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Thoughts on Music Formats

Time reports:

Bono, Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr believe so strongly that artists should be compensated for their work that they have embarked on a secret project with Apple to try to make that happen, no easy task when free-to-access music is everywhere (no) thanks to piracy and legitimate websites such as YouTube. Bono tells TIME he hopes that a new digital music format in the works will prove so irresistibly exciting to music fans that it will tempt them again into buying music—whole albums as well as individual tracks. The point isn’t just to help U2 but less well known artists and others in the industry who can’t make money, as U2 does, from live performance. “Songwriters aren’t touring people,” says Bono. “Cole Porter wouldn’t have sold T-shirts. Cole Porter wasn’t coming to a stadium near you.”


In Time’s forthcoming cover story, Bono hints that the band’s next record is “about 18 months away” and will be released under the new file format. “I think it’s going to get very exciting for the music business,” Bono tells Time, “[it will be] an audiovisual interactive format for music that can’t be pirated and will bring back album artwork in the most powerful way, where you can play with the lyrics and get behind the songs when you’re sitting on the subway with your iPad or on these big flat screens. You can see photography like you’ve never seen it before.”

If correct, this sure is a lot of misguided thinking and misplaced optimism.

If you’re actively using a screen, music competes with everything else that screen can do — and these days, that’s a lot. You’re lucky if people listen to music at all anymore, and the most you can usually hope for is that they have it on in the background while doing some other activity that doesn’t provide its own audio. The most important music-discovery platform in the world is YouTube.

So I can see why people in the music business might think it’s important to make and sell interactive, multimedia music formats (what decade is this?) to compete, but I don’t think they stand a chance. Every trend in music is going in the opposite direction.

Music sales are declining rapidly as more people switch to streaming services. That ship has sailed. It’s not turning around.1

Full albums are as interesting to most people today as magazines. Single songs and single articles killed their respective larger containers. This is true on both the supply and demand sides: most people don’t listen to full albums, and most bands don’t produce very good ones.2 People only care about hit singles. That ship has sailed, too.3

This alleged new format will cost a fortune to produce: people have to take the photos, design the interactions, build the animations, and make the deals with Apple. Bono’s talking point about helping smaller bands is ridiculous — smaller bands can barely afford professional production on the music, let alone these extras.

Apple doesn’t have the market power anymore to lock in a proprietary format’s success. When everyone was still buying on iTunes and listening on iPods, the chances of success were better, but that’s not the case today. The market is too diverse, especially with so much listening happening on streaming services and non-Apple devices that can’t and won’t display any of these extras.

So maybe this would have worked in the past. Maybe, say, in 2009, when Apple’s market power was more dominant and streaming services weren’t taking over music yet.

Fortunately, we don’t need to wonder how a theoretical new multimedia album format in 2009 would have fared, because Apple really launched one. Remember iTunes LP? It’s still around, but it never really took off, it hasn’t saved full-album sales, it hasn’t reduced piracy or the appeal of streaming services, and the music industry is still losing relevance.

Because just like every other hopeful music and movie format, people don’t value the “extras” very much. People value the music itself (just barely) and the convenience of playing it the way they want. That’s it.

So many people re-bought music they already owned on vinyl or cassettes through the shifts to CDs and digital downloads mostly because each medium was so much more convenient than its predecessor. Nobody bought CDs because the booklets were longer and had more liner notes than the fold-in cassette cards.

SACD and DVD-Audio never went anywhere, and Pono likely won’t,4 because imperceptibly better sound quality isn’t compelling enough to overcome the dramatic loss of convenience that new, proprietary formats bring to today’s world of ubiquitous music players.

There’s nothing Apple or Bono can do to make people care enough about glorified liner notes. People care about music and convenience, period.

As for “music that can’t be pirated”, I ask again, what decade is this? That ship has not only sailed long ago, but has circled the world hundreds of times, sunk, been dragged up, turned into a tourist attraction, went out of business, and been gutted and retrofitted as a more profitable oil tanker. Piracy is not the music industry’s real problem and never has been, and we have yet to come up with any audio or video medium that truly can’t be pirated.

In 2007, Steve Jobs wrote an essay called “Thoughts on Music” to attempt to pressure the big record labels into agreeing to DRM-free music sales. Here’s a portion of it:

Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store. Every iPod ever made will play this DRM-free music.

Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy.

I’m sure it’s a coincidence, but I’m having a hard time finding “Thoughts on Music” on Apple’s site anymore.5 Here’s the Internet Archive’s copy — the only live copy I found is in the Korean Hot News archive.

Jobs likely had ulterior motives, as usual — he likely wanted easier negotiations and flexibility for future hardware and features, and probably knew the upcoming Amazon MP3 Store had negotiated DRM-free music and didn’t want to be at a competitive disadvantage.

But I bet he also truly disliked DRM, as a tasteful consumer, technologist, and human being, and wanted to abolish as much of it as he could.

The effort ended up succeeding, mostly. TV shows and movies from iTunes didn’t stand a chance of going DRM-free, but iTunes music did indeed lose its DRM in the coming months (this page is still up). And the world didn’t end. Piracy didn’t suddenly explode. Everything stayed mostly the same, except it was nicer to be a music customer.

Now that we’re all accustomed to DRM-free music, I think it would be a big mistake to ever launch a DRM-encumbered music format for purchasing again.6 It’s hard enough to get people to buy music today at all — the last thing the industry needs is another excuse for people not to care.

  1. I say this as a frequent buyer of music and a very rare user of any streaming services. ↩︎

  2. I say this as a fan, and exclusive listener, of full albums. The decline is obvious. ↩︎

  3. This has been the case for decades, but most of the time in the physical-media days, the only way to get the hit singles was to buy full albums. Cassette and CD “singles” had few releases and were relatively uncommon because everyone in the chain — bands, record labels, and retailers — made more money on full-priced albums. ↩︎

  4. Higher-than-CD-quality music isn’t new. If there was truly much demand for it, Apple would have already been pressured to sell it and support its playback, but effectively nobody cares. How compelling of an alternative to streaming services would a high-bitrate format be? “We’re going to make the music collection on your 16 GB iPhone 4–10 times larger for a benefit that’s impossible to hear on any headphones, let alone your EarPods or Beats.” If forced to choose sound quality or convenience, convenience wins every time. ↩︎

  5. According to the Wayback Machine, the original page was taken down sometime between December 27, 2010 and January 27, 2011. I suspect, and hope, that this was a result of Apple’s poor website management rather than a deliberate action, although 2010’s similar Thoughts on Flash is still up. ↩︎

  6. DRM will remain justifiable for streaming services. ↩︎