Okay, I get it. Surround music is on life support. Why won't listeners embrace this technology?
For me, surround provides a more compelling way to hear music, but perhaps its immersive characteristics are not important to many listeners. It seems the x factor that drives music lovers to buy or stream a song is not significantly enhanced by the added experience of surround playback. They're playing a song because they woke up with it in their head, or it helps them get over the sadness of losing their lover, or something like that. And an MP3 will do just fine.
The areas where surround is taking off are the places that people go to with the intention of being immersed. Movies and gaming are the most successful surround markets, because people want to be enveloped by the experience.
What are our options? When CDs were popular, some people would play them in a crappy boombox (an MP3 equivalent, if you will), while others would listen on a quality system. But it was the same piece of media holding the songs that made the boombox listener just as happy as the guy with Magneplanar electrostatic speakers. We need to return to that scenario.
As long as we are selling physical media, it should have the best possible audio quality, with the option of surround. Currently, the obvious choice would be Blu-ray or regular old DVD-V. If the average listener decides that they want to take their listening experience to the next level with surround, it's already on the disc — along with the stereo files.
Why isn't everything released in surround on DVD-V now? The technology is here, and it's cheap. It seems that record companies have forgotten that they are selling art. Their business model for distributing music seems indistinguishable from that for selling hog jowls. When you sell art, you have a responsibility to honor it. Otherwise, you should get into another industry.
Which brings us to the big dilemma for record labels: who is going to pay for the surround mixes? And for that matter, who is going to put decent artwork into releases, with no promise of extra returns? The record company, of course. Why? Because it is the right thing to do. No other reason.
I understand that record companies need to make money. But I bet we'd end up with better stuff to listen to — in both stereo and surround — if they weren't looking for such astronomically high profit margins. Remember when selling 150,000 records didn't get you dropped from the label? Such sales used to mean you got to make another record.
There are two things I think we can all agree on: the current major-label model isn't working, and surround music seems to be dead in the water, which is a damn shame. It's time to give the buying public the best of all possible media even though some people may not appreciate it at the beginning. And we'd better hurry, because if no value is put into physical music packaging soon, that type of distribution will disappear entirely as the buyer's apathy grows.
Perhaps this will be a moot point when our Internet pipes are big enough to allow us to download surround files. Until then, we should be doing a better job for all the artists who spend their lives giving us beautiful music. We should try and save surround for the few who will get it. Would that be a waste of time?
Nathaniel Kunkel (studiowithoutwalls.com) is a Grammy and Emmy Award-winning producer, engineer, and mixer who has worked with Sting, James Taylor, B.B. King, Insane Clown Posse, Lyle Lovett, I-Nine, and comedian Robin Williams.