Now that Blu-ray has been anointed the future standard for video, it may be worth speculating on how this new format might impact the audio industry. Blu-ray will be used primarily as a carrier of high definition Hollywood films. But like DVD, it offers a lot of versatility. Computer companies will use its high storage capabilities for both reading and writing computer data. It will be adapted for everything from camcorders to video games. And it will be available to musicians and record companies to make creative use of its flexibility and high storage capacity.
It looked like the video industry was headed for an all out, no holes barred death match, with rivals HD DVD and Blu-ray facing off. It was eerily reminiscent of events 25 years ago when VHS and Betamax were battling it out. That outcome was unfortunate. The inferior format, VHS, became the consumer standard, while the loser, Betamax, was silently adopted as a professional broadcast medium. Hi-def proponents have feared that a similar format war between HD DVD and Blu-ray could stagnate the whole video industry.
Both formats were highly regarded, but Blu-ray looked like a winner. With a single-layer of 25GB (with several layers possible) the format had greater capacity and better data transfer rates than HD DVD. More significantly, Blu-ray out-muscled HD DVD in the courtship of Hollywood studios, with support from Warner, Paramount, Fox, Disney, Sony, MGM and Lionsgate. HD DVD was endorsed by only Paramount and Universal.
In the end the odds were stacked against HD DVD. In desperation its founder, Toshiba, drastically began reducing disc player prices in late 2007. Then came a big blow when Microsoft announced their discontinuation of HD DVD players for the Xbox. The format war ended without much fanfare when Toshiba announced in February that they would no longer manufacture HD DVD drives. Surprisingly, the cheers from the winner's circle have been noticeably muted.
Sony and its Blu-ray compatriots know they have a hard row to hoe. Sales of Blu-ray players actually decreased in the first quarter of 2008 and have not increased much since the Toshiba announcement. There are two reasons for this. People are very happy with their DVD players and with Blu-ray disc prices costing $5 to $10 more than standard DVDs, they aren't rushing out to replace their DVD libraries. Secondly, the download phenomenon has started to infect the video market. Some young people may be more inclined to download a 320x240 video for their iPod than to go out and buy a 1270x1080 version of the film on Blu-ray. This trend will continue as the price disparity increases.
If you are a musician or an audiophile, you're wincing and nodding your head by now. You've seen this already. Isn't it interesting how the video market shadows the audio industry? The CD preceded the DVD by fifteen years. DATs preceded miniDVs by about ten years. And now seven years later, Blu-ray is the video incarnation of SACD and DVD-Audio.
Did I say SACD and DVD-Audio? Remember those formats? Well, if you're not already on the floor, doubled over in pain, then let me refresh your memory. The audio community had its own format war seven years ago and there was no winner. DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD were poised to replace the Audio-CD with stunning high definition surround sound. Either format could have rejuvenated the whole audio industry with newly re-mastered catalogues and sales of high end equipment. But alas, the consumer didn't flinch.
I could moan and groan about how the internet and a format war scuttled the perfect audio format. I could complain about today's listening habits. How people no longer hit the shag rug anymore and immerse themselves in their latest music purchase. How they're surfing the net or driving in their cars with sonic wallpaper blaring in their heads or in the background. But it's no use. I'm taking the high road.
Music on Blu-ray?
I have no doubts that Blu-ray will succeed as a video format. High definition video is just too compelling to ignore. Given the 2009 digital television mandate there will be a lot of folks out buying HiDef TVs. And like their VHS and DVD predecessors, they will want discs to play and record on.
But the real question facing us today is - Will musicians and record companies successfully utilize Blu-ray for music releases? Will consumers buy them? Based on past history and all that I've outlined above, it does seem like a stretch. But, as promised, I am taking the high road. I'm not a winer. I'm an optimist. Here are a few reasons why I think it could happen:
1) Blu-ray is a universal format. It will play any disc on any Blu-ray device you own, whether it's connected to your TV, your stereo, or inside your computer.
2) Blu-ray accommodates a plethora of audio formats: Linear PCM, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS Digital Surround, DTS-HD. It will probably also play mp3. As a ROM format used with a computer, it can carry any type of audio file. This kind of flexibility will encourage a growing market.
3) Blu-ray may be the last physical media we ever use for entertainment. When people realize this, they may be eager to update their music libraries for posterity.
4) The entire Beatles catalogue has all been re-mastered in hi-res sound, just waiting for a successful music carrier. Rumor has it that it will be released on Blu-ray. Many, many legacy recordings will follow.
5) Neil Young has announced that he will release a four part retrospective of all his music on Blu-ray later this year.
My final point is somewhat personal and speculative:
Things run in cycles. We've been through a rough period of dumbed down audio. The pendulum will swing the other way. When the iPod craze dies down, there will be a counter revolution - not by old guys like me, but by young people - Obama types -who like many generations before latch onto something meaningful and real. Something with substance. Something like high quality audio. There may even be a new genre of music to drive it. Our ears are too good. Music is just too powerful.
A simultaneous revolution in speaker design wouldn't hurt.
Stay tuned. I'll report back in a month or so on new Blu-ray music releases and any clients who have decided to utilize this exciting new format.
"To the Victor Go the Spoils" Ken Pohlmann, Sound & Vision Magazine, June 2008.