I’ve been known to be pretty harsh when it comes to record companies, perhaps to the point of irrationality. Yes, the labels stopped being run by people who, at the core of it, loves music and was assumed by lawyers and bankers instead. Sure, companies with unique musical identities and profiles merged, took-over, and amalgamated until their logos meant absolutely nothing anymore. But every company did that, from food and drug manufacturers to movie studios, to trucking systems. To say the labels “sold out” is to deny everything else didn’t.
What was left behind, however, is a network of supposed tastemakers who like to say they have their ear to the ground but have never stooped so low in their lives. The genie that was digital music distribution, be it legal or otherwise, totally blew by them. The thought that people would walk (no, run) away from physical product in favor of an intangible block of digits completely eluded them. And, certainly, the mathematics were against them when they failed to consider that nothing is cheaper than free.
The PR spin was fairly intense. Campaigns about artists’ rights to be paid for their work (they should), the often mediocre quality of digital music formats (very true), and the impersonal way digital connects with the listener (which depends more on the listener than the medium) began to roll out. They were scrambling for solutions, one of which was the Special Edition. Often labels would package the remastered album with a second disc with b-sides, demos, live cuts and other rare material. They’d package it in digipaks with extensive booklets. They’d price it three times higher than their ordinary CDs and then wonder why people didn’t buy them.
Another idea, and one I think was pretty good in theory, was the Dual Disc. Championed by Sony, Dual Disc was a stab at attracting the audiophile audience as one side of the two-sided disc had the CD layer in standard resolution, while the other side was a DVD layer which offered a much higher capacity and, therefore, could offer better bitrates per track, encoded with minimal visual information (a graphic to name the song title, a lyric, perhaps a photo).
It was, in fact, based on early DVD technology known anecdotally as “flipper-discs” where each side of the DVD had a readable layer, usually with one side featuring a widescreen presentation while the other had the pan & scan version. Dual Disc audio, which was still pretty darn good, was essentially a slideshow with music over it, with the music taking precedence over the visuals.
The Dual Disc format was rolled out late-2004 with a bigger push in 2005. For people who wanted a better audio standard, it wasn’t too bad a concept. The way it was handled however was, to put it mildly, confused. A Dual Disc is not really a CD, but a super-thin CD and a super-thin DVD glued back-to-back, much as the old laserdiscs were only a decade prior. Laserdiscs experienced something known as “laser-rot” because, surprise surprise, the glue used to adhere the parts actually was eating away at the digital foil layer. Oops! The few Dual Discs I have are, as of this writing, still perfectly functional but I don’t expect them to stay that way forever. One good heatwave can ruin even a regular collection of CDs. What would that do to these Frankensteins?
The other issue with the double layers is that the discs were heavier than normal. A lot of CD players rejected them on that basis, and car stereos would often destroy the DVD side as the CD side was dragged into the unit for play. The solution? Rip the disc and play the digital files instead which defeats the purpose of the physical format. The discs don’t leave home, which negates all portability.
The next “d-uh” moment occurred on a more fundamental level – which sound format to choose, Dolby 5.1 Surround or DTS decoding? If there was an audio decoder that handled both, that would be fine, but at that time there wasn’t. I’m not even sure if there’s a cross-compatible system now. Labels picked and labels chose and seldom offered both audio types on a single disc. The “wide spectrum of audio varieties” the format promised now seemed infinitely smaller.
The most fatal of decisions the labels made was to price the discs higher than normal, and this seems the most unforgivable of their errors. They were competing with a format, the download, that was often obtained for free. Their rebuttal was a disc that cost even more than what was already perceived to be a too-expensive offering. Had they rolled out Dual Disc expecting a loss, making the discs cheaper, they might have locked in a few converts…might have. Even if their discs were priced at $9 each, need we say it again, nothing is cheaper than free.
Some artists participated in the experiment. Believe it or not, the tracks on Weird Al Yankovic’s Straight Outta Lynwood are pretty lively and Ben Folds’ Songs For Silverman has fairly decent depth, although I’m not as warm to the album as I am his earlier stuff. A Crow Left Of The Murder… by Incubus doesn’t really get much lift from the surround sound treatment. In a telling move, by the time Dave Matthews Band’s Stand Up came out, there wasn’t even a 5.1 track offered, just what was indicated on the back of the package, “enhanced stereo.” I’m assuming that was simply the CD tracks at a DVD bit depth, which makes the claims for super-audio sound rather pointless. Most people would see that and assume, “Oh, it’s louder.”
Dual Disc hasn’t really died, but to my knowledge Mudvayne’s The End of All Things to Come got a Dual Disc treatment in 2007 and the format has been dormant since. Some extensive internet research has provided nothing substantial, and pretty much confirms that the companies that clung to the new technology just quietly let it slip away. Since the public at large wasn’t paying attention anyway, nobody knew there was any loss to mourn.
Super digital audio has not actually disappeared though. Rather than the glued-together Dual Disc model, most of the labels have opted for 2-disc Special Editions with one being a standard CD and the other being the DVD (and now Blu-ray) variant. That solves the problem of portability, as using the CD will affect in no way the DVD. The labels still haven’t truly learned though. These editions are still two to three times more expensive than a standard CD version nobody’s buying.
Hey, no sense in talking if they’re not going to listen, right?