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MQA looks bad for music. Let me explain.
2017-01-10, 15:22 (This post was last modified: 2017-01-11 17:09 by Jim Collinson.)
Post: #1
MQA looks bad for music. Let me explain.
After making a few short posts expressing my feeling that MQA will bad for music, I thought I should expand on my thinking a little.

I’m not going to attempt to delve into the technical side of the format, or whether it has any merits from an audio performance point of view. There are plenty of people at Linn far more qualified than me to report on MQA’s questionable claims. If you are here just for the technical insight, you might not want to read any further, but please do just give me a few moments of your time…

Why MQA looks bad for music

This isn’t an official Linn company position, just my opinion, so please take it as that. It’s an informed opinion though, from my experience as an artist, manager, label owner, from negotiating download service agreements with distributors, indies and major labels as well as helping market Linn’s products and technology too.

From the off, it’s worth noting that MQA appears, at it’s heart, to be a major label venture: a collaboration between Warner and hi-fi manufacturer Meridian. They are also seeking buy-in and investment from all the other majors, large indies and conglomerates.

The majors hold what they see as the crown jewels of music; they own some of the all-time great recordings and have extensive rights to a huge catalogue. They can, and do, use this as leverage over emerging music service providers and vendors, knowing the power of content ubiquity and how vital a comprehensive catalogue is to a new service or technology gaining traction and being successful.

The rights they hold provide diminishing returns—the long-tail is shorter than expected by their share holders—so it is requirement that they leverage these recordings as effectively as possible, and sell them to us again and again. There is, of course, value to the listener in buying a studio master quality version of an album but once they own it, that’s it, the revenue stream ends.

But as the landscape of content consumption changes from a commodity and ownership model, to one of utility and renting access—streaming—they know the balance of control over revenue streams is in flux, and gaining control over it is vital. Observe the power that video streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon wield over film studios (even becoming content producers themselves, cutting studios out entirely) and you’ll understand why how appealing control over the entire supply chain would seem.

A supply chain monopoly

MQA is an attempt to not simply sell the same content again at a higher margin, or to maintain audio quality in streaming ecosystems: it is an outright land grab. It’s an attempt to control and extract revenue from every part of the supply chain, and not just over content that they hold the rights for. It really is quite extraordinary. Let’s break it down:
  • Manufacturers of recording equipment will have to license the technology and adapt their products. MQA gets paid.
  • Developers of recording software systems will require certified software plug-ins. MQA gets paid.
  • Recording and Mastering engineers must purchase and use certified equipment and software. MQA gets paid.
  • Artists must use studios and engineers utilising certified equipment and new workflows; or even pay to have their back catalogue ‘remastered’ in MQA. The costs of this, of course, are borne by the artist, either directly, or recouped from royalties.
  • Digital distributors will have to license MQA and purchase/lease a ‘Hyper-Security Module’ to encrypt/encode/watermark files ready for delivery to download services. MQA gets paid.
  • Download and Streaming service providers will have to agree to commercial terms and become partners from which MQA gets paid.
  • Physical media manufacturers can use MQA to author on to CD and DVD, presumably there will be licensing agreement required for this too. MQA gets paid.
  • Hi-fi manufacturers—software developers of players—will have to adapt their products and license the technology. MQA gets paid.
  • End customers, having paid a premium for MQA music via licensed content providers, will also have to buy MQA certified players at increased cost, with a license paid for each unit shipped. MQA gets paid.


No DRM? Not so fast.

It’s interesting to see that it’s a key selling point of MQA that there is no Digital Rights Management (DRM) involved. They know that consumers hate copy protection, and it would be a non-starter it include it. But to say there is no DRM isn’t strictly true, it’s simply a matter of perspective… there is a form of fingerprinting in the file that will check that at each stage of the production and distribution process MQA has been paid. 

Now, ostensibly, this is a quality assurance check for the customer: if the little MQA light comes on, then I know that this file is the real deal. When in reality this is actually a quite masterful way of painting every other recording as inferior—when exactly the opposite may be the case—unless they are produced, distributed, downloaded and played via their approved supply chain. I could be playing a 24-bit 192kHz file straight from the studio, delivered to me in person by the artist herself and yet I am left with the feeling that this file is illegitimate; I’m not greeted by the warming glow of the MQA branding.

It also doesn’t require to much imagination to envisage a situation where, in the name of thwarting piracy, music players will only play MQA streams. Or perhaps they’ll insert ads before non-MQA content. None of this is proposed by the company, and in fact we are assured that they have no plans to do this. Perhaps we should give them the benefit of the doubt? But once the supply chain is dominated, the technology certainly gives them a way to achieve it, and shareholders want returns.

The worst kind of middleman

The music industry is built on middlemen. The manager, label, publisher, distributor, aggregator, streaming provider, the hi-fi manufacturer; they all stand between the artist and you. That’s not to say these organisations don’t provide valuable services: producing, marketing, and reproducing music is hard and financially risky. I’ve got no problems with people making a living from it: I’m one of those people too of course.

But with the MQA approach, we have the worst kind of middleman: solving a problem that has already been, or could be, solved by free and open alternatives, and yet expecting—no, demanding—to be paid again and again for contributing nothing of value. This is rentier capitalism, serving only to suck money out of the system, and stifling creativity in the process. It’s detrimental to society.

Stifling creativity

The people who will suffer from this are the at either ends of the chain: you and the artist.

For you, you’ll pay a higher price for the same music, and you’ll pay more for your hi-fi system too. And even if you don’t buy into MQA, everyone will get less innovation, creativity and poorer music as a result.

For the artist the additional production costs will be recouped from royalties, and the increased supply chain costs will mean smaller royalties in the first place.

The end result of higher production and distribution costs is also reduced investment in new music, and increased focus back on old and proven catalogue or a concentration of resources on a smaller pool of artists. It’s the majors aiming to get paid for old-rope, rather than being rewarded for risks on new music. It acts as a throttle on creative risk taking.

In addition, by monopolising the supply chain, it aims to cut out indie labels and self-producing/releasing artists—or at the very least it demands a tax on their creativity. A self-producing artist, or small project recording studio, now has to work through a larger MQA equipped mastering studio and bear the costs and constraints. Oh, and artists that serve music direct to fans via their own website or direct at gigs? Well, they’re cut out too: the piper has to be paid.


There's still hope

It does sound bleak doesn’t it? However I’m still hopeful. We’ve been here before. There was a time when we fretted that Apple Lossless format would doom us to vendor lock-in, but in due time it was opened up. And there was the perhaps more comparable SACD format, which had a similarly onerous supply chain requirements, which struggled and died.

In the end I’m confident that the free, readily available, high quality, open-source alternatives will win out. Lock down, centralisation and profiteering has a tendency towards failure.

Jim
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2017-01-10, 15:26
Post: #2
RE: MQA looks bad for music. Let me explain.
Well thought out, articulate post.

Thank you.

A very interesting read.

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2017-01-10, 15:33
Post: #3
RE: MQA looks bad for music. Let me explain.
(2017-01-10 15:26)Paulssurround Wrote:  Well thought out, articulate post.

Thank you.

A very interesting read.

+1. Concisely explained and well argued. Thanks Jim.

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2017-01-10, 15:51
Post: #4
RE: MQA looks bad for music. Let me explain.
Thank you Jim, would you mind making this one of the special sticky topics?

As we see people trying to restart the MQA discussion over and over again because they read somewhere that it is heaven on earth, it would be a lot easier to point them to your post.
I cannot imagine that anyone on this forum would prefer Linn to implement any technique that would potentially harm artists or smaller labels (*) but they might act like that when being uninformed.


*) Last year, a few days after the Brexit poll I met an elderly Scottish couple in France who told me that just the day before they met a British couple, living in France, who voted for a Brexit. That British couple will probably have changed their view now their pension is down by 10-15%.
Yesterday by accident I came across this text: http://uberhumor.com/man-celebrating-vot...-obamacare
Being uninformed will cause people to gnaw off their legs even when there is no bear trap around.
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2017-01-10, 16:36
Post: #5
RE: MQA looks bad for music. Let me explain.
Jim, top post and I am so pleased you have taken the time to articulate the issues so clearly and clinically.
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2017-01-10, 16:40
Post: #6
RE: MQA looks bad for music. Let me explain.
+1 for a sticky.

Thank goodness for the "Mystery Machine"

I can almost hear the MQA guy saying "And I would've gotten away with it too if it weren't for those darn, pesky kids"

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2017-01-10, 16:52 (This post was last modified: 2017-01-10 16:53 by at021971.)
Post: #7
RE: MQA looks bad for music. Let me explain.
Well said Jim and is very much in line with the thoughts that came up to my mind when I was thinking about MQA and the impact it might have on the distribution of music.

MQA does not provide anything that we as a consumer don't have already today but on the long run it is a viable risk to the freedom we experience today.

MQA will most probably not have an immediate negative effect on the way we access music today as they first have to gain a certain grade of traction on the market. But it might have in the future. And then it might be too late to revert back to good old times.

Thomas

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2017-01-10, 16:56
Post: #8
RE: MQA looks bad for music. Let me explain.
(2017-01-10 15:51)Tin Wrote:  Thank you Jim, would you mind making this one of the special sticky topics?

As we see people trying to restart the MQA discussion over and over again because they read somewhere that it is heaven on earth, it would be a lot easier to point them to your post.
I cannot imagine that anyone on this forum would prefer Linn to implement any technique that would potentially harm artists or smaller labels (*) but they might act like that when being uninformed.


*) Last year, a few days after the Brexit poll I met an elderly Scottish couple in France who told me that just the day before they met a British couple, living in France, who voted for a Brexit. That British couple will probably have changed their view now their pension is down by 10-15%.
Yesterday by accident I came across this text: http://uberhumor.com/man-celebrating-vot...-obamacare
Being uninformed will cause people to gnaw off their legs even when there is no bear trap around.

Nothing more dangerous than the ill-informed and ignorant hey Tin. Another example from next week's radio times:
Robin Ince (him off The Infinite Monkey Cage)

Quote: Even when I explained [Schrodinger's famous thought experiment involving a dead/alive cat, after it being thought it involved a real dead cat], I received further fury from one man: "So foreign scientists are paid millions to think about dead cats. Typical of the EU"

Says it all really.

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2017-01-10, 18:15 (This post was last modified: 2017-01-10 18:20 by DavidHB.)
Post: #9
RE: MQA looks bad for music. Let me explain.
I have to agree with those who have praised Jim's post. It is a seriously cogent analysis of the issues surrounding MQA. I haven't enough independent knowledge to take a view as to whether the facts of the case are as stated. The internal logic of the post seems to me, however, to be unarguable.

So the next question following Jim's post would seem to be this. If the revenues from MQA, creating a cost which would ultimately be borne by the consumer, are as stated by Jim, is there anyone out there who is prepared to say what benefit the consumer is supposed to gain by incurring that cost? If I understand Jim's argument correctly, it is that there is in fact no such benefit, and that MQA is in effect an attempt to use monopoly power to manipulate the product price to the detriment of the end user. It may or may not be DRM, but, on Jim's analysis, the attempt is intended to have the same result.

And it's a rum old world in which a light on a machine, rather than your own ears, is supposed to be the arbiter as to whether the music you are playing sounds right or not. Unless, as Jim says, that's just a stepping stone to licensed players that will only play licensed content. Now that would be DRM.

David

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2017-01-10, 18:29
Post: #10
RE: MQA looks bad for music. Let me explain.
(2017-01-10 18:15)DavidHB Wrote:  I have to agree with those who have praised Jim's post. It is a seriously cogent analysis of the issues surrounding MQA. I haven't enough independent knowledge to take a view as to whether the facts of the case are as stated. The internal logic of the post seems to me, however, to be unarguable.

So the next question following Jim's post would seem to be this. If the revenues from MQA, creating a cost which would ultimately be borne by the consumer, are as stated by Jim, is there anyone out there who is prepared to say what benefit the consumer is supposed to gain by incurring that cost? If I understand Jim's argument correctly, it is that there is in fact no such benefit, and that MQA is in effect an attempt to use monopoly power to manipulate the product price to the detriment of the end user. It may or may not be DRM, but, on Jim's analysis, the attempt is intended to have the same result.

And it's a rum old world in which a light on a machine, rather than your own ears, is supposed to be the arbiter as to whether the music you are playing sounds right or not. Unless, as Jim says, that's just a stepping stone to licensed players that will only play licensed content. Now that would be DRM.

David

Consumer benefit 'might' be realised if you invested in MQA/Meridian/Warner etc. but right now that might be quite a gamble Big Grin

You would hope the music and audiophile press that should understand this in it's entirety would be highlighting the issues. I suspect it's easier for them to instead applaud a new technology and make ra, ra ra noises.
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