My posting about “The Mice War” Kickstarter campaign by David Chesky brought out more than a few comments about the HDtracks high-res music download site. There were some expressions of disappointment about audio quality and some complaints about their business practices. It was not my intent open up issues surrounding the HDtracks site or any of the other sites that offer “so-called” high-resolution music downloads. My responses focused on the fact that HDtracks isn’t alone in selling files that are sometime hit or miss. All of the sites that have done licensing deals with the major record labels have signed up to the same program. The sites all offer the same albums.
I know what the label deals are. A few years ago, I reached out to the licensing people at the major labels and sat down to talk about getting major label content for iTrax. I don’t want to go into great detail about the license deals but I can tell you that they require the websites to write very large checks (hundreds of thousands of dollars) to the labels as guarantees against sales for each year. These sites are obligated to meet minimums that they can run into the millions. The labels get the industry standard 70% of the dollars from sales. The sites hang on to 30%. Any sales or discounts that HDtracks offers come out of their percentage. It’s a great deal for the labels and the licensing heads are looking like heroes to upper management.
HDtracks was the first to offer “high-resolution” music from the major labels. It was David and Norman Chesky that approached the majors and convinced them that their catalog could generate new money if marketed as “high-resolution”. I commented back in 2008 when their site was launched and I’ve continued pushing for information about provenance, quality checks, and complete transparency about sources and processes. That’s why I’ve blasted Neil Young and his PonoMusic site because the vast majority of the tracks in their catalog are rips of CDs. Where’s the high-res stuff? In the quest for larger profits, everyone has forgotten about telling the truth about high-resolution audio and music.
In the meantime, organizations like the DEG, CEA, JAS, and NARAS have issued press releases defining high-resolution audio, promoting a single message and logo for hardware and content, then changing the name and adding a new logo for content only, and trying to convince consumers that “high-resolution” audio/music is a major upgrade to the listening experience. They’ve been pushing a false message because it makes the record labels and the distributors a bunch of money.
The comments that I’ve received over the past few days are merely the most recent. I’ve been reading about the disappointment purchasers often feel after buying a “high-res” download, the feeling of being ripped off, the anger, and the promises to never buy from this site or that site. I firmly believe that unless the industry organizations, high profile artists, producers, labels, high-res music downloads sites, and audio media revise their approach to “high-res audio/music”, it will fail. The signs are already here.
The articles that John Atkinson called “access” journalism in a recent issue of Stereophile are actually right on the money. They may not thoroughly understand the topic, but they have accurately reported the results of their research and investigations. David Pogue may not know the first thing about high-resolution audio, audiophile DACs and digital audio (he runs the reel-to-reel Yahoo group), and real high-resolution recordings (he did his test with 40 years analog to digital transfers!), but he did get the right results…that most people can’t tell the difference between content that’s labeled “high-res” and existing formats regardless of whether they’re listening to a Pono or and iPhone.
So what would I advise David and Norman Chesky and all of the other interested parties to do about the selling of “high-resolution” audio?
Stop in tomorrow for “Dr. AIX’s 10 easy steps” to fixing the problems with producing, marketing, and promoting high-resolution audio. Here’s a tease:
Step 1: Stop using the term “high-res”!