Digital music slowly goes lossless – sans iTunes?

Passionato has become an award-winning digital music service, offering as it does top quality classical music downloads in an open format, but it may not be a long wait until record labels move to offer more music in high-quality FLAC and/or Apple Lossless formats, or so it appears.

While this season’s speculation continues to centre on claims Apple will introduce more major labels through its iTunes Plus service, a report from Topspin Media suggests the window of opportunity for purchase of a wide selection of music in lossless formats may be close to opening.

Topspin Media is the firm which ran the online music stores for David Byrne and Brian Eno and Paul McCartney. These stores offered fans the chance to purchase their tracks in high-quality FLAC or Apple Lossless formats.

What’s interesting is that 12 per cent of people buying music from Byrne/Eno and 21 per cent of those purchasing the recent Fireman album chose to use high-quality formats in preference to the alternatives.

“I’m surprised and somewhat encouraged to see such a large number of consumers interested in the lossless formats,” said Topspin boss Ian Rogers.

There’s an increasing body of opinion among musicians and some industry leaders favouring the notion of offering music in high-quality formats.

Toby Marks of Banco De Gaia has previously complained that the standard small downloads of music from most existing services is a retrogressive step.

“Apple says 128k is good enough for digital music. Well, sorry, I have literally spent my recording career trying to make things sound better. I recently got into 5:1 surround. I absolutely hate the fact that it’s possible to release music at the same quality it was created, yet the market has moved backward to something that’s little better than cassettes,” he said.

Ben Drury, head of UK-based digital music service, 7digital last week told Distorted Loop that he thinks major labels are moving toward licensing high-quality music downloads, saying, “We’re already selling FLACs of certain artists.  Lossless and high-definition audio (better than CD) will happen be may be a niche market.”

The moot point here, of course, is whether labels will be partisan in the way they choose to license music to digital services in high-quality formats. Given the current furore over licensing DRM-free music from the majors through iTunes Plus, will majors emulate the same once they step into the lossless pond?

Additionally, what will be the fate of independent labels should the majors intend only licensing their lossless files through services such as Amazon MP3 and/or MySpace Music? With the majors owning a section of the latter service and the first service much-complained at by indie labels for its lack of indie label catalogue, will the move to diversify music consumption ultimately lead to more consolidation?

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