The Digital Genie's Out of the Bottle

In early 2000, the British magazine The Economist published a lead editorial addressing America Online's acquisition of media giant Time Warner. In the editors' view, TW was a clunky, old-style media company that needed a fresh injection of dot-com blood to help them reach a more narrowly targeted audience. "Sex, shopping and violence," the editors wrote, echoing Internet visionary George Gilder, "...are what people have in common. What differentiates them is their enthusiasm for folk music, tropical fish, or Viennese waltzes."

The Economist's editors were making a pitch for an approach to media dissemination known as narrowcasting, an alternative to broadcasting in which highly focused media content is delivered to an audience of passionate fans—Viennese waltzes on demand, if that's your particular fetish, or tropical fish. It's an idea with obvious appeal to audiophiles, whose lives can be dominated, if not by fish or dances, then by similarly idiosyncratic pursuits.

Writing at what in retrospect seems to have been the climax of the dot-com boom, The Economist viewed the AOL-Time Warner deal as a major step into a narrowcasting future in which TW's vast content would be channeled through AOL's narrow, personalizable dissemination channels, to form a new kind of media conglomerate. Exactly how this would all work remained to be seen.

Narrowcasting was born, in a rudimentary form, when cable TV first offered consumers an alternative to the three major networks, and it gained traction in the 1990s. Yet the idea behind narrowcasting has been around for a long time—almost as long as there have been magazines. Indeed, Stereophile's parent company, Primedia Enthusiast Media, is a successful narrowcaster, publishing a group of magazines that target relatively small numbers of highly passionate hobbyists and consumers, and the advertisers who seek them out. Publications such as Stereophile, Lowrider Art, and Walleye Insider don't expect to reach as many readers as Time and other mainstream publications. The key to the business is depth, not breadth. It's not the number of readers but the intensity of their interest in a narrow subject that makes such specialized publications viable.

George Gilder's insight was that narrowcasting, when it works, doesn't have to appeal to the least common denominator, which mainstream mass media inevitably does. In principle, narrowcasting can get beyond the sex, violence, and cheap voyeuristic thrills of TV reality shows and appeal to people's better interests. It's an obvious fit for an avocation with such fetishes as low-power single-ended triode amps, high-efficiency single-driver loudspeakers—even, occasionally, Viennese waltzes. The key to making it work is to give readers what they want, in abundance.

Strictly speaking, narrowcasting refers to the delivery of information and entertainment, yet there are parallels in the delivery of goods. The high-fidelity audio hardware industry is a good example. The industry is small but audiophile consumers are rabid, and they have more money to spend than the average consumer, which keeps things relatively healthy. Audio hardware companies may come and go, but there always seems to be at least one small, narrowly targeted manufacturer ready to serve just about any audio hardware fetish you could name.

It's been written so often that it's become a cliché: We enjoy our hardware, but ultimately it's the music that this hobby is about. That's where the narrowcasting model runs into problems. Because we don't all have a taste for Viennese waltzes, we need access to a wide range of music. And because we care about how it sounds, it needs to be well recorded and stored in a high-resolution—or at least a highly listenable—format.

When it comes to providing access to a wide range of music, the music album looks like a nearly perfect medium for narrowcasting, whatever the format. A decent store can stock many thousands of titles in many different genres. If you can't find it locally, you can usually find a title on the Internet, even if it's out of print.

Yet the recording industry needs a standard format, and this is where the trouble starts for audio and narrowcasting. Audiophiles constitute a small, dim blip on the music market's radar screen; if we want affordable media and a wide selection, our format of choice will also have to be chosen by the masses. We won't get a better-sounding format supporting a wide range of music until one comes along that offers better value to people who do most of their listening via $69 DVD players, car stereo systems, or Apple iPods, or computer hard disks, cheap headphones, and bad computer speakers.

Pay special attention to those last two items. Hard drives and iPods are loved by audiophiles and mainstream music lovers alike. Ripping, burning, and party mixing are deeply ingrained in the musical lives of the most voracious and economically important music consumers. For audiophiles, hard-disk music servers offer technical and convenience advantages over other digital storage media. As for iPods, both groups love them because they're versatile, usable, and just plain cool. And none of these things will work if, as with SACD, you can't get the digital data off the disc.

Whatever the bit depth, sample rate, or packaging, in-the-clear digital output is key to the future of any new music-storage medium. When sound quality doesn't matter—and CD is just fine for most of the MP3 crowd—why should they give up the tried, the true, and the rippable? Even when sound quality does matter, with CD sound having reached such a high level recently and still improving daily, why should any of us give up data portability? We'll give it up when we're not asked to sacrifice a large part of the versatility and functionality we've come to expect.

It's hard to imagine a future for hi-rez audio that doesn't involve hard disks, iPods, and outboard DACs. So digital output is a must. The future of audio lies in broadening, not narrowing, consumer choice. The digital genie's out of the bottle, and there's no way to get it back in again.