Traditionally, better audio quality has been a niche, from physical formats like DVD-Audio and SACD to lossless-quality music downloads. Will hi-res audio be more than a niche for audiophile music fans?
The three major labels hope so. A panel at this month’s IFA show in Berlin featuring representatives from Universal Music, Sony Music and Warner Music – as well as tech firm MQA – outlined their hopes that hi-res audio can have mass-market appeal.
That includes the challenge of convincing younger fans that hi-res doesn’t just sound better than their existing method of music-listening, but that it is worth paying for.
“We are at a time where we are seeing major opportunities for hi-res: to get the younger generations to move on to hi-res. Formats like MQA make it more portable, so it’s easier to have it yourself, in your car and outside the home. So I think that’s a great opportunity,” said Morvan Boury, VP of global digital development for Sony Music.
“The other one is that the devices that support hi-res audio are becoming much more affordable… it’s no longer [just] high-end premium audio for audiophiles… Portability and affordability, I think, are two amazing factors to capture that opportunity and to make hi-res audio more accessible to younger generations.”
Universal Music’s SVP of global digital business development Bill Gagnon was also optimistic about convincing younger listeners of the benefits of hi-res.
“Part of it is that the younger generation grew up with MP3s and they haven’t had the exposure to the high quality audio. But once they get it, they get it and that’s part of our job: to reach out to them so they hear it,” he said. “The sound sells itself.”
Michael Drexler, VP, digital strategy and corporate development for Warner Music, cited another recent music-industry trend in support of the labels’ belief that hi-res will have mainstream appeal.
“We’re talking about Gen X and Gen Z that are now discovering this hi-res audio. You saw it in the resurgence of vinyl sales that was mostly driven by the young generation,” he said.
“We don’t really have to educate the 40, 50 and 60-year-olds because they already know. They have CD collections at home, they already know the benefit. But we’re getting excitement in this younger demographic segment. From things at colleges, tests and consumer surveys that back up that theory that there is true demand and interest for hi-res in the younger generation.”
The challenge for labels is to turn that ‘interest’ – saying positive things when someone plays you hi-res music alongside standard-res music during a college focus group – into a willingness to stump up the cash to pay for hi-res audio, given that hi-res currently tends to double the price of a streaming subscription.
Another talking point during the IFA panel – which was moderated by hi-res streaming service Qobuz’s head of communications Xavier Tumminello – was the potential for ‘hi-res audio’ to be about more than just the audio. Gagnon referred again to the vinyl comeback as a guide to the features that may appeal to fans.
“Maybe the next generation of premium immersive experiences will include photos, liner notes, interactive products, things like that. But for right now, hi-res audio is the start of that process,” he said.
Boury agreed. “The same way you want the highest possible audio fidelity, you’re more curious about music in itself, which means that you have to document the recording better than just having artwork or very limited credits, which at the moment is unfortunately the case on a lot of digital services,” he said.
“There is room to add layers of information around hi-res music, to make a better music experience, not just from a pure audio perspective, but also from an informative point of view, from a video point of view and also from a metadata point of view.”
Drexler completed the harmonious expression of views from the three majors on this point.
“Why can’t I see who produced the record I’m listening to? Why don’t I know who wrote the songs I was listening to today? A lot of services don’t provide that information so I think that’s a pretty natural next step, enhanced credits,” he said.
“I think that we are getting into digital booklets and providing the lyrics. Obviously there are licensing issues that come with that, but we are all aligned as an industry to work on tangible products that we can release to consumers not too far in the distant future.”
The panel provided an update on the three majors’ conversion of their catalogues into hi-res formats. UMG currently has around 60k tracks available, while Sony has more than 50k and WMG has nearly 12k albums.
“Every day it’s growing more and more. Universal is really committed to making all of our content available in hi-res,” said Gagnon. “Any new releases coming in, we’re requesting them to be delivered in hi-res audio,” added WMG’s Drexler.
All three labels are throwing their weight behind hi-res audio technology MQA, which has already been adopted by streaming services Tidal and Deezer, as well as (at IFA) announcing its first global smartphone deal, with LG’s new V30 handset.
Portability and accessibility are the two big selling points of MQA for the labels, said Boury, as they aim to widen the appeal of hi-res music beyond audiophiles.
“As much as we’ve had history over the years with different audiophile or hi-res physical formats, this is something that I think we’re all committed to introducing to the masses and that means very popular music, as well as all the great classics and jazz,” said MQA’s CEO Mike Jbara, who was also on the IFA panel.
He suggested that musicians will play an important role in the marketing process for the hi-res streaming tiers and compatible devices that MQA is working with.
“We have to have the creative community messaging this about definitive ways that they want their music enjoyed,” said Jbara.
The panel also saw the emerging device category of ‘smart speakers’ – Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple HomePod and so on – crop up as a relevant trend for hi-res audio.
“It’s very important that if you ask your Sony speaker or your Google Home speaker or your Alexa speaker ‘I want the hi-res version of Beethoven’s Symphony’, that you actually get it,” said Boury. “It’s very important. So there is a lot of things that we are doing at the moment. I’m sure there is a lot more room for ideas to build around that.”
It is still early days for the current wave of technology – and the industry marketing push – around hi-res audio. Mainstream consumer demand has yet to match the enthusiasm of the major labels, but the latter see recent market research as reason for optimism that this can change.
“Just in the US market alone I think there are tens of millions of potential customers that are interested in high-resolution streaming. So it’s not a niche market, we view it as a mass market,” said Drexler. “At Warner, we feel like the entire market should move towards offering high-resolution audio.”
Gagnon agreed. “The sound sells itself and we just need to continue to provide opportunities to hear,” he said.
“We need to make it easy for the consumer. There needs to be a clear message and it needs to be easy. They need to be able to use their phone, to be able to use it at home, when they get in their car it activates right away. It needs to be simple.”