Opinion: It’s time for Apple to start offering lossless music formats on iTunes

Music has been part of Apple’s soul since the launch of the iPod almost 16 years ago. Launched with the slogan ‘a thousand songs in your pocket,’ it’s no exaggeration to say that the device transformed the way we listen to music. It also transformed Apple into a major mobile device manufacturer, and laid the ground work for the iPhone.

Fast-forward to today, and Apple still places a huge emphasis on music. Its largest ever acquisition was the $3B it paid to buy Beats in 2014. The Beats Music service became Apple Music, a streaming service which has grown to30M paid subscribers.

Apple’s move into exclusivevideo content also has astrong emphasis onmusic documentaries.

But there’s still one odd omission from the company’s music offerings …

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Lossless audio downloads from iTunes.

Sure, you can rip CDs into lossless formats, and that’s the solution most audiophiles adopt when they want to have their music collection available in iTunes, but the last MacBook with an optical drive was the non-Retina MacBook Pro, last updated in 2012. Apple discontinued sales of the15-inch in 2013, and the13-inch last year. You can still buy an external drive, but Apple’s view is clearly that this is outdated tech. If we buy music at all – rather than stream it – Apple wants us to download it.

Lossless audio of course involves large file sizes, which was a good reason not to do it back in the early days of iTunes when we were all on slow connections. But that’s not a good argument against it today.

Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) typically gets an album down to around 400MB, and that’s not an unreasonable amount of data to download on the kind of broadband connections many of us have today. Given that we’re not downloading albums every day, I’d say that’s eminently viable.

And I think everyone would benefit from the option: consumers, music labels, musicians and Apple.

Consumers

Lossless file formats are the only way we can enjoy music at its full quality. Now, you can argue that the AAC 256Kbps format currently used by iTunes is very good, and I’ll agree with you. You can argue that the difference between that and ALAC wouldn’t make much difference when listening to music on the move on a mobile device, and I’ll agree with that too. But play both on a decent hifi system in a quiet room at home, and I don’t think you have to be an audiophile to hear the difference.

But even if you disagree, I think it doesn’t matter. If there’s one lesson we’ve learned from the early days of mp3 music, it’s that technology improves, storage gets cheaper and what sounded acceptable five years or ten years ago sounds horrible today. What I want isn’t something that sounds good today, it’s something that will always sound good.

The only way we can guarantee that is to have a lossless copy in the first place. Maybe we’ll never listen to it in that format, maybe we’ll just output it to AAC 256 and call it good. But in five years’ time, when iPhones have 2TB of storage and we’re using a much better lossy format, we’ll be able to output to that. Lossless is future-proof; whatever today’s flavor of the month might be, isn’t.

Music labels & musicians

We’ve reached the point where streaming generates more revenue than downloads. Many people today no longer see any point in owning music when they can stream it instead. And that’s a problem for music labels and musicians alike.

Streaming generates tiny amounts of income. Apple Music ismore generous than Spotify and YouTube, but it still only pays $0.00735 per stream – and that amount is then split between the label, the musician and the songwriter. Unless you’re a big artist, you’re not going to pay many bills from streaming.

So it’s in the interests of labels and musicians to encourage downloads – which is tough. When we can stream almost every album available for $10/month, why would we pay more than that to buy a single album? Lossless music could be a great answer to that question.

Apple

For Apple, it could be a great way to revive its declining downloads business. I don’t even think it would hurt Apple Music. Streaming is still a really convenient way to have music available on demand, so I think a significant proportion of music lovers would want both: lossless downloads for their collections, and Apple Music for accessing any music anywhere.

Selling lossless music would also fit perfectly with Apple’s business model: selling a premium product at a premium price. Lossless downloads are a niche business right now, served by companies most people have never heard of, like HDtracks, ProStudio Masters and iTrax. But with Apple’s marketing might, it could transform the business into a much more mainstream one.

Given the right marketing, and presenting people with a choice between an AAC album at say $11 and an ALAC one at say $20, I could see a profitable minority opting for the premium version – not dissimilar to those who opt for the top storage tier on an iOS device or max out a Mac.

What are your views? Is lossless music something you’d like Apple to offer? Is it an option you think has a market even if you wouldn’t want it personally? Is it too niche? Or do you simply not care as you only ever stream? As ever, please take part in our poll and share your views in the comments.

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