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Imagining Apple's future digital media format

Christopher Breen | Sept. 19, 2014
Having a reasonably undiluted Irish heritage, I can attest that not all of us have the fabled "gift of gab." So when U2's Bono recently mentioned to Time's Catherine Mayer that the band and Apple were working on a new digital music format, you have to credit it not to his Irish origin but rather to the notion that the man's made a career of speaking his mind.

I still haven't found what I'm looking for

To answer that question I think we have to start by looking at what LPs and CDs offered that we don't get from digital downloads.

Quality: There rages a debate (largely among audiophiles) that the quality of digital downloads and music streams is noticeably inferior to high-resolution recordings. Blind-listening tests among the general population don't support such claims, but those with great ears and equipment steadfastly maintain that they can indeed tell the difference. Products such as Neil Young's high-resolution PonoPlayer are designed with such an audience in mind.

Are there enough people so distressed by the quality of today's encoded music that they'd pay Apple (and artists) for higher quality downloads? Probably not. But as a portion of a broader package, it might make purchasing this music more attractive.

Extra content: You may recall that when you flipped open a CD (or peered inside an album sleeve, if you go back that far), you were greeted with additional artwork, production credits, and lyrics. When you purchase or stream music today you get the music and perhaps a thumbnail of the cover art.

In 2009, Apple launched the iTunes LP format, which includes some of this content as well as bundled videos. But a limited number of albums are offered in this format, and such material isn't available for single tracks. For those of us who appreciate being able to pull up lyrics or discover who shook that mean tambourine, it might be worth paying for music that offered such information.

Extra, extra content: As I've mentioned, artists make their living in ways other than selling songs. This format could be a gateway to other means for connecting with artists. Purchase an album and get early access to tickets for their next performance, the opportunity to buy board mixes from live shows, or procure T-shirts and baby bibs at less onerous prices than those proffered at the concert hall.

Sweetest thing

In my imaginings, the motivation is all carrot, no stick. These days it's difficult to reverse the trend and ask people to pay for content. And making that content more difficult to consume by imposing walls between it and consumers does little more than engender resentment. If such a format really is in the offing, it mustn't inhibit our ability to enjoy the music we own. We've played that discordant song before and it rarely merited a second listening.

Here's hoping that U2 and Apple can navigate a path that delivers both quality and compensation and offers a greater motivation for purchasing music that matters. 'Twould make for luminous times indeed.


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