Speed Limits & the Music Biz

"Bugger!" A Pennsylvania state trooper had stepped out from behind the overpass on the Turnpike and was aiming his radar gun straight at me. I reflexively jammed on the anchors, which was a) pointless and b) downright dangerous, considering I was in the middle of a phalanx of cars and trucks all cruising 5-10mph over the speed limit. But what can you do?

I was driving home from Indianapolis, where I'd had an intense three days at Expo 2004, the trade show promoted by the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA). The 12-hour car trip allows for a more effective decompression than a three-hour, two-stop flight on a cramped Regional Jet; plus, it gave me a reason to take my 1984 Mercedes coupe on one last road trip before winter set in. I love the swoop up from Columbus into the hills of eastern Ohio to the Ohio River crossing at Wheeling, West Virginia, the passage through the Allegheny Mountains, then the drop down to the Susquehanna River at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The freeway's long, sweeping curves and inclines, the tunnels through the hills and the bridges over the great rivers, all make for an enjoyable high-speed drive, even if CEDIA's early September date is too early for the trees to be seen in their autumnal tresses.

I needed to decompress. Ostensibly aimed at the custom installation industry, CEDIA, as everyone refers to it, has become an increasingly important showcase for new audio components. Expo 2004 was the largest in the organization's 15-year history, with an estimated attendance of 24,500 dealers, manufacturers, and press. The show floors of the Indiana Convention Center and the neighboring RCA Dome were crammed full of booths, many of them lavish, from approximately 550 exhibitors. While the Expo is not anywhere near as diverse or as geographically sprawling as the CEA's annual Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, both work to the former's advantage, as far as this reporter is concerned.

For obvious reasons, video and home theater gear took center stage at the CEDIA Expo 2004, but there was plenty of audio and two-channel gear on display—Michael Fremer will be reporting on the Expo in the December Stereophile. Of course, other than some lavishly outfitted home theaters, the displays at CEDIA are mainly silent. This may be optimal for doing business, but it leaves the audio journalist jonesing for music by the end of the day.

So I played hooky the final morning of the Expo. I took the shuttle bus over to The Home Entertainment Show, which was outboarding a few blocks away in a downtown office complex. Mike Maloney's THE Show has been a regular feature accompanying CES the past few years, but other than a lower price, it has not appeared to me to offer audio exhibitors anything different from the official CES audio venue at the Alexis Park Resort. It was different in Indianapolis; 10 or so audio companies had set up systems in fair-sized conference rooms, and while each room had a video display, the emphasis was on music. Whether it was the room shared by Vandersteen and Audio Research, that of Cabasse and Bel Canto, or the one featuring Magnepan and Conrad-Johnson gear, the systems were not being demmed with the booms and bangs of action movies but with live concert DVDs—such as the Concert for George Harrison (Warner 970241-2), the 2002 David Gilmour gig at London's Royal Festival Hall (Capitol 92960 9), Eric Clapton Live in Hyde Park (Reprise 38485-2), and that old favorite of mine, Diana Krall's Live in Paris (Eagle Eye Media EE 19012).

In this issue's "Industry Update" (p.15), Jon Iverson writes about the relaunch of DVD-Audio as DualDisc; "Letters" (pp.11-12) features some discussion both of DualDisc and of the supposed format war between SACD and DVD-A; while Kal Rubinson auditions the new SACD rereleases of the classic RCA Living Stereo recordings on p.59. But as I sat back in those nicely set-up and nice-sounding rooms at THE Show, the thought struck me that the live concert DVD-V is the true successor to the CD, particularly if it has a two-channel linear PCM soundtrack.

This month celebrates the fifth anniversary of SACD's US launch. Yet once you eliminate the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan hybrid discs, which are not being bought as SACDs per se, sales of either SACD or DVD-A hardly register on the music industry's balance sheets. Yes, I do feel that SACD's DSD encoding and DVD-A's 24-bit/96kHz LPCM encoding both offer better sound quality than CD. But better sound in itself may well not be enough to tip these new media into mass-market acceptance. It's the quality of the overall experience that counts, and I am coming to believe that the image accompanying a live concert recording adds more to the experience than having sound come from behind the listener.

This month also celebrates the 22nd anniversary of the Japanese launch of the CD medium, which is coming under increasing attack not only from music downloads but from the music industry's and Congress's increasing efforts to restrict access to the in-the-clear bits. (Read the small print in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the proposed Inducing Infringements of Copyright Act.) Even Microsoft is getting involved in the rush to package recorded music in a rights-management wrapper.

Putting to one side the fact that the commercial success of Compact Disc was due in part to the open-source nature of the data, I am dismayed by this move away from a model in which customers bought the medium and the data on it and could do what they liked with it in the privacy of their homes, to one in which they, in effect, lease the data for a limited set of strictly defined uses. But what can you expect from an industry that believes that taking legal action against people who might well turn out to be its best long-term customers is a viable business strategy?

Consider the speed limit on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Certainly it would be possible to ticket everyone who drives above 65mph, although the extra costs of policing would probably cost more than the extra revenue. However, if the goal of a speed limit is to keep 90% of the traffic moving at a speed that is safe for the road conditions, you don't need to ticket everyone, just those statistical outliers who abuse the system. In a similar manner, the music industry should focus on making it easier for its customers to stay within or close to the law, and instead concentrate its legal efforts on the commercial pirates who cost it real money.