Big Music's Best Tool Against Napster - DVD

By Robert Menta 10/06/00

Back in the late 80's the shelves of your local music store were lined with vinyl LP's and CD's, both formats sharing retail space along with cassette tapes. It didn't last long, within a year the LP's all but disappeared. But how? Wasn't the music industry bound to support the older LP format for years until all buyers replaced their record players with CD players?

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The answer to that was no. In fact, the record companies wanted to kill LPs as fast as possible and found they could force users to migrate to the new format immediately by simply cutting off the supply of vinyl.

But why kill profitable vinyl? The answer was pure and simple economics. It turns out CD's were just as cheap to produce as LP's, but because they were perceived (the key word here is perceived) by buyers as being of higher quality, they could command prices of $2 to $4 more per album. Supporting one less format was also cheaper in terms of distribution and warehousing.

We bring up this event of the past because of an announcement by Warner Music Group that hints at history repeating itself. Napster and Net music swapping in general are giving the record labels a significant incentive to push for the next migration - DVD audio.

Warner Music Group's Announcement

Warner Music Group revealed this week that it will release seven albums in the DVD audio format, a technology that offers significantly higher audio resolution than the standard CD format. These albums include a couple of classical recordings as well as music from Natalie Merchant and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

The new DVD's will actually carry music in three separate formats; Advanced Resolution stereo, six track Dolby Digital used for DVD flicks, and Surround.

The Advanced Resolution format in particular offers 24-bit sound (versus 16-bit for CD's) and takes advantage of the huge storage capacity of DVD's. Capacity is the first place where the new format makes it difficult for MP3's to compete.

Read all the MP3 player literature and all you hear is how MP3's offer the equivalent sound quality of CD's. They don't really, but they aren't that far off. The new DVD audio formats will make a significant leap in sound quality, turning that difference into a chasm.

With a little time technology can improve the quality of MP3's to close that gap, but doing so creates a significant problem - file size.

Think about it, the average MP3 file runs between 3-5MB in size. It gets that small by eliminating frequency information that would be least missed by the listener. DVD audio improves sound by greatly increasing the amount of sonic information. Improving MP3 quality to something close to the DVD formats would require reproducing much of that information, a move that will cause file sizes to inflate logarithmically.

This is especially true when MP3 compression ratios try to incorporate the Advanced Resolution formats 24-bit audio or increase from two-channel stereo to six-channel Surround. More channels and more bits mean more information to process and bigger file sizes.

You don't have to kill Napster to compete.

How does this effect Napster? Significantly larger files would at minimum knock out Napster users who download via modem. All but T1/Lan users would probably have to continue using regular old MP3's, effectively denying most Netizens from trading music in the higher quality audio.

And THIS is the real way that the traditional music industry can and will successfully compete with the Net music industry, by simply offering a better product. A product so improved that it exposes and exploits the limitation of digital downloads.

If the music available on Napster becomes significantly inferior to the store bought goods, its existence becomes less corrosive to the music industry. Consumers already have the perception that CD's are a superior product to MP3s and have shown a willingness to buy them even after downloading many of the songs on a particular album. The same should apply to DVD.

Quality, both actual and perceived, is relative of course. Regular MP3s still sound pretty damn good and serve the purpose for many. Many consumers also can't tell the difference between 24-bit and 16-bit audio because they don't have the better equipment to take advantage of it. That is why Big Music will still try to close down Napster and its ilk.

But, DVDs offer a product that is a significant improvement, so good it gives consumers plenty of incentive to spend money for it (This quality difference can be very successfully marketed to promote DVD albums even to consumers who don't have the equipment to hear this difference. Remember, marketing is the forte of the seasoned record industry and they will be able to market this). Biggest point of all, Napster can't have it. First because no one wants to wait for 20MB singles to download, and second because there is no software yet to rip DVDs.

DVD Rippers and a successor to the MP3 format

A month ago, a NY state court ruled against a website that posted code allowing Linux users play DVD movies on their systems. There was no such commercial program out there so a Scandinavian teenager wrote it and distributed it throughout the Net. The movie industry was not keen that users - the industry prefers to call them thieves and hackers - had broken into their code and they took that teenager to court as well as a popular hacker web site to stop them. The industry won their court cases.

This didn't stop the trading of the DVD code, the program is still readily available, but what the industry may have succeeded in doing was scare off legit companies from creating other DVD software products including DVD audio rippers. There is little profit to be had if it all must go to legal fees. That leaves the creation of such a ripper to Netizens not associated with a company or the record industry itself. If Big Music authors it, they have control and that means they can dictate what is in the product including copyright protection and pay-per-play technology.

Let's take this a step farther. Let us say that higher quality MP3s do indeed run 20 or 30MB. That would leave the door open for a more efficient technology, a new digital format that can capture the high quality of DVD audio but within the rough file sizes of present day MP3.

Since such a format is yet to be invented, the industry has the opportunity to be an influential force in its how it is developed here too.

Of course you can lead a horse to water, but that doesn't guarantee it will be adopted by the masses even if it is superior. Factors like cost and convenience play a big part here too. If security protocols make the playing of music as annoying as Sony's OpenMG software does, few will buy in. Besides, as we said before, MP3s are still pretty good.

Teens just like Justin Frankel and Shawn Fanning can probably crank out a DVD ripper in just a couple of weeks to copy High Audio files into standard quality MP3s. Copying High Audio files into High MP3 files require inventing High MP3. That means creating a new algorithm that preseves the high output of DVD audio but keeps file sizes within reason, a much more demanding task.

The builders of such a compression schemes will most likely come from sources hand-in-hand with the music industry like Microsoft (High WMA), Liquid Audio, or Sony itself (High ATRAC3).

Even foregoing a higher form of digital compression, keeping file sizes down in standard MP3 format may be difficult. Back in the 70's when Quadraphonic sound was marketed, the music industry portayed the listening experience where each of the four audio channels played a different instrument through each speaker. The drums came from the left front speaker, the vocals from the right front, etc. A ripper can certainly compress DVD audio's six channels into two, but if each instrument is allowed to exist exclusively on only one or two channels, it prevents the ripper from excluding any channels to keep file sizes down. It makes the job harder to eliminate without distorting the performance forcing the ripper to include more information. That could be the trick. Like Phil Spector's wall of sound, flood modern recordings with added sonic information making it just a little harder for an inanimate ripper to distingish what is expendable and what isn't.

Coming to a store near you.

It's not all that ironic that the greatest tool for the music industry to neutralize Napster is not the courts or the legislature, but technological progress and good old competition (that includes recognizing that bandwidth can be a tool in their favor and utilizing it). I doesn't matter if Napster lives or dies, songs will continue to be traded, but it is conceivable that soon the songs available on P2P services may not include the most recent releases because they will be unavailable in CD. This is especially true if DVD rippers take a while to appear or are squelched all together, therefore allowing users only to trade in legacy music.

One issue we might point out is that most DVD players today cannot play the new DVD audio discs. But now that there is something to play on them, Warner's release of these DVD audio discs will spur computer, video, and rack DVD manufacturers to add this ability to their products immediately. As more titles come every month there will be more users, especially from those who use DVD for video and already have a surround sound system hooked up, an audio system that can make out the quality difference between the new High Audio and what is available presently.

This is all short term granted. Over the years bandwidth will increase and technology will improve allowing practical file trading of High Audio. Also, if SDMI is an example, the industry has a penchant to over-engineer making their "sanctioned" digital products - be they DVD Rippers or some new High MP3 - complicated and convoluted. This means there will be little patience to wait for the labels to get it right, spurring the Justin Frankels of this world to do it for them.

Still, while technology can catch up it will take time and the process won't start until DVDs take up a healthy portion of record racks. The record industry has every motive to make this happen soon because they are no longer playing catch up if they do.

So keep an eye on your local record store and watch for the change. No guarantees DVDs will replace CDs as fast as CDs replaced LPs. No guarantees it will happen at all, frankly. Still, the record industry did it before and no reason to think they won't do it again if it serves them.

If Napster wins in court, don't be surprised to see wall-to-wall DVD albums pop up on store shelves seemingly overnight.

Copyright 2000 MP3 Newswire. All rights reserved.

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