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Format Wars: The End Of Recorded History?
Article by Clark Johnsen



  Within the last issue (of Positive Feedback) I undertook a lengthy rumination on Napster and the like. It got left "To be continued" because I was unable to digest the vast amount of recent information and merge it into my own thinking before deadline. Meanwhile, much of what I wanted to say has appeared elsewhere, so I'll cut right to the scene before the chase.

"Way back in 1998 (Positive Feedback Vol.7, #4) I boldly asserted that, as a long-term item, DVD is dead. That was because DVD cannot (even nearly) contain HDTV. "DVD has become a foundling, a mere interim format. Unload it on the home-theater suckers, to replace their laserdiscs and tapes, then switch 'em to something fully widescreen, high-def and digital, that's the plan."

Prescient words, those, if I may say, and they echo my epochal 1988 entry in Fanfare: "And there is the tragedy of digital audio. Its framers were unaware of how well early LPs sound on modern players, so they chose their numbers carelessly, and moreover hitched masters, players and discs alike onto the foot of a rapidly rising technology curve. Just wait; everyone will discover the error of their ways and make amends. And soon we shall have CD MK.II (already in the prototype lab) and CD MK.III (already on the drawing board), then phoneline CTS (CompuTeleSonics)."



Hey, was that good? I predicted DVD-Audio and SACD and MP3, failing only to imagine wireless Net and Napster.

But none of it really is about sound. As explained, we do not yet know the contents of our CDs, nor of our LPs; we don't even know old 78s yet! But here we go again, salivating over all-new formats, urged on by the recording industry and its lapdog press. oh, how they rub their hands in glee over that feat, knowing full well that the justification for new formats is not better sound (or image) per se, but that we should all be made to purchase up-to-date replacement collections.

Induced anxiety and contrived rivalry are nothing new on this front: Records would kill sheet music, radio would kill records, video would kill the radio stars, 33s would kill 45s, home taping would kill music, VCRs would shutter movie theaters. Funny thing, all those concerns are now in business together. Contemplation of that fact led me one night to this glittering realization:


Format Wars Are Phony Wars
Yes! Look at that word, "phony". In Britain and the United States both, it means not: As in, not really, just sounds like. i.e. phony.

The Phony War, they called it, Over There in the European theatre during World War II. (At least, until 1942...)

Oh, the groundwork has been ever so skillfully laid once again; as said, DVD contains insufficient bandwidth for HDTV, the (government-mandated) video medium of the future (perhaps). Therefore a new type of disc, or something, will be required to handle High-Def. Or something... maybe, not a disc? Over the decades the music and movie people have become wedded to a business model that demands they sell artifacts, not art. Now it seems, all that may change.

Napster caught the whole recording industry napping.



In reality that designation is a misnomer; the industry does practically no recording themselves nowadays, they merely manufacture and distribute and market. Twenty years ago, CDs hit them as a windfall, cheaper to make than LPs yet commanding twice the price. Today, digital is giving them an amazing headache. Pity; if the recording industry had just stuck with vinyl, they never would have had the Napster problem!

So now we tentatively approach The End of Recorded History as we have known it. Because what if, what if -- and this will not be pleasant news -- Napster (or the like) and its adversaries should reach one of those "mutual accords" on how music shall be delivered over the Net, to all parties' keen satisfaction. And then, it takes off! And the industry finds itself making more money than ever! Hah! Soon, with Net technology earning the major market share, companies will start rethinking this bothersome business of manufacturing and distributing shiny discs which most people, face it, play intensely for a time, then hardly ever again. Wouldn't it make much more sense -- given the perishability associated with most pop music's sell-by dates -- to accomplish these exchanges entirely and exclusively electronically?

No more of those nasty tight-shrink-wrapped packages!



To make matters worse, codecs are being developed to eliminate even the one-time copy provision permitted (but not required) under law.* So ultimately it will happen, that every time you listen, it shows up on your Visa.

This truly scary scenario is due to arrive by 2008, by which time everyone shall have acquired a distinct taste for (and skills at) wireless delivery. Look: Despite all the legal wrangling, the real attraction of Napster is not that it make product free, but available on demand. No parking, no checkout lines, just sit down at home -- a scheme perfectly tooled to this generation's version of instant gratification.

Completion of that plan would mean that most CD plants (given their reliance on pop program) would close, causing the last vestiges of alternative music to disappear, including such minor-league material as classical music, jazz and folk -- along with grand recording systems like DSD, for which quality the downloading technology will have no use. With 95% of buyers tickled pink by MP3, who needs anything more?

And who needs retailers in the future either, those leeches.


The Towers Come Tumbling Down!
One physical format shall survive, however, to bring discriminating listeners uncompressed, high-quality sound. Yes.


Vinyl Outlives CD!
Call me a futurist, or an ironist, if you will, but still, always watch out what you wish for. It might happen!

Oh, just one more thing...

While I have predicted the effective demise of the CD and the DVD, what if several years hence there were a disc capable of holding, say, 400 times the information currently possible? Wouldn't that alter circumstances? Oh, but surely that couldn't happen!

Perhaps a visit to Constellation 3D of Concord, Massachusetts, is in order. (Hey! That's in my neighborhood!) There, according to New Scientist. they are developing the FMVD (Fluorescent Multilayer Video Disc), able to hold (get this!) 1000 gigabytes -- in industry parlance, one terabyte. Call it, the whole Titanic in High-Def with the best sound quality Mark Levinson could think up, times twenty.

That might change things.

Napster himself, caught napping!



*Note:  "The End of Recorded History?" The deep-background URL I referred to is available at this link.













































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