I have, for the most part, been very critical of the music industry in this series of posts. I think that’s fair – as retailer and record company collapsed like dominoes a few years back, all they could do was complain about how downloading was killing them. Which, for the most part, it wasn’t – they were killing themselves.
Despite everything I’ve said previously, the single biggest problem that record companies have had is failing to see opportunities when they present themselves. FLAC files are one such opportunity. If you take it as read that most music fans are completists (a lot of them are), you’ll quickly see the opportunity.
But first, what are FLAC files? For the uninitiated, it’s a file format for audio, which reduces file sizes without reducing quality. It’s relatively widely supported, although none of the major software such as iTunes can handle it. But actually, this isn’t really a discussion on file formats – record companies could equally provide music in AAC or 32-bit AIFF format if they wanted. What I’m interested in here is why they don’t.
Well, one valid argument is that there isn’t really much point. People who want FLAC files tend to be completists, and typically they just want to think they own the definitive version of the music. They might say they can hear the difference between compressed and uncompressed file formats, but the truth is that most people can’t – in fact, every blind study I’ve ever read suggests that we (the listening public) are astonishingly ignorant about bitrates. See here, here, or do some Googling for yourself. Or better, devise your own blind tests and see how you really get on.
The reasons for that are complicated, and are related to the music that you’re listening to, the equipment that you’re using to listen, the room you’re listening in, and the pair of ears attached to the side of your head. Even if you can hear the difference between a 192kbps mp3 and a 24-bit WAV for one song, try again in a different location and you may find it harder. Realistically, unless you only ever listen to opera, it probably won’t make a lot of difference. So let’s just say acoustics is a very complicated science, and agree to leave it at that.
But we could argue about that till the cows come home. In the end, none of this is a reason for record companies not to provide high bitrate releases. There’s a market for it. Companies like Bandcamp offer it, and are very popular. Linn Records offer high bitrate releases for certain artists (at a premium) but that’s only a limited service.
The time has come for labels to seize this opportunity, and offer high bitrate uncompressed downloads for all artists, even if that means charging a bit more for the service. This is the 21st century! It’s time for record companies to behave like it!