MusicGiants: "First Company to Offer High-Fidelity Downloads"

We Get Letters Department: Stereophile editor John Atkinson recently received the following email from Tony Fisch, the director of corporate development at MusicGiants: "MusicGiants (www.musicgiants.com) will be the first company to offer high-fidelity downloads from all record labels. MusicGiants uses Microsoft WMA 'lossless' codec (450kbps) to preserve 100% of the music. The result is music that sounds just like the artist intended. Finally, real music downloads up to 1100kbps. MusicGiants' downloads will be $1.29 per track, and $15.29 per album.

"I read a quote by Wes Phillips in Randy Stross's column in the NY Times last year. I want to get in touch with Wes so he can hear and use what we will be launching shortly. We agree with Wes, 128k is like an eight-track, and iPod and iTunes is buying a 21st century device to live in the '70s. I think that is actually kind."

When someone goes to the trouble to name-check me with a quote from the Times, it seems like the least I can do is get in touch, so last week I called Tony Fisch and Scott Bahneman, MusicGiant's CEO, and asked about the new service.

WP: How is MusicGiants different from other download companies?
Scott Bahneman: "We didn't just build player software, nor do we just have a music store, we have the only high-fidelity solution that combines the two. And we have a third element: we allow you to involve your own music collection as well.

"If you download music from commercial sites, you're mostly getting files compressed to 128kbps—although BuyMusic does have a limited number of files at 256kbps—but we're running between 470 and 1100kbps. Most of our material has been digitally remastered and runs right around 1000kbps or more. When you log onto our site, you can always check the data rate of the files with our [on-screen] fidelity meter that shows you the bit rate of whatever you are listening to.

"If you're listening to a home stereo, as opposed to a portable player with earbuds, that can make a substantial difference."

WP: The portable field is pretty much dominated by the iPod. Is MusicGiants iPod compatible?
SB: "No. Well, maybe it is, but you'd have to ask iTunes how compatible it is with the DRM for WMA. The last thing we're trying to do is get ourselves involved in the portable music market, which is obviously where the iPod and iTunes are entrenched. What we're doing is designed to be high-performance–audio based, so we're effectively selling the premium fuel for high-performance audio, we're not spending a lot of time on the portable market."

Tony Fisch: "Well, we do spend time listening to portable players."

SB: "Sure, you have some neat stuff from Creative, Samsung, Olympus that will play a lossless file. [As will the iPod, using Apple's proprietary lossless AAC format—Ed.]. Last summer, I used a Creative player on my boat all summer long. That was a really easy way to take 20 gigs of lossless music along and plug it into a high-quality stereo. Not only did it sound better, but unlike CDs, it had lot fewer skipping issues."

WP: But the iPod is the giant in the portable field.
SB: "When it comes to mobile music, the iPod has a commanding lead, but our typical customer isn't in the 14–24 age category—we're after customers in a more mature bracket. We're looking at consumers who enjoy their music on a high-fidelity system."

TF: "Apple has sold in excess of 10 million units of iPod, and they've sold approximately $29.66 of music per iPod, so that device has been used for something other than just buying iTunes music."

SB: "As long as Apple is convinced that it needs to stay in that closed environment, people are going to be frustrated trying to use it that way. But, if history repeats itself, somewhere along the line, there will be more interoperability, and the people who choose to stay closed to the rest of the world usually get passed by.

"We are the only company right now that is licensed by all of the majors for lossless downloads. Everyone else is focused on quantity and we are focused on quality. We are much more focused on home audio; we are the only source for full-resolution downloads, and most of our customers are not being drawn up in the music being driven by that 14–24-year-old group."

WP: So who do you see as your customer?
SB: "Our customer is definitely the person who has made an investment in home and car audio and who is not interested in listening to music that has all the fidelity of an eight-track tape through equipment that was designed to play back high-resolution recordings. Today, a tremendous number of people have quite a lot invested in their audio systems—and I'm not just talking about audiophiles who have tubes in their amplifiers, I'm talking about people like you and me, who have nice stereos and just are not going to be satisfied listening to compressed music. These aren't necessarily the guys who are still spinning records trying to get that rich sound out of vinyl. Our interest is in continuing to push the high end of this envelope and move on into 5.1 surround and 24-bit stuff at a real high frequency rate that begins to rival the sound that you would get out of vinyl. What you're seeing today is the highest fidelity available, and I can tell you that as we move forward, it will just get better."

WP: Why would the musicgiant.com customer be drawn to your website as opposed to buying the Red Book CD online or from a store?
SB: "Basically, because of convenience, which is what is driving digital music in general. People have been buying digital music for almost 20 years, but it has been held hostage on a piece of plastic. There's no question that part of what makes digital music players interesting and exciting to people is the ability to not have to deal with the physical limitations of, for instance, a six-disc CD changer in the trunk of your car. We're not that far away from people driving around with a terabyte of storage in their cars and having CD cover art popping up on their GPS screen. That's the sort of thing that's coming down the road, but we try to stay focused on here-and-now solutions, and downloadable high-fidelity music is here and now. It will play through people's home stereos today."

WP: What music is available on MusicGiants?
SB: "We have signed deals with all five of the majors and are in varying degrees of moving that over to production servers. We've ingested most of it, but we have to DRM it. That will happen in the coming weeks. What we have available on the site right now is the music from EMI—we have a heavy emphasis on classical and jazz. Obviously, we'll have popular, but our audience is older and more mature."

TF: "Symphonic music is very under-served in the downloadable music market."

SB: "Our music interface lets you browse by artist, which is great for classical, jazz, and pop, but it also allows you to browse by composer as well. We spent extra time making sure we could serve that market because that's who our customer is."

WP: If you have EMI, does that mean you have the Beatles' catalog? That's the acid test for a lot of listeners, based on our mail.
SB: "EMI does the physical distribution for the Beatles, but the Beatles have not, as far as I'm aware, released any digital music yet. I'd love to say yes, but we're in the same boat as everyone else. Who knows what will tip the scales? I suspect someone is going to have to write a very big check for an exclusive deal."

WP: What else should people know about MusicGiants?
SB: "What it all boils down to is that we're the only source for high-definition music downloads. The rest of it is, we think, a well thought-through, elegant solution that more-mature music consumers are going to find they are not going to live without once they've had it.

"We don't have pop-up ads, we don't try to convince you that you need to buy a particular artist. [Our interface] is designed to be elegant on a plasma screen in someone's living room. We try to make it easy to create playlists and we use English—instead of saying 'rip and burn,' we say 'copy from CD' and "make a CD" because we do have a more mature audience. If I asked my mom to rip and burn some music, she'd wonder what I was talking about.

"We don't use a Windows navigation tree—if you want to do something, all you have to do is click on the button and the software does the work for you.

"The fidelity meter is designed to tell you what the fidelity of the music is even if you can't hear it—you might be listening on earbuds or some fairly low-quality computer speakers hooked to your computer instead of being connected to your stereo.

"We also have a feature on the customer interface that not only shows you the music that you own, it shows you the music you could own."

WP: How does it do that?
SB: "We have small MusicGiants icons on the screen. If you see one in dark black, that means you own the whole album and you own it in high fidelity; if you see it in light grey, it means you either don't own the whole album or you own it in low fidelity—read: perhaps these were stolen off the Internet.

"Our interface can tell you how many tracks you need to complete your collection and how much money it will cost you. The neat part is that you have the ability to complete your collection without having to re-buy what you already own—and anything that might have been, let's say, 'acquired' through the Internet at no charge, you have the ability to come clean here. If you click the 'Go' button, it's going to complete your collection in high fidelity and purchase any music that you may have been—we'll just say that you're 'borrowing' it. We won't say people are stealing it, but say that it's a P2P track you acquired without the artist getting paid—at this stage, not only do you get it in high fidelity, but the artist gets paid as well. [This interface] is a really neat way for you to dynamically view the emerging of your investment in music and what you could invest in. None of the other services offers that. If you're not careful with a lot of services like iTunes, you're going to end up re-buying things you already own."

WP: How does MusicGiants recognize what music you already have?
SB: "When you fire up the network, it will actually go in and grab all the music you've already pulled up through your Windows Media Audio 9 or 10 and it will synch up with all of the WMA or MP3 files you have and draw them into the player."

MusicGiants is currently in preview mode ("That's French for Beta," said Bahneman). The company predicts that the catalogs of all five major labels will be available by mid-June. MusicGiants necessitates "a computer running Microsoft Windows XP, a minimum of 40MB of hard-drive space, and a high-speed Internet connection." Other requirements include "a love of high-fidelity music [and] a credit card to pay the $50 annual fee (waived with $250 worth of annual music purchases)."

[We shall see precisely what MusicGiants is offering when their download service emerges from preview. But their announcement raises several issues that we will address in the June issue of the Stereophile enewsletter.—Ed.]

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