Universal Music Group's Blu-ray/Hi-Res Initiative
To get the skinny on UMG's plans for Blu-ray and hi-res, I conducted two separate interviews with folks in the UK. The first, with Barry Holden, the extremely committed and highly articulate VP of Classical Catalogue at Universal Music, appears below. A second discussion with Joshua Phillips, High Fidelity Pure Audio Product Manager for UMG's pop catalog, and Olivier Robert-Murphy of the Pure Audio Association, will follow.
Barry Holden: The five Decca Classics audio-only [Pure Audio] Blu-ray titles we announced in February
Dvorák: Slavonic Dances, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer;
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.6, "Pathétique," Wiener Philharmoniker, Gergiev;
Mahler: Symphony No.8, "Symphony Of a Thousand," Wiener Staatsopernchor Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Georg Solti;
Mahler: Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection," Ileana Cotrubas, Christa Ludwig, Wiener Philharmoniker, Zubin Mehta; and
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, Janine Jansen
are the first of a much larger release schedule. We expect to get to 35 titles by the end of 2014.
Serinus: I assume you've tested the market, and you've found that people are eager for audio-only Blu-rays?
Holden: That's semi-true on our part. We've conducted a proper pilot study in France only; in all other markets, we are simply going for it. As you well knowthe law of Steve Jobs, I supposethere's only so much market research you can do with a product that is unfamiliar to the consumer.
We have taken some research soundings, as well as examining the desk research that's available to all of us, to tell us how many Blu-ray players there are in the world. Because of the numbers, we know we don't face the same hurdle that we did with SACD. We have our SACD numbers historically, so we have some evidence of what we were able to achieve. It wasn't really bad, despite Universal eventually walking away from the format. The numbers weren't terrible, but there came a time when it wasn't justifiable to re-press. So we're putting that data together with the greater hardware player base of the Blu-ray format, making an informed guess, and taking a bit of a risk. But it's alongside similar hi-res initiatives, such as the high-resolution digital downloads.
In a sense, this is an equivalent product to the hi-resolution digital download, which is a 24-bit product in stereo. There, we already have digital business partnersretailerssuch as HDTracks and the other two players in the states, the two in Japan, one in France, one in the UK, one in Poland, and two in Germany. In a sense, we're releasing the Blu-rays as the physical equivalent of downloads.
Serinus: What specifically did the pilot study in France tell you?
Holden: There is an audience for classical. Hi-res releases are less likely to work on solo artists such as Jonas Kaufmann and Rolando Villazón, and more likely to work on the great classic recordings of the past by Von Karajan, Kleiber's immortal Beethoven 5 and 7. Those are the albums that stood out in the French study. We learned what albums the market is interested in.
As a result, there won't be many solo vocal albums on Blu-ray. . .
Holden: Having said which, we have to keep an eye on the Asian market. They don't do choral, they don't do vocal, and they really don't do opera. Ever been to Japan and seen an opera?
Serinus: But way, way back in the "first" vinyl era, it was from Japan that you could the best pressings of the vocal releases in EMI's Great Recordings of the Century series.
Holden: Our Japanese company still leads the way in terms of audiophile products, but we want to give these releases the best chance in all markets. And Japan does instrumental far more than vocal.
Let me qualify that. I do intend, by the end of the year, to put out some full-length operas on Blu-ray. We just remastered the Pavarotti catalog in 24/96 in our newly acquired Abbey Road studios. We've got his great recordings with Karajan, and the great La Bohème, Turandot, and Madama Butterfly from the late 1960s and early 1970s.
I intend to put out hardback editions of those, with two CDs and the Blu-ray at 24-bit. One of the other things that's coming up for us from consumer and retailer surveys is that there are other ways of cutting this Blu-ray audio format than the way we've currently niched on. We want to use its length a little more creatively and imaginatively, and to partner it sometimes with CD so that people have both options.
Five years ago, we did a beautiful CD hardback edition of the Pavarotti/Freni/Karajan La Bohème, with integral libretto in a hardback. This will be another version of that with a Blu-ray included. They'll be jolly thick, and I'm already sweating over our manufacture price and what I'll have to charge to retailers. But that's the intention, and we hope to bring a number of those legendary Pavarotti operas out in the fourth quarter.
It's the "50 Years on Decca" this year, and we're throwing everything we can at Pavarotti to try and help the consumer remember what a fantastic core classical artist Luciano was.
Serinus: One of your first five Blu-ray releases, Janine Jansen's recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, has been available for a while as a 24/96 hi-res download from HDTracks. Do you plan to issue other titles as high-resolution downloads?
Holden: I want everything that's on Blu-ray to be at HDTracks. There will be bumps along that path, but not for long, I hope. However, not everything that gets to HDTracks will necessarily make it to Blu-ray. We'll just have to wait and see. We're absolutely committed to 24-bit, and to driving 24-bit where we can. (That has costs for us, of course.)
What I'm saying to Deutsche Grammophon and Decca is that our best chance of making back our investment is to at least make them all available at HDTracks and other retail partners as hi-res downloads, and on Blu-ray where we think it's right and justifiable. As to titles that will be released as both Blu-rays and downloads, there is no specific plan as to which version will appear first. I wouldn't be surprised if, one we work the kinks out, more came through download channels first, because it's actually a bit quicker and easier for us. The Pure Audio we have to author, create onscreen menus, and do other things that take time and require a bigger investment on our part.
Serinus: Why have you chosen PCM 96 rather than PCM 192 or DSD???
Holden: We had to get to a standard that we thought we have a better chance of achieving for as wide a range of titles as possible. The engineers on our side felt that 96 was the right and justifiable level to achieve. Of course, we do have some titles in 24/48 and 24/44.1. But by and large, we thought that 24/96 is the best possible quality we could achieve across the widest number of titles. There just weren't that many titles that we have at 192. So there had to be a line drawn in the sand where we said, realistically, we're not going to be able to reach that far at this point.
Serinus: I assume your releases will be drawn from either analog masters or recent digital recordings that originated in 24-bit.
Holden: Correct. We won't pull the wool over consumers' eyes, and won't be touching our early digital catalog. The Mehta Mahler, for example, is analog, and the Gergiev "Pathétique" late digital and 24-bit. I don't think it was higher than 96.
Two years ago, we told our labels not to record in anything less than 24/96. There will always be exceptions, especially when they've brought in a recording that did not originate with us. There will also be engineers who may record in DSD or at 192, but our minimum standard is 24/96.
Serinus: When do you expect to have the great Solti Mahler 8 at HDTracks?
Holden: It shouldn't be that long, given that it's now out in Blu-ray. But there are bumps along the way, because we are dealing with a digital supply chain at Universal Music Group that wasn't built initially for 24-bit. Thus, we're having to manually work around this obstacle until our digital supply chain is upgraded. While you and I might consider upgrading a priority, those guys over at the digital supply chain don't view it with quite the same urgency.
What's exciting to us is that, in contrast to our pop colleagues, the classical hi-resolution download element is far more significant, and has a bigger share of voice. We're always excited to see hi-resolution digital download retailers advance their cause. Nonetheless, the pop division is also having a go of it with hi-resolution material.
Serinus: I think the main issue facing people who download classical titles is the absence of sufficient and consistently organized metadata. People want to know the year something was recorded, the venue and recording engineer, etc. Currently, we classical music lovers are forced to type that stuff in manually. Many people who aren't retired, including myself, simply don't have the time.
Holden: I know. It's such a shame. We come from such different places than our pop brethren and the majority of the people who have designed the digital services we currently use. The lack of sufficient and consistently organized metadata is the bane of most classical collectors' lives. I don't have an easy solution, I'm afraid. [Note: At Linn's 40 Years of Linn event at Elite Audio Systems in San Francisco, the company announced that it is developing a new application for iPad and computer that will handle classical music metadata much better than anything currently available.]
I do know that we own that data, and are trying to make it available to consumers. Meanwhile, the wonderful DG online catalog is beautifully rich with data: who recorded it, where, when. Every detail under the sun that you and other consumers want to know exists, is beautifully maintained, and can be found at deutschegrammophon.com and deccaclassics.com.
Go to deutschegrammophon.com. Go into our catalog, the fourth item from the left on the top menu bar. Go down to album formats, and then choose the drop-down menu item, "Blu-ray audio." Let's see what comes up. Take Mehta's Mahler No.2. Click on it, then click on one of the movement tracks, and all the metadata will come up.
We've done our homework; we just can't find easy ways to share the data with everybody, and we can't always find partners who want to share it. But the producer is there, the recording producer, the balance engineer, the format, recording and release dates . . . everything.
I'm told there's some sort of open-source software being worked on to help our partners access that data, and some of the better ones are doing so. But the majority of retailers are pop-based. All they care about is the song title and how long it lasts. When you buy something through Apple, what do they call it? We call it a symphony, but they call it a "song."
Serinus: If people go to your site, they can find out what's coming out next on Blu-ray. I currently see 26 titles listed.
Holden: It's a beautiful site, and all the metadata you've ever dreamed of is actually there.
Serinus: When I go room-to-room covering audio shows and ask for classical vocal music, everyone who has any opera offers the same recording: Anna Netrebko's Sempre Libera. That's all they have, because it's available on HDTracks in 24/96. Without trying to beat a dead horse, as it were, let me ask if you know of any new opera titles coming out in Blu-ray and hi-res, other than the Pavarotti.
Holden: Judging from the album sales so far, the back catalog releases, which are my specialty, are going to be predominantly orchestral and concerto materialstuff that's going to work in the Asian markets as well as in the US and Europe. Nonetheless, some labels will do hi-res and Mastered for iTunes downloadsdownloads more so than Blu-ray audio releasesof front line [current] vocal releases.
Postcript: Having just conducted a search on HDTracks, I can confirm that, from the DG and Decca catalogs alone, Renée Fleming's recent album, Guilty Pleasures, which includes the most over-the-top, emotionally overwrought, preposterously arranged rendition of "Danny Boy" you are ever likely to hear; Jonas Kaufmann's award-winning Wagner recital, which was one of my Records-to-Die-For this year; Anna Netrebko's recent Verdi album; Rolando Villazón's recent Mozart concert arias album; and Yannick Nézet-Séguin's recording of Mozart's Così fan tutte are all available as hi-res downloads from HDTracks. There are also some brand new classical instrumental titles, the latest of which are Julia Fischer's Sarasate and Bryce Dessner: St. Carolyn By The Sea/Jonny Greenwood: Suite From "There Will Be Blood." And there are many more to come.
Thank you, Barry. Thank you as well to the dealers, distributors, and manufacturers who download these albums and add them to the list of titles available for audition at audio shows and retail outlets.