Imagining Apple's future digital media format

itunes lp hero

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Having a reasonably undiluted Irish heritage, I can attest that not all of us have the fabled “gift of gab.” So when U2’s Bono recently mentioned to Time’s Catherine Mayer that the band and Apple were working on a new digital music format, you have to credit it not to his Irish origin but rather to the notion that the man’s made a career of speaking his mind.

Other than his suggestion that such a format is in the works, we have no details. But that doesn’t prevent me from speculating on what it might mean. Key here, I believe, is what current digital downloads and streams lack, both from an artist’s and consumer’s perspective. Let’s imagine.

For the love or money

In that Time article, Bono spoke about the desire to see musicians and songwriters paid for their work. And he has a point. With the advent of bit-perfect copying of digital music and the ability to share it across the Internet, record and song sales have declined. And because sharing is so widespread, music has become largely valueless in the eyes of consumers. “Free” music services such as Pandora and YouTube serve to underscore this idea.

As such sales kept a lot of artists in the business, where have they turned to make the daily loaf? Some have taken to performing and merchandising their name, but unless you’re already established, this is a difficult path. Less well-known artists depend on fan support and have expanded their skill set to include production and session work. Still others gave up the major label dream years ago and have set out on an independent avenue where they not only write, record, and perform, but book and market their own performances.

pledge music 2

Artists have turned to services such as Kickstarter and Pledge Music to fan-fund their careers.

U2 (and allegedly Apple) are taking a step back and asking the important “Why is it that just about everyone else in the world deserves to be paid for their work but not artists?” question.

The Cynical respond “They do it for the love of music.” (Or worse, “If they’d wanted to make money they wouldn’t have chosen music as a career.”) The difficulty, of course, is that love don’t pay the bills. Romantic as the notion of the starving artist may be, the reality is nothing but grim.

And so it seems that any effort along these lines will involve some form of digital rights management (DRM). And yet we’ve been down this path before. Consumers didn’t like it and, frankly, neither did Apple as it was instrumental in removing DRM from digital purchases. So what exactly could such a scheme offer to consumers that might compel them to pay for music rather than steal or stream it?

I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

To answer that question I think we have to start by looking at what LPs and CDs offered that we don’t get from digital downloads.

Quality: There rages a debate (largely among audiophiles) about whether the quality of digital downloads and music streams is noticeably inferior to high-resolution recordings. Blind-listening tests among the general population don’t support such claims, but those with great ears and equipment steadfastly maintain that they can indeed tell the difference. Products such as Neil Young’s high-resolution PonoPlayer are designed with such an audience in mind.

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Device's like Neil Young's PonoPlayer hint that there's a market for high-resolution audio.

Are there enough people so distressed by the quality of today’s encoded music that they’d pay Apple (and artists) for higher quality downloads? Probably not. But as a portion of a broader package, it might make purchasing this music more attractive.

Extra content: You may recall that when you flipped open a CD (or peered inside an album sleeve, if you go back that far), you were greeted with additional artwork, production credits, and lyrics. When you purchase or stream music today you get the music and perhaps a thumbnail of the cover art.

In 2009, Apple launched the iTunes LP format, which includes some of this content as well as bundled videos. But a limited number of albums are offered in this format, and such material isn’t available for single tracks. For those of us who appreciate being able to pull up lyrics or discover who shook that mean tambourine, it might be worth paying for music that offered such information.

Extra, extra content: As I’ve mentioned, artists make their living in ways other than selling songs. This format could be a gateway to other means for connecting with artists. Purchase an album and get early access to tickets for their next performance, the opportunity to buy board mixes from live shows, or procure T-shirts and baby bibs at less onerous prices than those proffered at the concert hall.

Sweetest thing

In my imaginings, the motivation is all carrot, no stick. These days it’s difficult to reverse the trend and ask people to pay for content. And making that content more difficult to consume by imposing walls between it and consumers does little more than engender resentment. If such a format really is in the offing, it mustn’t inhibit our ability to enjoy the music we own. We’ve played that discordant song before and it rarely merited a second listening.

Here’s hoping that U2 and Apple can navigate a path that delivers both quality and compensation and offers a greater motivation for purchasing music that matters. ’Twould make for luminous times indeed.

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