“The worst reality TV show ever”. That’s how Jason Miller headlined his op-ed for Time magazine on CBS’ The Briefcase . “[The Briefcase] takes advantage of desperate people and calls it entertainment”, lamented Miller. Where’s the beef?
The show’s basic premise is this: a financially-strapped family are given a briefcase containing $101,000 and are asked to choose between keeping it all for themselves or giving all or part of it to a similarly financially-strapped family. That second family have also been given a briefcase containing the same amount of money and the same instructions. Neither family are aware of the each other’s dilemma.
The result is a reality TV show with echoes of The Hunger Games, one that numerous critics have tritely dubbed “Poverty porn”.
But what if you were given the opportunity to change your life or the life of another in an instant? What if with the flick of a metaphorical switch you help yourself OR help another?
I have pondered this conundrum as it relates to the music and audio industries? What single change would I make if all that was required was a click of the fingers? An Aladdin of sound, if you will.
From a self-serving audiophile perspective, one issue that consistently rears its head more frequently than ABX testing or the value of hi-res encoding is mastering quality. Or rather the lack of dynamic range – the distance between the quietest and loudest sounds – of many modern recordings.
Catch up here:
That new Radiohead record that you love, A Moon Shaped Pool, even as a hi-res release, scores little better than an average of DR5. That’s well under half the average of most recordings appearing before the early 90s – the start of the so called loudness war.
Mastering engineer Bob Katz has been a well-known proponent of bringing the loudness war to an end. In 2013, he claimed that Apple’s decision to turn on iTunes’ sound check option by default would essentially put the boot into studio engineers’ need to dynamically compress their final masters. Alas, it didn’t. The need to make a song ‘pop’ on the radio is apparently sharper than ever.
Look up your favourite artist of album over at the dynamic range database here.
This year, a Change.org petition was started by an alliance of music industry luminaries, one that (no surprises) also features Bob Katz. They go by the name of The Loudness Petition Group and at time of writing they are eight (8!) signatures shy of their target of 5000.
But what if you could just flip a magic switch and have the loudness wars end immediately? Would you do it? As an audiophile you’d be sorely tempted, would you not? But hang on just a sec…
For a proper Briefcase-esque scenario we need an alternative option, one that puts others before ourselves.
At the other end of the music chain sits the artist – the maker of music. His/her world has been rocked hard by the Internet: first by online piracy and then by the seemingly pitiful micro-payments received in return for each play of a song on a streaming service.
YouTube essentially gives listeners access to any song at any time and for nothing. So when we learned that vinyl revenue outstripped revenue arriving via YouTube et al’s free subscription tiers last year, maybe – just maybe – it’s not because vinyl has suddenly become so HUGE but that the revenue generated by each ad-funded streaming tier remains painfully small?
According to Pitchforkmedia, one billion people access music via YouTube and don’t pay a cent for the privilege. (And it is a privilege). For a sense of scale, that figure all but buries Spotify’s free-tier user count of 89 million. Spotify is big but YouTube is way BIGGER.
Via these streaming services, along with Pandora and Soundcloud, users continue to access music for free and the executives charged with running them are more than a little bit afraid of asking for financial recompense; they worry it will drive away ‘customers’. The inverted commas underline my quizzical stance on a word used to describe users who pay nothing. Zip. Nada. Zilch.
Even as recently as 2015, a handful of streaming services could be heard making the right noises about re-thinking their business model (and nixing the free tier) but not even high-profile holdouts from Taylor Swift seemed capable of finally tipping Spotify over the edge.
Contrast this with Spotify’s Scandinavian neighbour Tidal whose 2016 album exclusives (from Kanye West and Beyoncé) have caused paying subscribers to pour through their doors, credit cards held aloft. People are willing to pay for music if they want it badly enough.
Even the humble download is alive and well in certain quarters, as evidenced by Bandcamp who sales are up 30an shown that making music available direct from the artist and in a format that’s desirable still has financial legs for the artist.
If tomorrow you could end free access to music as provided by streaming services like (but not limited to) Spotify, Pandora and YouTube, would you do it?
There’s YOUR briefcase, dear reader. Your needs vs. artists’ needs. You get to choose only one option: end the loudness war or end free-tier streaming.
Let us put it to a vote:
This polling station will be open for the next 7 days. Insightful comments are encouraged below.
If you think this scenario is largely unrealistic or just plain silly (or have no opinion) then consider watching this instead.