The music industry wishes young listeners would abandon low-bit-rate compressed digital music for harder-to-pirate and more profitable CDs. Contrary to the long-held belief that young listeners think lossy compressed music is “just fine,” Harman researcher Dr. Sean Olive has published results from the first peer-reviewed scientific test showing that young listeners will in fact choose CD-quality audio over lossy alternatives when given the choice. Has the dream of a new generation embracing CDs come true? Not so fast.
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NPR reported that CD sales tanked in 2010, particularly among younger buyers. The trend suggests that vinyl and iPods are sinking the audio CD into the so-called “fidelity belly,” where mediocre products go to die.
In his book Trade-Off, journalist Kevin Maney wrote that a truly successful product provides either the richest user experience (fidelity) or the greatest convenience. Less successful products fall into what he labeled the fidelity belly, “the no-man’s-land of consumer experience,” characterized by commercial apathy, insufficient fidelity, and insufficient convenience.
Apple succeeds in the consumer computer market by providing the richest pre-sales experience in its retail stores. Dell and HP succeed by providing an ultra-convenient pre-sales experience online. Who is in the belly? Everyone else.
Sinking into the fidelity belly is essentially the fast track to obsolescence. Staying out of the belly is never assured, because customer expectations for fidelity and convenience constantly evolve.
This month I released my 8th full-length album, slated to be my last physical release. I might have gone the digital-only route this time if I hadn’t won free CD manufacturing from Disc Makers through the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. The fact that it was a physical release allowed me to take pre-orders, which provided the opportunity to test out my latest crazy idea - one that actually panned out for a change! Here is how I described The Individual Edition CD to my fans:
It will probably come as a surprise that I can’t create the exact same mix twice, even though the album was recorded entirely “in the box” on my studio computer. Arpeggiators randomly cycle through the notes of a chord. Panning effects start and end at different points. Some devices purposely insert glitches and other random anomalies. Beyond the occasional surprise, these differences are tough to pick out unless you know what to listen for. The qualitative listening experience is the same, but the fact that each mixdown is an “audio snowflake” gave me an idea:
It doesn’t seem that long ago since Radiohead did what was once unimaginable - release an album without being signed to a major record company. On the long march to digital ubiquity as the means of music delivery Radiohead avoided the tar pit that seems to be major label thinking and came out clear winners. Yes, they resorted later to releasing the album as a good old CD into regular retail distribution but they were pioneers and were soon followed with great success by Nine Inch Nails and to lesser success by many others. Both these bands had an understanding of what their fans wanted [price level choice, quality and special packaging] and both bands understood the power of the internet for marketing purposes and direct reach. [NB: Although I believe that the digital music file will rule the day, vinyl still has a role to play and I’ll get to that later.]
The most interesting part of this experiment [which at the time, I would argue it was] was not only that it was wildly successful but it laid the groundwork for what I have coined the end of the organizing principle. In other words I suggest that we are now seeing the end of the album-length work as the permenant work, the everlasting body of work that represents the pinnacle of an artists’ creativity. I am fully expecting to hear the howls of derision over this but bear with me.
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(Updated April 6, 2015)