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7 Reasons Why HD Vinyl Won’t Take Off

March 21, 2016

Recently, Rebeat Digital, an Austrian company you’d never heard of before, which makes Music Enterprise Software (MES) for labels to manage their releases, announced it had filed for a European patent on High Definition (HD) Vinyl technology. Rebeat shared the details exclusively with Digital Music News.

This HD Vinyl would reportedly ofter an additional 30% capacity, 30% more volume and twice the audio fidelity of the average vinyl record of today. Not only that, but the new records will purportedly be significantly easier, faster and less expensive to produce. They will use laser etching and 3D modeled “topographical mapping” to produced records with little to no possibility of distortions. Faster production would be most welcome, as the current vinyl production capacity struggles to keep up with demand.

Rebeat also told Digital Music News that you’ll be able to play HD Vinyl on existing turntables and still “enjoy the benefits.” However, there apparently will be “enhanced features” that will require HD-compatible turntables. So it remains to be seen exactly what the overlap will be concerning playing HD Vinyl on old or new turntables.

Rebeat is also seeking worldwide patents and early-stage financing, which I predict will be handled by one or more Internet multimillionaire hipsters. With their help, Rebeat thinks it can begin producing HD Vinyl in three years.

Now that you know what HD Vinyl is, allow me to tell you why it is much ado about (probably) nothing. All I have backing me up is some plausible reasoning and an unshakable faith. If I’m wrong, well let’s be honest: In three years when HD vinyl will supposedly come out, you either won’t remember or won’t care.

• If HD Vinyl plays on existing turntables, yet costs more, it will fail. Don’t automatically assume that because Rebeat said HD Vinyl’s “stamper-related costs” could be as much as 50% less than current vinyl, that the HD Vinyl products will cost less than or equal to current vinyl records. If the only reduced costs are “stamper-related,” watch out. There will be three or more years of development costs to recoup, marketing/advertising costs, demanding Internet multimillionaire investors to pacify, as well as all the untold non-stamper-related costs that may not make the HD Vinyl record such a revolution in efficient production.

Consider electric cars as an analogy. They make use of plenty of production processes that are more efficient than legacy gas vehicles. However, they still cost well more than comparable gas cars because electric vehicles haven’t reached economies of scale yet, and there are many production processes that aren’t as efficient yet.

So when it comes to HD Vinyl’s price, we just don’t know yet.

But what we do know is this: If HD Vinyl costs significantly more than old-school vinyl, it will fail, because you can…

• Never overestimate the appeal of audiophile quality. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the MP3 era, it’s that the overwhelming majority of people will sacrifice audio quality to acquire music more conveniently and/or less expensively. But that’s not the only evidence available. Audiophile quality has never been mainstream, and likely never will be until the day that it is the default format for music.

Even when vinyl was the format of choice decades ago, most of it was played on crappy home stereos. The high-resolution Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio formats died in an anti-climactic haze of indifference. Even today, if I want to pay top-dollar for uncompressed digital audio downloads of music that’s ubiquitous as MP3 (which I do), it’s not possible. It doesn’t exist in legal format for most music. You best believe that if anyone more than a few sad “audiophiles” and dance-music DJs were clamoring for legal WAV, AIFF or FLAC downloads, they’d be available everywhere music is sold.

• If HD Vinyl requires new, expensive turntables for an optimal experience, it will fail. Again, we know that HD Vinyl will play on legacy turntables and still have “benefits.” Yet Rebeat indicates there will be HD Vinyl-compatible turntables for “enhanced features.” That is a vague and entirely expected way for Rebeat to attempt to present a “best of both worlds” scenario long before there’s enough detail or evidence to back it up. So let’s consider both scenarios.

If HD Vinyl exhibits superior audio quality on legacy turntables, forget about selling HD Vinyl-compatible turntables. Vinyl revival believers like to point out that Amazon’s best-selling home audio product last Christmas season was a $50 Jensen turntable—with built-in speakers! (Right, vinyl listeners are in it for the audio quality.)

I’ll bet you (yes, you) $50 right now that the HD Vinyl-compatible turntables are not going to cost $50. So if you can get the best experience of HD Vinyl on the Jensen bestseller, why would buy a new, costlier turntable? Exactly; you wouldn’t. And for sure Rebeat knows that. That leads to the second scenario.

If you need to buy an HD-Vinyl compatible turntable for the optimal HD Vinyl experience, then Rebeat, say hello to your struggling niche hardware business. If these new records have 30% more capacity, that should hold regardless of the turntable. My guess is that the enhanced audio will require a new turntable, and now we’re back to the audiophile argument.

If you give most music listeners the exact experience they want, AND the music all of the sudden sounds better, they MAY notice it or even appreciate it. But if you make enjoying the benefits of this new format inconvenient or more expensive, then laser-etched HD Vinyl discs will become the new LaserDisc (Wikipedia link included for Millenials).

• Vinyl will soon be the next victim of piracy. Unlike vinyl technology, 3D printing technology is improving by leaps and bounds, with an accompanying Moore’s Law-like drop in price. Today, you can 3D-print records that play on normal turntables, and they sound beyond terrible.

But that won’t last. People are going to be 3D-printing replacement livers soon enough; you don’t think there will be a quality 3D-printed LP in a few years? I’m betting there will be, and when that happens, your New Music Friday 33RPM albums will be emailed to you in a tiny VRML file and cranked out on a 3D printer that came for free with your computer from Mac Mall. At that point, vinyl albums are no longer a reliable add-on purchase at your merch booth, unless you believe in the utter loyalty of your fans.

I sincerely hope that in this scenario, artists will be able to sell those 3D-printing files direct to fans for a fair album price, but even if that happens, it’s bad for HD Vinyl as a business. Rebeat could be reduced to a vile patent troll that tries to sue 3D-printer manufacturers, email clients and the entire Internet infrastructure for infringement.

• DJs have already abandoned vinyl. They’re not coming back. As alluded to above, DJs make up a significant portion of the audiophiles who will willingly pay a premium for WAVs or FLACs that sound much better than MP3s during their sets. So they may also be top candidates for using HD Vinyl, except that most DJs don’t rock vinyl records anymore, and they like it that way. The only real debate amongst a shrinking segment of DJs is whether it’s more gangster to manipulate their digital files with control vinyl discs on turntables or with media players/MIDI controllers.

Sure, a few DJs still buy vinyl here and there, but they’re not going to trade in the days of showing up to gigs with nothing but a couple of USB sticks for the old days when they broke their whole crew’s backs hauling in crates of synthetic chemicals. The last DJ hold-outs still preaching the purity of vinyl spinning sound increasingly like the 50-year-old rappers in track suits talking about how hip-hop sucks now. The last young DJ I saw spinning records made a big deal about it and then proceeded to trainwreck every mix. His fate is sealed as follows:

• Once all these hipsters buying vinyl turn 33, they will digitize and get rid of their vinyl like the rest of us did, because they will finally come to their senses that having less clutter and more space in your apartment is better than the delusion that “owning” certain music makes you cooler.

• The smart money is on nothing happening. Even if I’m crazy and all of the above turns out to be wrong, there are myriad X factors involved with getting an experimental niche technology to succeed. Just the odds alone say that not much will come from HD Vinyl.

Don’t believe me? Well, Rebeat is looking for investors. Maybe this is your lucky day.

If you read this whole thing and would like to play along, tweet #Rebeat to @treefitty. I predict zero tweets, and my predictive powers are strong.

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