Major labels, a number of prominent artists, audio hardware firms and some streaming services are excited about the potential for ‘hi-res audio’. But will more than a niche of fans agree?
A panel session during Midem 2017’s ‘Streaming Day’ strand explored the issues from the point of view of supporters of hi-res audio, sponsored by industry body the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) and moderated by its senior director Marc Finer.
The panel included Pete Downton, deputy CEO of 7digital; Mike Jbara, CEO of MQA; Malcolm Ouzeri, CMO of Qobuz; Andre Stapleton, SVP partner development, global digital business at Sony Music; and Ty Roberts, CTO at Universal Music.
Finer talked about the challenges of synchronising technological development with the marketing curve, while noting that there are already more than 20,000 major and indie-music titles (i.e. albums) available in hi-res format.
Finer also tried to scotch some myths, including the perception that music fans don’t care much about sound quality. “Believe it or not, they do. They don’t always get sound quality, but they aspire to it,” he claimed. Finer also disputed that younger music fans won’t pay for quality, noting that the current vinyl revival has drawn in plenty of millennials and teenagers.
One challenge is that most of the studies cited were commissioned by consumer-technology associations, who have a clear interest in talking up the hardware required to listen to hi-res music. Perhaps more independent research is required, but Finer struck a bold note.
“Premium music services could attract more than 12 million subscribers if we do our jobs,” he claimed. “We think it’s a great opportunity for the entire music business.”
Onto the panelists, starting with the two major-label representatives. Roberts talked about Universal’s work converting thousands of albums into hi-res versions. “Most of the important works are the ones that are getting the focus. It’s a big deal in our company,” he said. “It’s absolutely a priority for us. We’ve been investing in this for some years now,” agreed Stapleton.
7digital’s Downton talked about the lessons learned from working on the back-end for some hi-res streaming services. “The biggest challenge historically has been an install base of devices that can play back the audio,” he said. “If you go back to DVD-Audio and SACD, building a customer base was really a case of marketing devices that were £1,000 each!.. That was always going to be an uphill struggle as the industry was moving from packaged media into digital media.”
Downton talked about a transformation in the last five years: with many more devices now in people’s hands and homes capable of playing hi-res music. “The install base is pretty much there already… But it’s got to be simple for the consumer. If the consumer has to read and figure this out for themselves, you’re never going to drive mass adoption.”
MQA’s Jbara talked about another challenge: the vast majority of music out in the marketplace has been mastered for CD, rather than true studio-quality: which is why going back to the original masters can be a time-consuming process.
He was optimistic though. “The titles that are the most consumed are also going to be available to people in hi-res. Making the studio sound available at whatever level of resolution it was is going to be important to keep in mind,” he said.
Roberts and Stapleton were asked about MQA. “We’re now making the files, with a little help from that guy over there, in this format. Our catalogue will be available in the MQA format, and that can then be used by streaming services and download services.”
Stapleton chipped in. “The exciting thing is about the portability of these files. We’ve licensed them our entire hi-res catalogue, and we’re very excited.”
Ouzeri said that the first problem for hi-res music isn’t portability, however. “People who go for hi-res music, they want to listen to hi-res music at home,” he said. Although perhaps the key for technologies like MQA will be if they can appeal beyond those early adopters.
He also delivered a warning about the DEG’s claim that millennials are keen on hi-res music. “When you go to them and say how much they’re going to spend on hi-res music, are they going to spend 20 euros a month, when they have so much trouble spending 10 euros a month at the moment?” said Ouzeri.
Downton talked about the way most of the innovation around digital music has been around mobile in the last decade, but said there is room for much more improvement. “As an industry we’ve got to learn to walk and chew gym. Streaming services today are a mile wide and an inch deep… we’ve really evolved to a utility that super-serves music fans,” he said.
He’d like to see hi-res music reaching a more mainstream audience, and that might not be on their mobile devices. “The home and the car is an incredible opportunity for us to lift the bar, and deliver those better experiences,” said Downton.
Back to the labels: what are they doing internally to engage the A&R and marketing teams about hi-res music. “It isn’t just a one-way push, it’s also coming a little bit from the other side. Some of our labels at Sony are voluntarily adapting their processes… multiple labels within Sony have issued new mandates, new A&R policies setting a minimum bar for acceptable masters,” said Stapleton. “That’s good to see.”
Roberts has been touring Universal’s various labels talking about hi-res. “It’s not just ‘push a button and get your file into hi-res’… there’s an opportunity in the mastering process to reimagine the audio,” he said. “We can get more dynamic range and get a better-quality experience for the consumer. We can master for hi-res.”
Ouzeri talked about the way hi-res output can be a default option in the studio, rather than trying to go back and rescue it later. “The education message is a really key part of it. It’s basically free to do it at the time. To go back: very costly,” agreed Stapleton.
Roberts talked about the current state of in-car sound systems: great speakers tuned for the dimensions of the car, but often now lacking a CD player to provide music. “These car companies are really looking for partnerships with music services, and they want to put hi-res audio in there,” he said.
Is music quality really going to appeal to mainstream music fans rather than just early-adopter audiophiles, wondered Finer. Roberts said this isn’t just about audio quality. “We also want to raise the connection fans have with the artists. We want better visuals, we want great photography,” he said, citing the popularity of listening to music controlled through a hi-res television in the living room.
Plus richer information and metadata, added Roberts. “There’s an opportunity with hi-res to raise the bar for the visual and informational experience around music,” he said, showing a demonstration of interactive experiences created for Ariana Grande and Queen.
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One question from the audience asked about streaming hi-res audio for live performances, rather than simply recorded music.
Jbara gave MQA’s perspective. “Later this summer you’re going to be hearing about MQA live-streaming,” he promised. “Some of our partners that have announced already are going to be participating in that.”
What will it take to get Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon and other big streaming services on board with hi-res? Stapleton said they have a rang of priorities with their tech investments: for example, Amazon is focusing more on voice with Echo and Alexa.
But he expressed optimism for an economic argument to persuade the big guns. “We’re seeing them very focused on their ARPU, and as they hone in on that, hi-res is likely to be a key component – it becomes very logical,” he said.
Ouzeri was combative on the subject of the bigger streaming players. “They’re pretty far behind today. The first step might be maybe CD-quality. They’re not even there. One step at a time for them. It would be a better place for music if we were all listening to CD-quality streaming! I think all of our ears would be in a better shape,” he said.
“And the first question should be what is the cost for this? CD-quality today is 20 euros a month, and hi-res? If you are talking about the real hi-res, it costs more than that… Today, hi-res lovers are people who spend a lot of money on music, but if we want a larger audience to come to hi-res music, it’s got to be a question.”
Roberts stressed that UMG leaves its streaming partners to make their own decisions about technology and business models, but reiterated the ARPU argument.
“It’s really good for the services: there’s more ARPU, a lot more margin, so it’s really good for them,” he said. “But there are newer, smaller companies in hi-res. These guys are going to use this as an angle to become successful. What will persuade the big companies to do it is if they notice these guys at the end [Qobuz] getting quite a few consumers!”
Downton: This is no longer a conversation thats happening in record companies. This is really being pushed by artists, producers and the people creating the music. So the profound thing is they [the streaming services] are actually going to be pushed to do this… it’s going to be the creative community that makes this happen.”
Music Ally’s Midem 2017 coverage is supported this year by Music is GREAT, the British government’s campaign to promote UK music exports.
The UK and British Music are represented through the British Music at Midem stand, with the Department for International Trade joining forces with music industry associations AIM (Association of Independent Music), BPI (British Phonographic Industry), MPA (Music Publishers Association), PPL (Phonographic Performance Limited) and PRS for Music.
Together, they will support over 150 UK music businesses and member delegates as they seek to pick up on the latest trends, connect with international companies, sign deals and develop trading and export opportunities.