All Three Major Labels, Pandora and RIAA Announce Support for Hi-Res Audio Streaming

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With a large swath of the industry onboard, how long before streaming services offer premium audio tiers?

A large swath of the music business, including all three major labels (Universal Music Group, Sony Music and the Warner Music Group), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and music platforms such as Pandora, Rhapsody/Napster and HD Tracks, all in concert with the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG), today announced their support for studio-quality hi-res audio for music streaming.

Hi-res audio redresses digital music's traditionally compressed and largely inferior sound, which stems in part from the way MP3s were designed. Now, music industry entities have pledged to support new opportunities and add new premium audio music offerings to streaming services, much as they have with high-resolution downloads.

“Universal Music has been laser-focused on Hi-Res Audio, across all of our label groups," says Ty Roberts, Chief Technology Officer of Universal Music Group, in a statement. "But without the involvement of our technology and distribution partners, all of this would be in vain. Today we’re pleased to acknowledge the support of a number of leading digital providers for this new streaming concept”.

The DEG, which advocates for entertainment products supporting music, film, television, consumer electronics and IT industries, and whose members include Amazon and Google Play, also revealed today a new "Stream the Studio" marketing campaign. The initiative is aimed at millennials, the largest music consumer demographic, and will promote the benefits of hi-res compatible devices, technologies and music .

Notably absent from today's announcement are streaming market leaders Spotify and Apple (the latter of which is reportedly developing their own high fidelity technology). Meanwhile Tidal, the streaming service Jay Z and friends launched in March 2015, today announced it would be the first streaming service to offer Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) audio, a new hi-res music format. With Napster, Pandora and now Tidal committed to hi-res audio streaming, one has to wonder: How long before streaming services begin offering a new premium audio tier?

"Pandora has the platform to make this big!," enthuses Pandora CTO Chris Martin. "While not for everyone, Hi-Res music streaming has the potential to engage millions of digital music fans who are seeking a more immersive, studio quality listening experience.”

Today's announcement comes during, and from, the 50th Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas where the DEG has sponsored a hi-res "Audio Pavilion." The exhibition manifested its "Stream the Studio" message with a fully-equipped world-class recording facility filled with hi-res devices and showcasing a series of live demo sessions with award-winning engineers sponsored by The Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing. Slated to appear are notables like Al Schmitt (recording engineer for Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Diana Krall), Dion “No I.D.” Wilson (producer for Kanye West and Jay Z) and Steve Berkowitz (producer for Miles Davis, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen) and Vic Anesini (mastering engineer for Simon & Garfunkel, Harry Nilsson and Elvis Presley).

"Gone are the days where hi-res sound was reserved for those ‘behind the glass’, as we are seeing a greater appetite and demand for better quality recordings, specifically through streaming," stated Neil Portnow, president and CEO of The Recording Academy. “The Recording Academy’s Producers and Engineers Wing is extremely excited about the possibilities that this new studio quality music tier affords to both our members and music fans alike."

The quest for better audio in digital age dates back to the mid-'90s with the release of several higher-fidelity CD formats which failed to gain market traction. The movement to high-quality digital audio received perhaps its greatest public endorsement at 2014's SXSW where Neil Young launched his Pono player and which has thus far failed to achieve widespread adoption. Since then, the music industry has increasingly come out in support of the new technologies in a more concerted effort throwing its support behind hi-res audio MP3s and last spring introducing MQA.

A new study commissioned ahead today's announcement by UMG, entitled "Global Insight: The Appeal of High-Res Audio (Studio Quality Sound)" presents a variety of data supporting a growing market for hi-res audio. The findings claimed that 85 percent of U.S. consumers say audio quality is "very important" to them; 48 percent of U.S. consumers are willing to pay more for better audio quality; and perhaps most significantly that "71 percent of existing music streaming subscribers are interested in the option of studio quality sound."

While these numbers hold out the promise of a growing market for high-quality digital audio streams and hardware, hi-res audio has its detractors. Some say there is little if any audible difference with the new technology, or claim it's a conspiracy for the music industry to sell new wares, repackage older music and/or charge consumers more for streaming.

Still, many in the music business, including several top label execs, are more convinced than ever of hi-res audio's importance and viability: "I am thrilled that the technology has evolved to the point that the authentic studio experience can now be streamed to the mainstream listener," Atlantic Records chairman and CEO Craig Kallman tells Billboard. "Fans love Hi-Res Audio when they hear it, and I believe we’re finally at the tipping point of converting the enormous streaming audience to the amazing Hi-Res musical experience."