2 Special Features This Month: A Look at the State of the Recorded Music Industry, and 13 Soundtrack & Musicals CD Reviews
The Music Business in 2004
Music is brought to the public in various forms these days, with varying sound quality. There is CD, DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, DAD (Digital Audio Discs), SACD, xrcd, HDCD, MP3 and various other Internet audio codecs, and vinyl records.
Playing the Sad Song of the Music Biz
The music business has been in the doldrums for several years. There are several reasons for this. The first is the economic times we are in now. There is simply less money out there to spend on entertainment. The second is that CDs have been around long enough that people have a basic collection of music they want to listen to and only buy a few new discs a year of music that interest them. There is also competition for time and money from DVD, live concerts and computer games. In Portland 10-15 years ago, there might have been 20 to 30 touring concerts a year, we now have hundreds. Both DVD and computer games are more personally involving media than just music listening. Most people use music in their homes as background and very seldom listen to music without doing something else at the same time. The music industry has definitely added to the problem.
First there is the artificially high price of the discs. A couple of years ago, in their great wisdom, the music industry decided to raise disc prices when profits started falling. A CD costs under a dollar to manufacture; seventeen to nineteen dollars retail for a disc is unwarranted. The music industry is so concentrated on more profits, that they have forgotten about the music and the consumers. Years ago artists spent years honing the skill and music before they made a record. Now the companies want immediate success from artists in their teens or early twenties. The proliferation of talent promotions searching out new artists shows the desperation of the music industry. On these shows new artist demonstrate what is really important in music – that is the song. They do not sing mediocre songs people don’t want to hear. They sing popular songs that the public has already shown are widely accepted. This makes the shows worth watching.
A singer with mediocre talent, singing a good song, is worth a listen. A very talented artist singing a mediocre song is not very interesting. They should have shows for competition in song writing. One only has to look at the greatest pop band ever, the Beatles, to see this. They were not the greatest musicians in the world, but they had great song writing. Thirty-some years later, their main albums are still at full price and hard to find on the used market. Most of today’s pop artists albums are found in great number in the used stores a year later and are hard to sell. The music business also expects that their artists be music factories, producing a new album ever year or two. They try to call a 30-40 minute disc with one decent song and filler an album. Their decisions on music seem to be: Throw it on the wall and see what sticks. A local radio station last year had a vote by listeners on the 102 greatest albums of rock. The list had many greatest hits albums on it and many albums from the sixties and early seventies. Local CD buying charts are not controlled by teen pop as they were 10 years ago. The teens are downloading just music they want to hear. A new release by a popular artist can sell well for a couple of weeks to a month, but then it’s gone from the charts. Norah Jones’ first album has stuck around for several years. The Portland charts have a lot of Country and established-artist Adult Rock on them.
Some good trends from the music industry have been seen in the last year however. Prices have come down some. Discs on their initial release are often now selling for 10 –13 dollars. Emerging artist often can be had at initial release for under $10. Some discs have come out with bonus DVDs for less than $17. There have been greatest hits albums put out. Series like the Essentials series are of higher value. Remastering of albums for better sound has also been a good thing. There are beginning to be listening stations in stores and online listening to parts of songs on the Internet.
What Would Help
There are certain steps that the music industry could take to improve its position. First of all a CD’s price should be commensurate with its musical content and length. A less than forty-minute disc with 1 or 2 good songs and filler should not be over $10. No disc should be over $13 unless it is over forty minutes and filled with very good music thoughout. Cheaper prices for discs would probably lessen disc pirating. People pirating discs can’t make an individual disc as cheaply as a manufacturer. Of course the manufacturer has recording, publicity and artist costs. A smaller profit margin would have less incentive for pirating. I see lots of hit collections with 3 or 4 CDs with 10 to 12 songs per disc. They are usually cheaper in cost. I would rather pay $20 for two full discs, rather than four half discs. Time-Life collections used to have 20-25 songs per disc. They were a very good value. Now they have about 12 songs per disc at the same price. Even with 12 good songs on them, I usually pass them by. Older shorter albums should be combined on to one disc. This would help with inventory and costs. It might also cause present owners of one or both albums to buy the new album for the convenience factor. New albums could have some of the groups previous good songs put on the new album to add length and musical content.
Multiple artists of the similar style of music can also be put on a single album. The success of the “Now, That’s What I Call Music” series is a good example of this. People who care about sound would appreciate it if albums were mastered for good sound, not being played on an MPEG players or in “boomer cars”. I really feel that the music industry has lost sight of the target on box sets. They ask a premium price per disc for box sets of a group. Most groups would be very lucky to come up with twenty really valuable songs for an album. This means that a lot of the music in these box sets is of interest only to completist fans. Multi-disc sets should be cheaper per disc. A booklet is often added to a box set, but offering the music without the book and box, at a lower price, could increase sales. The biggest thing is to bring the consumer better music at a fairer price.
DVD–Video performance discs are really the only medium showing any strength. In the last year the number of concert discs has more than doubled. Tower Records web site shows more than 5453 titles under Performance and Music. These discs have the advantages of being longer than most CDs, tendency toward better music and more involving to the customer. Many concerts are closer to the greatest hits of a group. What you give up with DVD-Video is sound quality. DVDs have a 96k/24 bit recording specification. [Or down to as little as 44.1k/16bit…Ed.] Most of the discs are in either in Dolby Digital or DTS sound. Both are compressed media. Dolby digital is a 12 to 1 compression ratio; these discs at best sound like a mediocre CD. DTS has a 3 to 1 compression; they sound much better than a typical DD disc. They can sound as good as or slightly above the average CD. It is not up to the level of a good DVD-Audio, SACD or DAD. [Many DVDs also offer an option of linear PCM audio – some offer solely that – and it is pretty much identical to CD stereo…Ed.] Unfortunately only 157 titles are in DTS sound, out of 5453 at Tower Records’ site for music DVD. Used concert DVDs are hard to find and not that much off the regular price. Any popular DVD movie can be easily found used for $10 or under.
Places like Blockbuster and Hollywood video do not rent music discs and therefore do not have pre-viewed discs. It is very hard to find how discs sound or look because they are not rented at many places. DVD concerts are not heavily reviewed in publications. I am interested in the SNL 25 Years of Music DVD set. The question I have is what are the five discs like? They advertise 50 songs on the discs – that would be only about 35 minutes per disc of music. They mention having skits on the discs as addition material. I would prefer just music on the discs. Until I can sample some of the discs or read a trustworthy review, I will probably not be shelling out $60. One thing I have found useful is having the concerts appear on TV on standard television stations or Direct TV channel 103. PBS was been a particularly good source. This exposure can either greatly enhance sales or hurt them. I have seen a number of concerts on TV and then bought them. I have also seen a few I decided not to buy. A good example of this is the new Barbara Streisand DVD. I saw it and thought it did not add much as compared to an earlier DVD of hers. This sort of thing may be a problem for the record companies. After a good DVD of a concert, it might be hard to come up with enough new material for another concert. Another problem with DVD concerts is inserted documentary material. This breaks the flow of a concert and is usually not interesting for more than one listening. If documentary and interview material was made defeatable or skippable without tedious programming it would be much more acceptable.
There is also a problem with misrepresentive labeling for the DVD. A disc may list a number of performers on the cover, but a lot of times there is only part of a song and interviews. On such discs it needs to be noted that there are no full performances. For the audiophile if a concert does not have adequate sound the experience of the concert is totally ruined. A good source for DVDs at a decent price is www.deepdiscountdvd.com. I have ordered over 20 discs from them and have had excellent luck. Prices were good and no shipping costs. Shipping charges ruin any discount from most mail order companies. One really good DVD concert series is ‘So and So’ at the Jazz Channel. The discs are all DTS and an hour or more long. The picture quality is very good. Best of all the list price is $9.99. I got 8 titles from Tower on sale for $7.49 each. The music is Jazz and Soul. It is unfortunate that we will never be able to see performances by most of the artists we would like to see with high quality sound and video. Most of the artists before the last ten years have no or poor quality video in the archives. Releases of archived video have been made with varying degrees of success. Examples are The Ed Sullivan series, Isle of Wright Festival, Woodstock, Monterey Pop and SNL 25 Years of Music. Some of the people I would to see concerts of are Oh Susanna, Casey Chambers, Patricia Barber, Jacintha, Nickel Creek and Leonard Cohen. Videos of new Broadway plays and musicals might also sell. When a traveling cast comes to Portland, it usually sells out at $50-$100 a ticket. As a fund raiser PBS could release DVDs of some of the Austin City Limits concerts. They could also release music video collections of various groups with similar styles of music on DVDs.
Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) is the next largest number of titles. Www.highfidelityreview.com reported that there were more than 2000 titles available in May 2004. There are probably 15 to 30 new titles coming out a month. This medium tends to side with the audiophile. Releases are divided among classical, pop, country and jazz, and sales of SACDs have never been big. First there are a limited number of machines out there in listener’s homes. There is also a distribution problem. Tower Records carries a fairly good selection, but usually at full retail. Tower only carries 450 out of 2000 titles at this time. Mail order is usually full retail plus shipping. Best Buy carries a very limited selection, at a few dollars off per disc, at their stores. Their Internet site offers a much larger selection. Trying to find the SACDs on their site is very difficult. Circuit City offers a small selection at full retail – their Internet site offers a few more. Some larger local stores may carry some SACDs, but most national chains do not carry them. The offering of SACDs from The Police, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Rolling Stones have been somewhat successful. The release of “Dark Side Of The Moon” was very successful. The releases of “Yellow Brick Road” and “Tommy” were marred by unnecessary two-disc sets that definitely lowered their saleability. Often SACDs come out months after the standard CD comes out. Many people who want the album have already bought the CD, and do not want to buy it again in SACD form. Pricing of SACDs is very uneven. Many titles come out at about the same price as a CD. Sometimes you can even get the SACD for less than the CD. Then there are other companies wanting $20 to $32 per disc for their SACDs. For me, this causes me to purchase those discs only if the music is extremely important to me. I figure that for every $5 increase above $10 in a disc’s price, about 30% of its sales are lost.
Unfortunately not many greatest hits discs are being made. The companies feel they would reduce the sales of the individual albums. In a couple of years, we may see more greatest hits albums on SACD. The sound quality of SACDs is somewhat variable, but they are almost always better than the CD versions. Some are just a little better and some are like you are listening to a different album. Like the CCR “Cosmos Factory” is better than the CD, but does not change my feeling for the music that much. At 25 to 30 dollars, it is a questionable buy. Whereas Santana’s “Abraxas” is a sonic revelation. The CD gives you very little idea what is on the master tapes. Here is one of the real problems in audio. Ninety-five percent of the good music is in the past. When it is remastered the original tapes limit the sound. Surround Sound is a mixed bag, which was brought in to compete with DVD-Audio surround. When done right, it can be a nice enhancement to the listening experience. Real music definitely carries a sonic atmosphere of the room it is in. Most listening rooms are far too small to recreate this atmosphere. Surround speakers compound the sonic problems in a room however. Surround sound is best used in a fairly dead room. Many times, front channel focus is reduced in a surround mix. The better sound of SACDs is most appreciated by the audiophile. To the average listener the better sound is not a big thing. The manufacturers need to release more audiophile-approved titles. I am not saying audiophile recordings that sound great but may be musically mediocre. I am saying albums of great musical performances that sound good. Redoing discs that do not have a certain level of sound is a waste of time. They are starting to release some of the Mercury Living Presence titles in August. I have fears that they may not follow the lead of the previous CD remastered series. They combined two albums onto one and sold them for under $13. I probably have 90% of these reissues. If the SACD people try to sell single albums for $15-20, it will be a hard sell. The CD’s sound is very good and have twice as much music. If the SACDs sound a fair amount better, I would still replace a few of my favorites. Of my ten favorite pop albums, only three are on SACD at this time. SACDs can benefit from the 5-step treatment I have written about for CDs. I demonstrated it to John Sunier, and he felt it was as big a sonic improvement as going from CD to SACD. Many high-end shops are ignoring SACD because of the surround sound setup needed to fully use it.
The next biggest producer is DVD Audio. Over 700 titles available were reported by www.highfidelityreview.com in April. There are also about forty titles announced for release in the next couple of months. Tower Records has 475 titles on its web site, but far less in its stores. This media has a tendency toward pop recording for its repertory. It is also a compressed media using Meridian Lossless compression. To my ears it is not totally lossless. It is usually based on a 96 Hz/24 bit recording rate. A few discs have come out with 192/24. It usually has a still picture with the name of the cut as its video part. The still picture, when used as a background to display all the lyrics of a song can be worthwhile. Various sound track options are being offered on the discs. A stereo 96/24 tracks can make a disc that has overly-aggressive surround sound listenable with some degree of enjoyment. Some also offer a DTS track. The problem with most omni and DVD-A players is that it is often difficult to navigate between different types of tracks. The players usually go automatically to multichannel DVD-A play.
One of the biggest problems with this medium is engineers going for the “oh wow” mix. In this mix you are put in the middle of the music. This has a tendency on quick listening to be impressive to the casual listener, but upon longer listening it gets to be fatiguing. Usually the listener is left with very little feeling of a concert happening on a stage. A good example of this is Neil Young’s “Harvest” album. This is my second favorite pop album, and I was very disappointed. The individual instruments sound better than the CD but are spread all around you. Neil’s voice is mixed in all channels and comes from some indescribable defuse area above you. Another problem is that most DVD-As are water marked to prevent coping. Every time water marking has been used on a product it has deteriorated the quality of the sound and/or picture. Many times when a DVD-A is in surround sound it lowers the recording to 48/24. This is only slightly better than CD. The format needs to be read on a DVD-A compatible player. The sound quality of DVD-As can be pretty good if not ruined by the mix. DVD-As are generally more expensive than SACDs due to all the video extras and programming required.
Other Music Media
There are other minor formats of recorded music. Two are Digital Audio Discs (DAD) and DTS Audio. The number of DTS Audio titles has been shrinking for the last couple of years.[But we review a DTS Audio DVD in this section this month. When DTS switched from having to shoehorn their datastream into a CD to putting them on DVDs with more capacity the quality went up and the danger of blowing out your tweeters with digital blasts was reduced…Ed.] They do sound better than a DTS Video disc. They also have a strong tendency toward pop recordings and the “oh wow” mixes. Tower records lists 54 titles at present. DADs are an uncompressed 96/24 or 192/24 format. There are only a few small companies that are making these discs at this time. This is really too bad, because of the good sound quality produced by this discs. There are probably less than 75 titles available. The distribution system is very small. Mostly mail order from audiophile recording companies and a few high-end shops.
There are two variations on CDs that are also available: HDCD and XRCD. Both use methods to expand the capacities of the standard CD format. XRCDs have discs available from JVC, FIM and Three Blind Mice. There are about 100 titles available. The discs being priced at $30 plus each are not going to be big sellers. While they demonstrate the excellent results possible with the present 44.1 PCM standard, they have a tendency to be on the short side for music. HDCD has many more titles, but suffers from very few decoders in equipment. Players and preamps which formerly included the decoder no longer do, but to get the full enhancement of HDCD you need to have a HDCD decoder in your player or preamp. Without the decoder they sound a little better than most CDs. HDCD is being put on discs with very little fanfare. Most of the discs you would not know were HDCD unless you look for the small symbol on the back of the CD. Some SACDs also have HDCD encoding on them. Both of these mediums have been made less important by the higher sampling rates of SACD and DVD-A.
A number of audiophiles still feel that vinyl has the best sound. The number of vinyl sales is about the same as SACD. But vinyl sales are slipping and SACD sales are increasing. Vinyl suffers from problems of noise, dynamics, low bass, high equipment and upkeep prices, high disc prices, limited selection of discs and disc wear from playing. [But a lot audio buffs are willing to hack that, and the parade of new high end turntables, arms, cartridges and associated gear marches right on!…Ed.]
Cassettes and VHS tapes are going the way of the 8-track, open reel, consumer DAT and Dinosaurs. Their existence, except as a curiosity, will be short lived. [But let’s hear it from the diehard open reel collectors! We can’t buy anything new but I’ll put my two-track prerecorded RCA, London and Mercury tapes up against most any of the new stereo formats! At least until the oxide all falls off or my tweaked old deck falls apart…Ed.]
Music downloading from the Web is a big controversy. It is great for the person that just wants to get the music and is not that particular about sound. And for its portability with an iPod and its ilk. It has the advantage of your only paying for what you want. The downside is that they are all compressed media and sound suffers, even at the highest sampling rates (which then take lots more space). When Internet II hits, the download of uncompressed files might become more possible, but a lot of bandwidth will be needed. At that point, quality streaming music may become possible.
There are trends I see in the local music disc stores. The selection of CDs is going down in both new and especially used stores. Many used CDs are virtually worthless. DVD selection is substantially increasing for both new and used. SACD selection is slowly increasing. Some used SACDs are actually showing up in used stores. DVD-A and DTS music selection is staying the same or decreasing. I see SACD producers hedging their bet and coming out with a DVD-A version also. When I talked to the manager of Portland’s largest independent music disc store, my observations were confirmed. For classical section CD sales are down. SACD sales are slowly growing. DVD-A sales are stagnating and low. DVD concerts sales are strongly increasing. DTS has practically no sales. In the pop section the trend was the same. The local Tower records had for the most part the same report. Best Buy shows the same trend in their selection. Circuit City, in their stores the selection is very minimal for anything except CD and DVD-V.
The next thing is how do these media compare sonically? First the question is do any of these media speak the sonic truth. The answer to my ears is that SACD and DAD come very close on some recordings. DVD-A can sound very good but not reference quality. DTS audio is a step below that, and can sound like a very high quality CD. DTS Video can at best sound like a good CD. DD Video sounds like an average CD at best and often much worse. The sound of a CD can vary from extremely poor to quite good. Recording methods are often more to blame for sound quality than the medium. The smaller the scale of the music, the easier it is to record. Large-scale orchestra and heavy rock music are much harder to capture. Perhaps the hardest is large-scale orchestra with large chorus. Present recording chains have sensitivity, dynamic range and selectivity problems. Close miking of sound is very detrimental. Putting microphones right on instruments is also not a good idea. In unampified music the listeners are usually a minimum of ten feet away. Traveling through the air reduces the high frequencies produced by instruments. Instrumental sounds blend together to create harmony. Instrumental sound also reacts with the air around the instrument and the room itself. In close miking, the fundamental frequencies are so strong that they overshadow the harmonics in an unnatural way.
One good example of this happened several years ago at an Alison Krauss concert. On one song, she stepped away from the microphone and sang without amplification. You could suddenly tell how really beautiful her voice sounds. The amplification system only gave a slight hint of her voice. Then there is also the practice of recording band members in isolated small recording rooms, and then putting the members together electronically. Amplified instruments sound more like the pickups, amps, speakers and wires than real instruments. Recording rock music with blaring stage monitors and banks of speakers behind the band makes good sound very unlikely. But then live rock music does not sound that great either. It is usually just loud, defuse and boomy.
DTS-Audio, DVD-Audio, SACD and DAD all have big public awareness problems. Most of the public has never heard of any of these media. And only a small percentage of those who know have heard a good setup of a system which can show what the media can truly do for sound recreation. For example I know of no stores in Portland or Seattle that have a good setup for surround sound music. Numerous stores have setups for surround sound movies. Producers of these media need to raise public awareness of their products. Demonstrations of these media need to be set up in local stereo stores. It would probably help sales if more samplers were made and sold at very low prices. Now most of the samplers are offered at full price. The only reason for a sampler is a sales tool to increase people’s interest in the albums which were sampled. Most people do not consider a sampler a real album. A sampler only gives an idea what an album’s recording quality might be like. Price needs to be lowered to below $18 per disc. More machines to play the media need to get to the public – distribution needs to be increased substantially. And more worthy titles need to be put on these media.
Now lets talk numbers: High Fidelity Review gave the RIAA (Record Industry Association of America) figures that 746 million CDs were shipped in 2003. This is down 15% since 2001. There were only 1.3 million SACDs and 0.4 million DVD-As shipped in the same period. These high-end media are just a very small blip in sales. One pop CD issue can sell more copies than all of the discs in audiophile formats put together. HFR also reported on the RIAA phone poll on how much of the public buys these media. These results were very interesting because they show that 2.7% bought DVD-As and only 0.4% bought SACD. HFR thinks that the polled people may have been thinking DVD-Video concerts instead of DVD-A when answering the poll questions.
Blue Laser Technology (BLT) hopefully will offer us for the first time to see in high quality video with high quality sound at the same time. The other high definition video format, because of its standard DVD technology, will not be able to give us uncompressed sound. Two years ago we felt that BLT might be showing up by now. It looks like it might be years off yet. [Or sooner and complete with an idiotic format war of both technologies!…Ed.] The music industry is dragging their feet in mortal fear of people being able to make high quality copies of the discs.
— Clay Swartz