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May 2005 Editorial

RIAA 2004 report on Music & Video sales in 2004: where are the new digital formats going to?

Author: Lucio Cadeddu - TNT Italy

It should be no mystery TNT-Audio has NEVER supported new high resolution digital media, SACD and DVD-Audio in particular. It is not a matter of quality, new formats _can_ indeed sound better than Red Book CD. That's not the point. The real problem is that we think we don't really need "another" music medium, technically too close to the previous one. We can still remember the blasphemous "perfect sound forever" hype at the launch of the Compact Disc. We can't forget everyone was raving about the new medium and trashing the old one, the good 'ol Long Playing. After 25 years vinyl is still here (alive 'n kickin') and it still sounds better than Compact Disc as it always did. Go figure.
Hence, you can imagine how suspicious we went when we heard of a new "Perfect sound forever" again! Hence, unlikely almost every other specialized publication on Planet Earth, we decided not to support the new hi-rez formats. Retro-grouches, anyone?
Actually here we are, in 2005, still waiting for one of the contenders to win the neverending new-format fight. In the meanwhile, let's have a look at some FACTS and nUMBERS (as they rarely lie): the recently released "2004 Report" published by RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) about audio & video software sales in America.
Considering the 90% of US labels are under the RIAA umbrella and that the US market is definitely the most representative of the current trends I hope you agree these data can be extremely meaningful. Oh yes, Virginia, I know some audiophile label isn't under the RIAA umbrella but that can't make a significative difference, considering the low volume of sales involved.
If you wish to read the whole report, you can download it directly from the RIAA website (the link opens a PDF file).
I won't go into details as I'm mainly interested in a couple of FACTS only: the last year (2004), despite all the ramblings on voracious and harmful 'net Music illegal downloads, has been quite a positive one. For the first time in 5 years, the volume of sales has increased by a solid +4.4% (with respect to 2003).
Only two formats made this possible: the good old CD (+2.8%) and, of course, the DVD Video (+66%!!!). ALL the other formats went down the drain. Vinyl (-11.9%) but, quite interestingly and NOT surprisingly, SACD (-39.6%!!!) and DVD-Audio (-20.6%).
In some sense, these data are confirmed by a worldwide trend, as reported by IFPI, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. IFPI claims the 2004 to have been "flat", with some interesting and quite positive novelty (read the whole document for more info).

Let me just add some comment to the RIAA data:

This is - by now - what can be properly called a "commercial flop". The funny side of the story is that this happened despite all the efforts from magazines, HiFi Companies and even opinion leaders, on discussions Forums and websites. It seems that even audiophile labels, that claimed they were going to release SACDs only for the years to come, have now changed their minds (???) and started to print good old CDs again!!! I admit that coherence isn't always a virtue...but com'on!!! :-)
As for HiFi magazines, the vast majority of them has strenuosly supported the new media. First, they told us even Wal-mart cheap DVD-Video players were capable of audiophile sound when playing CDs, then sweared by multi-format players (the definitive answer to all questions) and finally tried to convince us to buy our preferred records on a newly released format, hybrid SACD. How many copies of the The Dark Side of the Moon should anyone have? Three, maybe four!!! This is ridiculous.
Then there have been opinion-leaders on discussion forums, that kind of "gurus" who always have the answer to every question (even when they have not). These applauded CD when it was released (and thrashed LPs) now they swear SACD (or DVD-Audio for what that matters) is the only way to listen to Music! CD is crap (though it was "perfect" just 15 years ago).
Summarizing, one can't help but notice the efforts for "pushing forward" the new media were impressive. These efforts notwithstanding, the results have been questionable, to say the least, even several years after the new formats have been introduced.
Something didn't work. Magazines and Companies haven't been able to create "demand". Audiophiles and, most importantly, average customers didn't feel compelled to buy another perfect sounding media. Guess why. SACDs can't be copied, so one can't make a copy for personal use (car stereo, for example). Oh yes, one can copy the CD layer of a SACD (when available) but this isn't always possible and, more relevantly, what's the deal to have SACD quality if I can't exploit it everywhere?
Furthermore, CDs are already extremely expensive, considering the continuosly decreasing "average" purchase power (in the Euro area, at least!). What's the deal of dealing with an even more expensive medium? Better audio quality? How many "average" listeners have systems and listening expertise to tell the difference between a SACD (or DVD-Audio) and a CD? For most of them, even CD quality is excessive!!! Their systems can't fully exploit all the potential of a standard Red Book Compact Disc either!
Finally, what does a SACD or a DVD-Audio add in terms of usability? Almost nothing, it is still an optical disc, exactly like the one they are trying to replace. It is NOT a revolution, like it was the CD versus the LP.

To cut a long story short, this commercial flop made me confident. Why? Because for the first time masses said NO to another way to quickly deflate their wallets. Well, it may happen that these formats will reach a kind of "niche" market...but wasn't vinyl good enough for this? We already have it, it can't be copied and it sounds way better than any high-resolution format.
So, while we wait for a REAL revolution to come (hi-quality uncompressed Music download or memory cards), let stay "at the window", enjoying the war of the formats, an amusing marketing show...with no winners.

© Copyright 2005 Lucio Cadeddu - www.tnt-audio.com

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