Thursday, February 17, 2011

Life After CDs - Will there ever be another physical format?

This blog post will only appeal to the relatively small group of people who think buying music in it's physical format is still worthwhile.

An interesting question was posed on one of the Last.FM boards I frequent recently, and it got me thinking to the point that another blog entry was justified; what will be the successor to my current format of choice, the compact disc? With CD sales on a meteoric downward slide, the whole landscape of music retail is changing to the point where the brick and mortar music shops are becoming an endangered species, and it seems like the CD is now living on borrowed time. But that leads to the inevitable question of what will succeed the CD format. Vinyl gave way to cassettes, and cassettes gave way to CDs – are MP3s and digital files the all-encompassing future of music? Will there be another physical format?

In my humble opinion, the answer is no. The trend is moving towards the digital, and based on how music labels are releasing albums on iTunes, Myspace and other virtual sites, I doubt that another physical format will catch on as CDs have. Despite the grim outlook, there have been some attempts to create a superior product, all of which have failed to live up to their perceived potential. Let’s explore some of these “enhanced” formats that will be remembered largely as failed experiments:

DVD Audio

In theory, this sounds like a good idea; a medium that offers super-high quality music that benefits from the strengths of a DVD player over a conventional CD player. In tech-speak, the audio resolution is substantially higher than a CD, and the “bit depth” of a DVD audio is 24 bit, as opposed to the 16 bit that a CD offers. So what’s the problem? The difference is negligible to all but those few who have state-of-the-art home theatre systems, and even then, the improvements do not really justify the purchasing of an album again. Even more off-putting is the fact that it will not work in your CD player, so you’re up shit creek if you want to listen to it in your car or on your standard Hi-Fi. The fact that DVD Audio is a more sophisticated format has no doubt had an impact on the price of the individual albums, which are ridiculously high; a DVD audio album will typically cost over $30. And speaking of which, that extra money seems like a waste when you look at the oddball titles that they chose to release in this format; are “Reptile” by Eric Clapton, “Tigerlily” by Natalie Merchant, and “Away From The Sun” by 3 Doors Down such amazing albums that they demand to be heard in super-high fidelity? Draw your own conclusions on this one, but it’s no mystery why the DVD Audio section of the music shop is always the smallest and least-frequented.

Super Audio CD (SACD)

SACD has been in a format war with DVD Audio, which is funny because neither has been particularly successful. The only benefit of SACD over it’s competition is that it can actually play on your CD player, so it is not as prohibitive to consumers. Explaining how it actually works is a bit like trying to read haikus in a foreign language, but it’s main selling point is something called “Direct Stream Digital”, or DSD for short, which apparently makes the music sound even more awesome than a conventional CD. I own one SACD (Depeche Mode’s “101 Live”) and it sounds exactly the same as the old copy I once had, even when played in a tricked-out stereo system.

The same issue of price comes into play here; the albums are way too expensive, with most albums being over $25 and some being over $35.

MiniDisc (MD)

I'm not surprised that many people have never even heard of this format, since it's time in the North American market was brief and, mildly put, unsuccessful. Bridging the gap between my CD Walkman and my iPod, I owned a MiniDisc player and was quite happy with it until it met a violent end on the stairwell of a subway station (lesson learned: zip up your coat pocket before you run to catch a train). I liked having a music player that did not skip on me when I was running, and I especially liked the extra storage capacity of the MDs, but the booming market for MP3 players soon rendered MD players obsolete. I think the biggest drawback to this format was the price of both the players and the media – a player/recorder would cost around $400 and the blank MDs would be more than triple the price of CDRs. Additionally, I don’t remember seeing any albums released commercially on MD in North America (they were widely available in the UK at one point).

With upgrades to conventional CDs not faring so well in the marketplace, I can only surmise that there will be no physical formats that catch on in the future. We live in an age of emerging and expanding technology, so digital music and movies that can be obtained at the click of a button are likely to be the standard in 10 years. Despite the obvious benefits of owning a CD as opposed to having sound files on a computer, I don’t see this trend reversing, and downloads (both legal and illegal) will continue to slowly take over. It’s sad for people like myself who love CD shopping, but the tide is turning and it’s difficult to swim against it. But I’ll continue to try, damn it.

However, I am optimistic that there will always be a market for the physical formats; vinyl is still widely purchased and has actually seen a comeback of sorts in recent years, and I think CDs will still survive in independent shops, second-hand stores, and through internet retailers. Big box retailers like Best Buy, Future Shop, and Target all sell CDs, but finding an album that you want (or a sales associate to help you) is a fiasco at the best of times. These days, I stick to my select stores and online retailers, which I hope will still be around when digital music has completely dominated the industry.

1 comment:

  1. Hm. SACD usually has 2 layers and the Hi-Fi layer can only be heard using a SACD player. If you were only listening to the disc on a regular player, there shouldn't be any difference between that and a CD.