Quibbles and Bits

Preposterous Nonsense!

Back in Issue 22, in response to my column “Purer, More Perfect Sound”, reader tortuga_Bob made mention of the ‘Crown Jewels’ argument often put forward by the majors to describe their Studio Master “tapes” (which these days are files, rather than tapes).  Bob was absolutely right, and whenever I hear this Crown Jewels idea being spouted it makes my blood boil, because it is nothing but preposterous nonsense.

Imagine this.  German car-maker BMW recently unveiled the latest incarnation of their iconic 5-series luxury sports sedan.  Here is one of their promotional photos, in all its glory:

Nice, eh?  I expect if you wanted one, and could afford it, it would be available to purchase from your local BMW dealer in that fetching shade of metallic azure blue.  What you’d get would look as close to what you see above as they can make it.  Imagine, though, that BMW’s marketing mavens instead considered this magnificent paint job to be their Crown Jewels.  Instead of allowing you to experience it for yourself, what they would offer to sell you is the closest match from a Benjamin Moore color swatch, lovingly applied with a 3” paint brush.  Makes any sense to you?  Of course not.  It is clearly nothing but abject preposterous nonsense.

The whole notion of Crown Jewels is that whoever owns them wants to go out of their way to make damn sure you don’t get them.  They’re MY Crown Jewels and you can’t have them.  And for the music industry to apply such a designation to their Studio Masters is nothing but pure … yeah, you got it.

Of course, there was a time when this was the indeed case.  When recordings were made to analog tape, the Studio Master was something special.  You had to treat it very carefully.  Each time you play back an analog tape a little something is lost.  Even if you don’t play it, it slowly degrades in the cupboard.  The process of distributing the music captured on Studio Masters to individual consumers involved making copies of copies of copies, but whenever you made a copy, that copy was slightly less true to the original.  Each generation down the copy chain resulted in slightly lower quality.  Eventually, when you bought the LP and played it at home, the quality was a long way short of what you would have heard if instead they had sold you the Studio Master itself.  Therefore the Studio Master tapes became increasingly valuable as the popularity of the recordings increased.  That is why the Studio Master of Dark Side Of The Moon is kept in a temperature and humidity-controlled vault.  It truly is somebody’s Crown Jewels.  How much do you imagine it might sell for if it were to come up for auction?

But with today’s digital technology the situation is markedly different.  A digital master can be copied with no loss of fidelity whatsoever.  A 100th generation copy is bit-for-bit identical to the original.  And so, as a consequence, there is nothing to prevent a Record Label from distributing the actual digital Studio Master all the way to end-user customers.  The only constraining factor is the bandwidth of their web servers – and if they subcontract out to Amazon S3 (or a competing service) then that constraint goes straight out the window.

So why should a marketing type from a major label puff out his chest and bleat about his Studio Masters being Crown Jewels?  What he is telling you is that he has a strong desire to keep it out of everybody else’s hands – and specifically your hands.  Why should that be?  What is in it for the studio to sell you only a crippled version of the product, when for no extra cost he could sell you the Studio Master?  [In fact the opposite is true – it actually costs him money to re-package the Studio Master into a lesser format.]  Why does he only want to offer you a BMW with a Benjamin Moore paint job, and keep the gorgeous spray-painted and lacquered model off the market on the basis that it is his Crown Jewel?  No, it makes no sense to me either.  It’s nothing but preposterous nonsense.

So now let’s ask a different question.  What could a person of nefarious intent do with one of these Crown Jewels that he couldn’t do with the CD of the same album that he bought from a store (or even downloaded illegally)?  One obvious answer is that he could flood the market with illegal copies of the Studio Master, which would be eagerly snapped up by those who were not afforded the opportunity to buy them from an official source in the first place (I’d be crying crocodile tears for the marketing genius and his Crown Jewels).  But in truth, the market for those Studio Masters is actually quite small on the grand scale of things.  So what our nefarious friend is far more likely to do would be to use a cheap (i.e. free) software package to downsample the Studio Master to CD or MP3 or whatever the format-du-jour might be, and use that to undercut the Label on the open market.  But, clearly, our nefarious construct doesn’t actually need the Studio Master for that!  In practice it would be quicker and cheaper to buy the CD (or MP3) and just rip or copy that.  Frankly, having to work from the Studio Master would be a bit of an inconvenience.

There is of course a financial element which is central to all this.  The underlying problem is that there is a perceived value hierarchy across the spectrum of musical quality, with MP3 at the bottom, PCM in the middle, and DSD at the top.  Even if you’re not buying the argument of a progressive increase in sound quality as you go up the chain, at least you are getting a bigger file with every step up.  Hey, bigger is better – so in principle one ought to be able to charge more for the bigger file with the better sound.  But just because there are a small number of enthusiasts out there who willingly shell out $40 for a DSD download, $25 for a 24/96 Flac file, and $10 for MP3, it doesn’t follow that Joe Public shares those value judgments.  Joe has no interest whatsoever in GB-sized DSD files that take up all the space in his iPod.  And he certainly isn’t up for paying $40 for it.  This is what keeps the sales and marketing types awake; they learn on Day 1 of MBA school that it’s a mortal sin to leave a dollar on the table.  After all, the gap between perceived value and actual value is pure profit, baby!  But underneath all this, though, the inconvenient truth is that the actual cost of producing and distributing an MP3 file from a Studio Master source is negligibly different from that of producing any of the other formats.  Any market will always be inefficient when the perceived and the actual values of its products don’t align.

Today the music industries employs a vast number of people in jobs whose function is to try and keep in place tired old structures which fail to serve the needs of either the producers or the consumers of its products.  These people extract a lot of money from the system, and frankly, we don’t need them any more.  They spend their every waking hour trying to extract every last penny they can from us, the consumers, while returning as little as possible to their stable of musicians.  They’re like owning a boat – a hole in the water that you fill with money.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though.  Already, the classical music industry is in the throes of breaking clear of the old structure, and shining a light on a possible way forward for the rest of the industry.  I could easily list (but won’t, for fear off offending someone I’d miss) a couple of dozen small but successful independent labels who are producing a healthy catalog of new classical recordings.  They don’t sell their wares via the old distribution chains – mostly they sell directly or through dedicated web-based outlets.  Downloading is central to their business model.  They seem to be getting by quite successfully, and they all have a couple of key things in common.  First, they are producing recordings of truly exceptional quality, right across the board.  Secondly, they go out of their way to ensure that customers have the closest possible access to their Studio Masters.   Not a Crown Jewel in sight.

And in case anybody was wondering, recording an orchestra is a seriously expensive undertaking – $200,000 per recording is not out of the question.  That’s the equivalent of 3 weeks or more of quality studio time for your average Pop, Rock, or Jazz Band.