"Plus ca change..."—The Information Superhighway

When I browse through early issues of this magazine, I envy J. Gordon Holt. When he founded Stereophile in 1962, there were aspects of society that stood as solid as the Rockies overlooking his current Colorado home. Back then a magazine was a thing forever; the main means of serious communication would always be the written word; records would always be LPs...recorded in stereo; the US had a large, prosperous consumer electronics industry; computers were huge mainframes made in the USA by IBM (of course), and required air-conditioned rooms and armies of white-coated attendants; everyone watched three broadcast television networks; once a film left the neighborhood cinema, it was gone forever—or at least until it appeared on the "Late, Late, Late Show." And most importantly, people took for granted that progress in sound reproduction meant improvements in quality.

In the 1990s, the only thing that stays the same is change. Other than the High End, no consumer electronics companies manufacture in the US (footnote 1). During the lifetime of Stereophile, four music carriers and two video media have been introduced and are all slugging it out in the stores. (The once-eternal LP is only available to those willing to hunt it down, footnote 2.) Home surround-sound is about to replace stereo...maybe. Computers are disposable consumer durables—except I can't bring myself to chuck my 1985 Radio Shack Model 100 laptop—and IBM is just another name stuck on a Far Eastern IBM clone. Narrowcasting is the name of the broadcast game, with four TV networks fighting over a diminishing slice of marketshare pie.

Everything is now open to question. Take magazines. If someone wants to read about music and the hardware on which to re-create it, will he or she always have to buy it printed on paper? Already, four computer bulletin-board services are devoted mainly to audio, and two of the BBSes—The Audiophile Network and Compuserve's CEForum—"publish" more text each month than Stereophile does.

And according to a powerful article in the December 1993 Musician, we're on the threshold of a major change in the way recorded music is disseminated. The Clinton administration's "information superhighway" will allow the ultimate in narrowcasting: Any digitized information—music, video, data—will be capable of being delivered straight to your home.

You would call up an information access service on your computer screen—the Schwann Opus database/E-Store would be the favorite for classical music–loving Stereophile readers, of course—and browse, say, in the Wagner section. Roger Norrington's "original instruments" reading of Rheingold strikes your eye, as does a newly discovered 1950 Karajan aircheck. You check the Stereophile On-Line reviews of the two, enter your credit-card number, and the Schwann database dumps the music data, the music score, the reviews, and a musicological commentary (footnote 3) into your CD recorder, which you had previously loaded with a blank high-density CD-R.

IBM and Blockbuster have already announced a halfway house to this vision—your record store will download a CD's worth of music to CD-R in about six minutes. The Baby Bells, multimedia companies like Time-Warner, and cable TV companies like TCI, are already jockeying for positions as information-superhighway providers and controllers. (Lewis Lapham discussed the dangers of such government-sponsored private monopolies in the January 1994 Harper's.)

The "highway" isn't going to happen next year. The seemingly subsidiary issues need to be resolved. For example, how does the copyright owner of the music being squirted down a fiber-optic link into your home get compensated? Late last year, the Harry Fox Agency, which acts as the central clearing house for copyright fees, sued Compuserve for copyright infringement—the BBS made MIDI/music samples available to its subscribers. And will the First Amendment apply when opinions are only published privately in electronic form? Some people already answer "No" to that question.

An essential element of this vision involves how to reduce the amount of data represented by a CD's worth of music. To send one hour of stereo, linear-PCM, 16-bit data using a 9600bps modem would, by my calculations, take 147 hours! Hardly dial-a-tune! Obviously, the delivery system will improve. Already a majority of homes are wired to a coaxial cable TV system which has a much larger bandwidth than the telephone system, while the ISDN phone system mentioned by Peter Mitchell in this month's "Industry Update" is already allowing remote digital recording in real time. This, though, is with sonically outrageous data reduction.

I suspect, therefore, that quality will be forgotten in this rush to make the future happen. Will new generations, overloaded with information and brought up on a diet of data-reduced audio and MPEG-compressed video, even care about sound quality?—John Atkinson


Footnote 1: Food for thought for Japan-bashers: According to a report in The Economist, 1993 was the year in which Japan became a net importer of color televisions.

Footnote 2: Kudos to the Musical Heritage Society for continuing to release vinyl. As I write these words, I'm listening to a new MHS pressing of Miles Davis's 1956 Relaxin' album.

Footnote 3: Check out Microsoft's Multimedia Beethoven: The Ninth Symphony CD-ROM for a current example of complete music publishing.

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