The Business, Technology of Music Is Always Moving Forward

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), July 22, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Business, Technology of Music Is Always Moving Forward


Byline: Bill Gowen

Keeping up with technology in the music business can make you dizzy these days.

The digital compact disc has been the recorded medium of choice since around 1980. The long-playing record (LP) was king for nearly three decades prior to that, preceded by 78-rpm records and the pioneering Edison cylinder recordings.

Today, the CD is being superseded (technically, if not in sales) by the high-end SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) and DVD-audio formats. Thankfully, universal players can handle these competing formats - as opposed to the ongoing battle between two rival camps for the accepted standard for high-definition DVDs, which are so dissimilar that a universal player is impractical.

And speaking of DVD, the current standard version of that format (NTSC) has found a real niche among classical music fans as the best way to enjoy operas in the home.

Also new is the "Dual Disc" format, pioneered by RCA, in which a double-sided disc contains audio on one side and DVD video on the other.

And about to make a breakthrough is the tiny UMD (Universal Media Disc), designed by Sony for its Play Station Portable (PSP) game-control units. The discs, 60 millimeters in diameter, have a very generous 1.8 gigabyte memory capacity.

All the major film studios have backed the UMD format, and movies on the tiny discs are beginning to show up in area stores and online. Will the UMD format eventually replace DVD as the home movie or music medium of choice? Time will tell.

We won't even discuss at this point downloadable music, MP3 and the like, which has made a major impact in the popular-music industry. While downloads of classical music are available, true practicality is still a ways off because of the large digital memory contained in a typical three-hour opera or 80-minute Mahler symphony compared with a popular-music track of three to five minutes.

Also making a major impact on the classical recording business are the series of takeovers and mergers, with well-known classical labels shuffling here and there among international conglomerates.

The latest big-time merger affecting classical music in the home is this spring's creation of Sony BMG Music Entertainment, formed by the merger of those two music industry giants.

Of course, Sony Music has been the home of CBS Masterworks, and its predecessor label, Columbia Masterworks, while the German book publisher Bertelsmann bought the Red Seal label from RCA several years ago.

In the 1950s and '60s, Columbia and Red Seal were the dominant classical labels in the United States, accounting for about 90 percent of sales. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra made its first acoustical recording for Columbia in 1916, and the CSO's legendary series of discs under music director Fritz Reiner were made by RCA Red Seal from 1954-62.

Called Sony BMG Masterworks, the new classical division will be an umbrella group for such labels as RCA Red Seal, Sony Classical, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi and Arte Nova. …

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