last gasp

HDtracks, the high resolution downloads service, has taken an interesting bounce lately.

Most online music services – iTunes, Amazon, etc. – provide music that has been run through lossy compression. That’s mp3s and Apple’s default AAC format. The idea is – toss out the part of the sound that goes unheard because a louder sound happens in close proximity. (Yes, that’s a distortion. Yes, it’s much, much, much more complicated than that.)

Audiophiles – the few, the proud, the people who still have stereos in the family room – don’t like lossy compressed music. They want to know that what they’re hearing is what was on the original album.

Enter HDtracks. For the first few years of its existence, HDtracks offered mostly cd quality music, for about what you’d pay for the cd in a Borders or Barnes & Noble.

However, in the last few months, the major labels have taken to HDtracks with a vengance, and you can now buy some of the most popular albums of the last few decades, at better than cd quality.

What’s not to like?

Simple. The price of these ‘hi-res’ files is higher, and in some cases much higher, than cds. Basically, the major labels are collecting $17.98 per album through HDtracks. What you get in exchange is ‘better’ than cd, though it has never really been settled that higher sampling rates and frequencies make an audible difference.

But even assuming that the HDtracks version of, say, Chicago V  is better than the physical cd, is it really worth $17.98 or even $24 for the ultra high resolution version? Amazon lists a new copy of the cd for $8. For that, you get artwork and (if there are any) liner notes, unlike the download version.

Look, I understand these aren’t easy days in the music industry, and that both artists and companies have been on the wrong end of the .mp3/digital revolution. But charging what the industry did when the cd was introduced is no way to try get people to switch formats – and I would think the music companies would want to go in the direction of less physical product.

Or perhaps not, because you can’t buy a cd quality download from the majors on HDtracks.  You can only buy the ‘premium’ downloads, at a premium price. It’s sad to see companies repeat the same foolishness at the end of the cd era that they began with, and easy to lose your appetite for respecting their intellectual property when their message to consumers is ‘Screw you. We’ll sell you the same stuff over and over and jack up the price.”

The biggest loser? Quality. By charging what they’re charging, the majors are discouraging people from investigating high quality downloads, and driving them back to their cds or to illegal download sites. The big labels are either simply giving up at this point and just trying for one last decent payoff before it all goes lateral on them, or they genuinely believe they can keep the genie of full quality in the bottle. Either way, they’re wrong.

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