Until he enlightened us with his newfound digital religion at the recent NAB gathering, Disney chairman Michael Eisner always acted very threatened by thieves. One of his more memorable ruminations concerned New York City's sidewalk fruit vendors.
Why is it, Eisner wondered aloud a few years ago, do thousands of New Yorkers walk by an open fruit stand every day and not steal from the street vendor? If The Walt Disney Company were running the fruit stand and there were videocassettes for sale instead of apples and oranges, New Yorkers would steal the company blind, Eisner surmised. How come the fruit vendor gets a break and Disney doesn't?-the entertainment mogul wanted to know.
Of course, the answer is New Yorkers respect the fruit vendor. He's one of them-a neighbor trying to make an honest living in a tough city. Most New Yorkers have an internal code of honor that says it's wrong to steal the fruit from one of their own.
Disney, on the other hand, is a large, hard-nosed multinational corporation that commands far less public respect for honesty and fair play. With due respect to Mickey Mouse, few of us have a warm and fuzzy feeling for such a well-fed conglomerate.
It's easy to understand why college kids who would never consider stealing music from their favorite artist have no guilt whatsoever about downloading free songs owned by a major record label. The tin-eared music companies have long treated their customers as thieves, and the customers-feeling ripped off by obscene prices and inferior product-simply return the favor. It feels more like fair play than theft.
Of course, if you believe the customer is always right, you know the kids will win (perhaps they already have) and the old business models of music distribution will go the way of the horse and buggy. Despite record industry efforts, music will continue to be free to those savvy enough to find it. That cat is out of the Internet bag.
This doesn't mean, however, that enlightened artists won't find a way to offer valuable products and services for which their fans will gladly cough up the cash. On March 25, at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, I got a glimpse of such a must-have product: The Dark Side of the Moon.
It was 30 years earlier to the day that Pink Floyd's legendary album was released. Since that 1973 debut, Dark Side has sold more than 30 million copies and called Billboard's album chart home for 741 weeks.
EMI Music doesn't know how many times Dark Side has been downloaded for free over the Internet, but one assumes everyone that wanted it has gotten it by now. So how do you get Pink Floyd fans to buy this classic record again? By hiring one of the few people with the skill and talent to spin magic and make it all new again.
Enter producer/engineer James Guthrie. A pioneer in surround sound, Guthrie, whose relationship with Pink Floyd spans two decades, helped put DVD video on the map with his awesome 1999 remastering of The Wall. Now he's back, with a remixed and remastered Dark Side on Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) in 5.1 surround sound. He did the work this winter at his home studio-Das Boot-in the snowy woods of Northern California.
Dark Side has been digitally remastered several times over the years for various audiophile releases. But for the new SACD release, Guthrie-an aficionado of the original analog sound-went back to the original 16-track Studer analog master tapes recorded at Abbey Road Studios. He skipped the entire first generation of digital technology to use the Sony/Philips-developed high-resolution SACD release format.
SACD achieves 64 times the sampling frequency and four times the data capacity of a standard CD. The warmth and clarity of SACD is more analog than digital. Though SACD discs can be played in stereo on standard CD players, it's Guthrie's high-resolution 5.1 surround mix of Dark Side that's special.
"This was a very difficult 5.1 mix," said Guthrie. "Not from a musical point of view, because the record really lends itself to a 3-D treatment, but from the point of view that everyone knows the original mix so well. It is indelibly printed on our minds. We've had 30 years to live with it, and some people don't want that image to be altered. Knowing that you are about to start work on something controversial can be unsettling.
"The issues with 5.1 mixing all come down to one thing," he continued. "Have you retained the emotional impact of the songs? All this technology is meaningless if you've turned the album into a video game."
A video game it is not! I was lucky enough to hear Guthrie's work on the same $50,000-plus audio monitoring system he used to mix the new record. It consists of five ATC SCM150ASL powered monitors and two SCM0.1-15 powered subwoofers.
Auditioning the new Dark Side was a musical listening experience I'll never forget. I experienced sounds, voices and a spatial realism I'd never heard before on earlier versions of this familiar record.
Suddenly, MP3s sounded trivial. Even regular CDs lost their luster. Guthrie, once again, has taken a raw technology and made it golden with the artist's touch. Just as he had opened my eyes to the potential of DVD a few years ago, now he'd done it again with SACD.
In the old days, the EMI/Capital label would probably have charged an arm and a leg for this SACD. But not this time. The new SACD of Dark Side of the Moon is being sold at the standard CD price.
Smart move. This is the kind of product that will excite and draw a lost generation of alienated music buyers into the record stores. A free download is one thing. But this is a sonic tour de force you won't find on the Internet.
Maybe, with the help of artists like James Guthrie (and Pink Floyd), there's a glimmer of hope for the music business after all.
For more info on SACD: http://www.sonymusic.com/sacd/.
For more info on ATC speakers: http://www.atc.gb.net/.
Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.
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