Major labels are very excited about upping the audio quality of music-streaming services, under the banner of ‘hi-res music’.
Audio hardware firms are excited too, while some streaming services (Tidal, Deezer and dedicated services like Qobuz for example) have adopted the technology.
And music fans? That’s the challenge: as yet there isn’t an obvious surge in demand for higher-quality streams from actual listeners.
That’s why the most popular subscription-streaming services, Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Prime Music / Music Unlimited, haven’t leapt aboard the hi-res bandwagon yet. So what might it take to get that bandwagon rolling even faster?
A panel at the CES show in Las Vegas last month addressed the issue, convened by MQA and its CEO Mike Jbara, who moderated the session.
“It’s entirely fair, after the 15-20 year wood-chipper that the music industry has been through, for us all to take a moment and enjoy the fact, from the rightsholder perspective, that there’s some growth coming,” said Jbara, who hailed streaming as “something that really works in terms of convenience”.
“But we probably don’t have to look too far ahead to say that some of the fundamentals around introducing new consumer experiences still require work and attention.”
Jbara also suggested that music labels need more support and ideas from the technology community when it comes to new models and formats.
“The business development teams are relatively small, both in terms of funding and people, so there’s a lot of capability being represented by a relatively narrow pipe of people,” he said.
“Incredibly competent people, but as I look at all of them, incredibly taxed and they all probably need to be in three places at once right now… so how can the rest of us be contributing and teeing up fertile ideas for these teams, so that we can start to introduce things on a more regular basis to the consumer?”
The panel talked about some of the barriers that may have been preventing hi-res music from appealing to a wide audience of music fans in the past. Andy Hood, head of emerging technologies at AKQA, talked about the importance of convenience, as well as the ‘value exchange’ for any new tech.
“When there’s a clear value in the interaction that you have with any kind of new technology, new product or service, then that drives adoption. So if it’s convenient to use and it gives you real value, there’s your holy grail,” said Hood.
“There’s clear value in hearing audio as it was intended to be heard, and there’s clear ease of integrating this into your life. The barrier is the understanding of the value of the proposition, because over many years it feels as if people may have been educated ‘out’ of an understanding of what true hi-resolution audio actually sounds like.”
Geir Skaaden, EVP and chief products and services officer at audio-tech firm Xperi, talked about the next generation of mobile data networks – 5G – lifting the constraints on hi-res streaming, but also warned that the pitch for hi-res music can’t be a “technical argument” to listeners.
“The consumer doesn’t really care about technology, they’re interested in experiences and music has a very powerful social dynamic,” he said.
“It’s attached to your friends, – what’s cool, not cool – so the artist has to play a key role in terms of getting that message across to their audience… the more artists relevant to younger people that can get behind this the better.”
“People care about artists, so if you’re able to position this as a way of delivering music as the artist intended, and that message comes from the artist, then we have something really powerful, assuming it’s convenient and the ecosystem is lining up.”
There were some spiky moments in the discussion. For example, when Hood pointed out that Blockbuster didn’t drive the evolution of media distribution: it was disrupted by companies like Netflix and Amazon.
“Blockbuster had invested in what they had, rather than what was coming. Similarly with digital imagery and cameras, it should have been led by Kodak,” he said.
“In the music industry you have an attitude that is almost geared to maintaining the status quo rather than pushing forward and innovating.”
The panel were also asked about the price of hi-res music services, with an audience member suggesting that “unless you raise the price before the customer adjusts to the improved quality, isn’t very difficult to do this afterwards?”
Skaaden agreed. “However, people are not opposed to premiums There’s a lot of analysis around the fact that certain things will sell more if they cost more rather than less,” he said.
“Certain live performances will cost $500 to sit in the seat, others $25. We need to be willing to invest and may need to be a little aggressive in the early stage to get people to the other side, but that should not undermine the pricing.”
Jbara also weighed in on this point.
“I experienced the early days of iTunes and iTunes plus, where Moore’s Law led to decreases in costs, and we allowed the experience to be upgraded with no premium to the artist, no value add,” he said.
“So the idea of going earlier with something that, if we let it, will happen over time does feel like a missed opportunity, both in terms of engaging music fans and growing the business overall.”
Brad Serling, CEO of nugs.net, which distributes live recordings, returned to the topic of artists as the public face of hi-res music.
“Artists are incredibly willing to experiment with technology. Artists typically love shiny new things, if you put something cool in front of them they want to play with it and use it,” he said. “The message needs to be artist-driven.”