How classical music slipped a disc

Do you remember when streaming was classical music's next big thing? Do you remember when Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc declared  'There is only one classical future - and it's streaming'? Apple Music was recently acclaimed by a leading magazine as, together with Spotify, the Editors' Choice Pick for streaming music services. But did you see another Slipped Disc headline this week telling us that the absorption of Primephonics into Apple Music is not open, fair or classical friendly?

Classical streaming may be a convenient short-term expedient for users. But it was a no-brainer to see that its long-term business model which shifts financial control from content producers (artists and record labels)  to content distributors  (artistically-sterile technology giants such as Apple) would hurt the music industry. The uncertain future for high quality streaming services such Primephonics is yet another example of the classical industry's self-inflicted harm. For years the classical industry has been lecturing us on the vital importance of  multi-million pound acoustically perfect concert halls so that audiences can enjoy perfect concert sound. While over the same years the classical industry has chased recorded sound down the rabbit hole of low-resolution streaming.  

What is particularly sad is the classical industry had a perfectly viable alternative to streaming in the compact disc. Of course the CD is yesterday's technology, but what is wrong with that? Physical books are also yesterday's technology and depend largely on tactile appeal, and the streaming-obsessed classical industry ignored the news that in 2020 despite a lock-down UK book sales hit an eight year high. And the classical industry overlooked the fact that CDs can be ripped to a hard drive, thereby combining the tactile benefits of ownership with the technology benefits of streaming.

Sales of the even more yesterday's technology of the vinyl LP  continue to grow, and LPs are being bought not by old technophobes, but by millennials. As Charlie Randall, CEO of high-end audio brand McIntosh Labs - no connection with Apple! - explains: "There is something romantic about records, something satisfying about opening the album jacket, seeing the fantastic artwork and studying the liner notes while listening to the album. That’s something that today’s digital files just can’t replace".

CDs offer the sonic and tactile benefits of vinyl combined with sonic excellence of digital files. But the classical industry marginalised the compact disc and instead jumped on the streaming bandwagon. What is incomprehensible is how an industry fixated on sonic excellence in the concert hall passed on the opportunity to promote recorded sonic excellence. SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc), which was launched in 1999, delivers an experience very close to concert hall sound without leaving the comfort of leaving your home. It also has a native 5.1 channel capability to cater for a market conditioned to home cinema surround sound, and a multi-channel SACD non-Red Book compatible disc has a maximum playback time of 110 minutes without compression.  

It gets even better. Because when SACD content is limited to two channels the maximum disc playing time is extended to more than four hours, although the extended play disc will not replay on a non-SACD player. BIS exploited this with single SACD releases including 'Dowland – The Complete Solo Lute Music', 'Mendelssohn - The Complete String Symphonies', and 'Mendelssohn - The Complete Solo Concertos', all with more than four hours playing time. 

Despite these obvious benefits in a sonically-sensitive market, BIS were the only classical label to really throw their weight behind SACD, and the format is now effectively moribund. Beyond SACD there is Blu-ray Audio (High Fidelity Pure Audio) launched by Sony in 2013 which offers both hi-res and lossless audio from Blu-ray discs. But again this sonically excellent format has received limited industry support, with a small number of Pure Audio discs released by Deutsche Grammophon.

SACD and Blu-ray Audio raised the bar for sound quality. But even without them the Red Book CD standard could offer so much more to an industry fixated on acoustic excellence. Just as there is a world of difference between the sound of an acoustically good and bad concert concert hall, so there is a world of difference between the sound of a good and bad CD player. Since the 1982 launch of the compact disc it has generally been assumed that because the data on a CD is binary, all transports capable of reading binary data streams sound the same. This is fundamentally untrue, and high-end audio brands have proved this by achieving significant gains in sound quality through improving the digital to analogue conversion (DAC) circuitry. But there are further largely untapped gains from improving the mechanical integrity of CD players. 

The integrity of musical signals deteriorates when subject to internal vibration caused by disc rotation or the power transformer, or to airborne vibration. My Denon DCD-1600NE CD/SACD player sounds superb not just because of its advanced electronics, but also because its low-resonance construction - it weighs 8.2 kg - eliminates unwanted vibration. This minimises the servo-related operations that impact on sound quality, just as poor acoustics impact on sound quality in some concert halls.

Apple Music's absorption of Primephonics may not be classical friendly. But there is a much more serious underlying problem - streaming per se is not classical friendly. Because it is fiscally penal for musicians - Tasmin Little revealed how she was paid £12.34 ($15.50) for 3.5 million streams on Spotify over six months. And it is not classically friendly because it degrades the sensory listening experience that is the raison d'être of great music. Classical music slipped a disc by rejecting the CD, and before anyone points out that the classical industry has to move as technology moves, let me remind them that the new generation of sonically perfect concert halls use acoustic technologies and conventions defined in the mid-nineteenth century.


Pliable said…
I should have said that Jordi Savall's Alia Vox label has also been a loyal supporter of SACD and continues to release discs in that format.

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