musical Bit Snobs?

I am a music owner and I demand accurate sound reproduction, having converted my entire physical collection to weightless digital form, CD quality or better. But, in the words of self-described futurist Gerd Leonhold, "Access [to music] is replacing ownership, like it or not. Participate or become insignificant." Bob Lefsetz was more blunt: "Ownership is for pussies."

Cloud-based streaming services provide access to low-bit-rate compressed music, typically no higher than 128 Kbps, targeting low-fi mobile devices. Over 7% of all mobile internet traffic in North America is streaming audio.  What does the music industry think of this listener experience? Neil Young: We're in the 21st century and we have the worst sound that we've ever had. It's worse than a 78 [rpm record]." T-Bone Burnett: "A xerox of a poloroid of a photo of a painting." Lefsetz, again: "Instead of soul, we have two-dimensional garbage."

Ownership is for pussies but lossy compressed music is garbage. What is a music-owning bit snob to do, other than become insignificant?

More than 90 million CDs were purchased in the first half of 2012. Let's say an average buyer purchases one title per month. Sales figures therefore represent an army of roughly 15 million listeners who can potentially be moved from ownership to access. If we all switched over tomorrow, could some new streaming service in the Cloud duplicate the listener experience of playing the CD quality or high-res digital audio we already own? Let's run the numbers.

Storage. I'd want to upload my personal library to the cloud for streaming. Most cloud-based storage services offer 5 GB of space for free. But high-res audio is big data. My collection runs 800 GB. Assuming some room for growth, I'll need 1,000 GB (1 TB) of space. The going retail rate for disc space is roughly five cents per GB, so I can buy 1 TB for fifty bucks. Or, I can rent 1 TB from Amazon for $1,000/yr. (Say it out loud: a thousand dollars a year.) Advantage: ownership.

Content. There really is no need to have 15 million individual copies of Abbey Road (the best-selling LP of both 1969 and 2011) in the Cloud. All owners could share one cloud-based copy. Instead of storing our personal libraries, the Cloud would merely have to provide a CD-quality (or higher) digital copy of the collective holdings of 15 million listeners. Let's start with a copy of ECM 1206 from my collection. Unfortunately not available from the label, never released on CD. I'll stick with my high-res digital transfer from the out-of-print LP I bought way back. Advantage: ownership.

Network TrafficAccording to Sandvine, median monthly usage on North American fixed access networks in the first half of 2012 was 10.3 GB and mean monthly usage was 32.1 GB. Streaming CD-quality audio just two hours a day (assuming a 1.4 Mbps connection) would increase mean monthly usage by 50%. Streaming 24/96 audio for the same period (assuming a 4.6 Mbps connection) would increase that figure by almost 300%. Multiply that load by 15 million new streamers and carriers hasten their cessation of unlimited data plans. Add hordes of young people addicted to streaming — now shown to prefer CD quality audio over lossy alternatives — and the internet comes to a halt. Advantage: ownership.

Intangibles. I don't want to have to register with Facebook to listen to my music (I'm talking to you, Spotify). I will not have the experience interrupted by advertising (commercial services). I don't want promoted content inserted into every playlist I create (Pandora). Advantage: ownership.

The spirit may be willing, but the Cloud is weak. Until the issues of bandwidth and freedom of choice are addressed, I'll content myself streaming high-fidelity owned digital audio through the Fog (the wireless cloud inside my house).

             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #38            

Artist: Keith Jarrett
Title: Concerts (M√ľnchen, June 2, 1981)
Title: Concerts (Bergenz, July 28, 1981)
Genre: Solo Piano Improvisation
Year: 1981

One of the pleasures of ephemeralizing physical media to weightless digital is breaking arbitrary physical boundaries to organize the source material in personal ways. I group all my Keith Jarrett solo material by concert date, transforming this 3-LP set with a generic title into a more natural set of two specific shows. Let's see the Cloud do that.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Fireworks are Hailin' over Little Eden Tonight

It's time for our next Surface to Air Full Circle music challenge.

You know the drill. (Connection between our game and the WDET-FM Music Head fundraiser is in our first challenge.) Starting with a particular song, chart a path along associated metadata to create a connected playlist; but at some point, you have to reverse course and return along a different metadata path to arrive full circle back at the starting song, in "about an hour" of running time. Bonus points if you only use songs from your personal library.

[Image: Detroit-Windsor fireworks.]

That bonus may get harder to achieve over time, if the trend continues away from music ownership and personal libraries to music access and personal playlists via streaming services. What is your relationship with music?

To celebrate Independence Day in the USA, our starting/ending song is Bruce Springsteen's "Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)."

Full-size table here. Annotated table with metadata associations here.

The list clocks in at one hour, seven seconds. Pretty good, I think — close enough to exactly an hour to probably be within the margin of error on the reported running time of the tracks.

Happy 4th of July!

             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #37             

Artist: Weather Report
Title: Heavy Weather
Genre: Jazz
Year: 1977

Heavy Weather was the first full album for Weather Report featuring bassist Jaco Pastorius. It registered significant sales upon initial release, and monster numbers for a jazz album. It even produced a hit single "Birdland,"now considered a landmark in the jazz-rock, or fusion, movement of the 1970s. I saw Weather Report on the Heavy Weather tour at the Royal Oak Theater in suburban Detroit. Even though concert start was delayed more than three hours due to a storm-induced power failure, the show went on.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.