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Lately I've been trying to rid my life of as many physical artifacts as possible. I'm with Merlin Mann on CDs:

Can't believe how quickly CDs went from something I hate storing to something I hate buying to something I hate merely existing.

Although I'd extend that line of thinking to DVDs as well. The death of physical media has some definite downsides, but after owning certain movies once on VHS, then on DVD, and finally on Blu-Ray, I think I'm now at peace with the idea of not owning any physical media ever again, if I can help it.

My current strategy of wishing my physical media collection into a cornfield involves shipping all our DVDs to Second Spin via media mail, and paying our nephew $1 per CD to rip our CD collection using Exact Audio Copy and LAME as a summer project. The point of this exercise is absolutely not piracy; I have no interest in keeping both digital and physical copies of the media I paid for the privilege of owningtemporarily licensing. Note that I didn't bother ripping any of the DVDs because I hardly ever watched them; mostly they just collected dust. But I continue to love music and listen to my music collection on a daily basis. I'll donate all the ripped CDs to some charity or library, and if I can't pull that off, I'll just destroy them outright. Stupid atoms!

CDs, unlike DVDs or even Blu-Rays, are considered reference quality. That is, the uncompressed digital audio data contained on a CD is a nearly perfect representation of the original studio master, for most reasonable people's interpretation of "perfect", at least back in 1980. So if you paid for a CD, you might be worried that ripping it to a compressed digital audio format would result in an inferior listening experience.

I'm not exactly an audiophile, but I like to think I have pretty good ears. I've recommended buying $200+ headphones and headphone amps for quite a while now. By the way: still a good investment! Go do it! Anyhow, previous research and my own experiments led me to write Getting the Best Bang for Your Byte seven years ago. I concluded that nobody could really hear the difference between a raw CD track and an MP3 using a decent encoder at a variable bit rate averaging around 160kbps. Any bit rate higher than that was just wasting space on your device and your bandwidth for no rational reason. So-called "high resolution audio" was recently thoroughly debunked for very similar reasons.

Articles last month revealed that musician Neil Young and Apple's Steve Jobs discussed offering digital music downloads of 'uncompromised studio quality'. Much of the press and user commentary was particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of uncompressed 24 bit 192kHz downloads. 24/192 featured prominently in my own conversations with Mr. Young's group several months ago.

Unfortunately, there is no point to distributing music in 24-bit/192kHz format. Its playback fidelity is slightly inferior to 16/44.1 or 16/48, and it takes up 6 times the space.

There are a few real problems with the audio quality and 'experience' of digitally distributed music today. 24/192 solves none of them. While everyone fixates on 24/192 as a magic bullet, we're not going to see any actual improvement.

The authors of LAME must have agreed with me, because the typical, standard, recommended, default way of encoding any old audio input to MP3 …

lame --preset standard "cd-track-raw.wav" "cd-track-encoded.mp3"

… now produces variable bit rate MP3 tracks at a bitrate of around 192kbps on average.

Encspot-omigod-disc-3

(Going down one level to the "medium" preset produces nearly exactly 160kbps average, my 2005 recommendation on the nose.)

Encoders have only gotten better since the good old days of 2005. Given the many orders of magnitude improvement in performance and storage since then, I'm totally comfortable with throwing an additional 32kbps in there, going from 160kbps average to 192kbps average just to be totally safe. That's still a miniscule file size compared to the enormous amount of data required for mythical, aurally perfect raw audio. For a particular 4 minute and 56 second music track, that'd be:

Uncompressed raw CD format51 mb
Lossless FLAC compression36 mb
LAME insane encoded MP3 (320kbps)11.6 mb
LAME standard encoded MP3 (192kbps avg)7.1 mb

Ripping to uncompressed audio is a non-starter. I don't care how much of an ultra audio quality nerd you are, spending 7× or 5× the bandwidth and storage for completely inaudible "quality" improvements is a dagger directly in the heart of this efficiency-loving nerd, at least. Maybe if you're planning to do a lot of remixing and manipulation it might make sense to retain the raw source audio, but for typical listening, never.

The difference between the 320kbps track and the 192kbps track is more rational to argue about. But it's still 1.6 times the size. Yes, we have tons more bandwidth and storage and power today, but storage space on your mobile device will never be free, nor will bandwidth or storage in the cloud, where I think most of this stuff should ultimately reside. And all other things being equal, wouldn't you rather be able to fit 200 songs on your device instead of 100? Wouldn't you rather be able to download 10 tracks in the same time instead of 5? Efficiency, that's where it's at. Particularly when people with dog's ears wouldn't even be able to hear the difference.

But Wait, I Have Dog Ears

Of course you do. On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. Personally, I think you're a human being full of crap, but let's drop some science on this and see if you can prove it.

On-the-internet-nobody-knows-youre-a-dog

When someone tells me "Dudes, come on, let's steer clear of the worst song ever written!", I say challenge accepted. Behold The Great MP3 Bitrate Experiment!

As proposed on our very own Audio and Video Production Stack Exchange, we're going to do a blind test of the same 2 minute excerpt of a particular rock audio track at a few different bitrates, ranging from 128kbps CBR MP3 all the way up to raw uncompressed CD audio. Each sample was encoded (if necessary), then exported to WAV so they all have the same file size. Can you tell the difference between any of these audio samples using just your ears?

1. Listen to each two minute audio sample

Limburger
Cheddar
Gouda
Brie
Feta

2. Rate each sample for encoding quality

Once you've given each audio sample a listen – with only your ears please, not analysis softwarefill out this brief form and rate each audio sample from 1 to 5 on encoding quality, where one represents worst and five represents flawless.

Yes, it would be better to use a variety of different audio samples, like SoundExpert does, but I don't have time to do that. Anyway, if the difference in encoding bitrate quality is as profound as certain vocal elements of the community would have you believe it is, that difference should be audible in any music track. To those who might argue that I am trolling audiophiles into listening to one of the worst-slash-best rock songs of all time … over and over and over … to prove a point … I say, how dare you impugn my honor in this manner, sir. How dare you!

I wasn't comfortable making my generous TypePad hosts suffer through the bandwidth demands of multiple 16 megabyte audio samples, so this was a fun opportunity to exercise my long dormant Amazon S3 account, and test out Amazon's on-demand CloudFront CDN. I hope I'm not rubbing any copyright holders the wrong way with this test; I just used a song excerpt for science, man! I'll pull the files entirely after a few weeks just to be sure.

You'll get no argument from me that the old standby of 128kbps constant bit rate encoding is not adequate for most music, even today, and you should be able to hear that in this test. But I also maintain that virtually nobody can reliably tell the difference between a 160kbps variable bit rate MP3 and the raw CD audio, much less 192kbps. If you'd like to prove me wrong, this is your big chance. Like the announcer in Smash TV, I say good luck – you're gonna need it.

So which is it – are you a dog or a man? Give the samples a listen, then rate them. I'll post the results of this experiment in a few days.

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fistful

Editor’s note: Jay Fulcher is CEO of video technology company Ooyala. This is a follow-up to his columns “Fear And Loathing In Online Video” and “One Screen To Rule Them All“. Follow him on Twitter @jbfulcher.

The rise of smart, multi-screen streaming media is fundamentally changing the TV experience. This year, for the first time ever, Americans will watch more movies over the Internet than on physical media like DVD and Blu-ray. Ooyala’s Video Index Report found that non-desktop video plays doubled in the fourth quarter of 2011. Tablet sales continue to explode. People now spend more time on Xbox Live streaming movies and TV shows than playing video games. And consumer electronics manufacturers are gearing up to ship 125 million Smart TVs in 2014. Simply put, TV is no longer constrained to a single box, a single screen, or a single UI.

Smart networks, broadcasters, studios and service providers recognize that there’s real money to be made as TV moves into the information age. People are not only watching more movies and TV shows online, they are paying for access to premium video content. Recent studies reveal that over half of American tablet owners paid to watch a movie in Q4 2011 and more than 40% paid for TV content. These are strong signs that we’ve come a long way from Jeff Zucker’s “digital pennies” remark back in 2008.

To make the most digital dollars, new TV technologies should securely deliver media to viewers on their terms. Audiences today have personal, portable ways to consume content. There are more screens, platforms and devices to display their favorite shows, and more ways than ever to rent, purchase, gift and download video content. It is an exciting time for both TV viewers and TV content providers.

Innovation is a tricky business, however, and change can be hard. There are bound to be a few missteps and failures as we invent the next generation of TV. This isn’t a new phenomenon. For every VHS recorder there is a Betamax; for every DVD, a Laserdisc. But there will also be key victories and new revenue streams as media and technology combine to create the TV experience of tomorrow.

Here’s how forward-thinking media companies will profit from the new TV.

Big Data & Analytics

More than a buzzword, Big Data is changing the way we look at information — and the world around us. The ability to quickly extract actionable insights from vast sets of data has already become a business imperative in some sectors. This trend can only grow. Corporations, governments, and non-governmental organizations will all leverage distributed computing to gain insights into their operations and their constituencies and maximize efficiencies.

Big Data and analytics will become mission critical for major media companies as TV moves to IP delivery. Firms that fail to invest in data-driven solutions will be at a severe disadvantage in the marketplace. Putting analytics tools in place to collect and analyze key metrics enables video publishers to see how people interact with their content — and understand where and why it’s underperforming (something that was impossible before). These insights will inform critical business decisions that impact audiences and drive revenue.

Intelligent Monetization

As we all know, the easiest way to make more money in media is to sell more advertising. But simply inserting more pre-roll ads into a video stream, for example, quickly falls prey to the law of diminishing marginal returns. An initial uptick in revenue is followed by a substantial dropoff in ad completion rates, as viewers quickly grow weary of the oversupply of irrelevant ad messages.

Smart monetization strategies go hand-in-hand with analytics. With the right tools in place, video publishers can analyze how variables like ad load (the number of ads served per video) and ad placement (where ads are inserted within the video) impact viewer engagement. It’s even possible to find the optimal rental price for, say, a feature-length movie. And soon it will be commonplace to match ads to viewers based on social graph interests, location, device type, and viewing history.

Smart video publishers will use analytics to simultaneously accomplish two somewhat conflicting goals: (1) maximize digital revenue, and (2) create and/or maintain an optimal viewing experience for their viewers.

Personalized Content

A streaming media strategy based on Big Data computing, powerful analytics and smart monetization results in a personalized viewing experience across all connected screens. Content producers and providers will attract and retain more viewers when they deliver highly relevant content to their viewers, and presented in a way the viewer prefers.

Insights derived from vast data collection ensures that the right content is delivered to the right viewer at the right time. The future of personalized television is geo-targeted, interactive content. Viewers who opt to share data will receive a better experience: location-specific ads, augmented reality media experiences, interactive games and content targeted for their viewing history, network and device. Content publishers will also tap into social networks to deliver meaningful content that is informed by viewer interests. As social media continues to evolve, expect video to play a bigger role in how we relate to one another online.

In Sum…

The TV of tomorrow will be smart. It will understand who is watching, where they are, and what shows they enjoy. The end result will be a more personal TV experience that spans multiple screens and locations.

TV is changing quickly. There is a real need for companies to recognize and get out ahead of this change. With the right tools (like those offered by my company Ooyala), fistfuls of digital dollars are there for the taking.

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Last time we saw that the tastes of upper and middle-class “mainstream” consumers dominated Japanese pop culture from the post-war to the end of the 1990s. This time we will explore the most important cultural change of the last decade: the greater proportional power for marginal subcultures. Mainstream consumers, for the economic and demographic reasons given in Part One and Part Two, have ceased to consume with the same force as before and thus have lost their “voting power” within pop culture.

Part Four: The Rise of Marginal Subcultures

The drop in cultural markets has been almost perfectly pegged to the decline in incomes. Middle class consumers are buying less, and when they buy, now go for cheaper or risk-free products. Within this environment, we could expect marginal subcultures to also have curbed consumption. Yet they did not! And their steady buying into their own cultural niches has made huge changes in the tenor of Japanese pop culture.

Yankii and otaku: Consumption as pathology

The yankii and otaku have never traditionally been blessed with high incomes nor high future earning potential, and in pure homo economicus terms, should be cutting back even more than middle-class consumers. We must understand, however, that for the otaku, yankii, and gyaru, shopping is not merely a form of leisure nor has it even been an attempt to buy into a larger society-wide consumerist message. These groups use consumerism as a therapeutic solution to their psychological and social problems.

The otaku spend their time as avaricious collectors of goods and trading information with other otaku. In shunning away from mainstream standards of sociability, sexuality, and career success, the act of maniacal consumption becomes their raison d’être. They cannot relate with other people if not commenting upon these cultural goods. Culture — most of which must be purchased and enjoyed as object (even when it is just physical media holding content) — is the great satisfier of their deepest desires.

The gyaru, in comparison, put a high premium on social networks and romance. Yet there is a certain pain at the heart of gyaru culture. In his book Keitai Shosetsu-teki (“Cell Phone Novel-esque”), author Hayamizu Kenrou calls the basic aesthetic mode of gyaru literature — cell phone novels, Hamasaki Ayumi lyrics — “trauma-kei” due to its emphasis on overcoming personal tragedy. When I interviewed Nakajo Hisako, the editor-in-chief of Koakuma Ageha, in 2009 I asked, “Why do gyaru spend so much time on their clothing, hair, and makeup?” She answered, “Because we are not cute. If we were cute, we would just wear a white T-shirt. We have to work hard to look good.” There is an obvious logic to this: The gyaru’s transformation into golden curly hair and heavily painted faces is an escape from their normal selves.

Like Nakajo suggests, gyaru culture looks as it does precisely because they are not “blessed” girls (Nakajo’s words). And this means gyaru must spend on clothing, hair treatments, and makeup in order to achieve the desired self-image. Beyond this desire to look like someone else (and basically like everyone else in their peer group), there is also the social demand to show allegiance to a wider gyaru subculture by donning its uniform. To be a gyaru means dressing like a gyaru — no exceptions.

Marginal groups’ up their voting power in the consumer vacuum

The end result is that the otaku and yankii have an almost inelastic demand for their favorite goods. They must consume, no matter the economic or personal financial situation. They may move to cheaper goods, but they will always be buying something. Otherwise they lose their identity. While normal consumers curb consumption in the light of falling wages, the marginal otaku and yankii keep buying. And that means the markets built around these subcultures are relatively stable in size.

So as the total market shrinks, the marginal groups — in their stability — are no longer minor segments but now form a respectable plurality in the market. In other words, if otaku or yankii all throw their support through a specific cultural item, that item will end up being the most supported within the wider market.

The clearest example of this is AKB48. With the letters AKB in their name, this group of girls was unequivocally marketed towards older males based in the Akihabara otaku culture. Compared to past mass market groups such as Speed, the girls are intentionally chosen and styled to look like elementary schoolgirls and lyrically address older men with direct sexual references. (See the “cat-eared brothel” video for “Heavy Rotation” and the unambiguous “love knows no age” lyrics for “Seifuku ga jama wo suru.”)

The mass idol group regularly has an “election” (sousenkyo) where fans try to vote their favorite girl to Number One. Buying certain AKB48 CD singles gives the fan a vote in the AKB48 election, which thus incentivizes otaku to buy multiple copies of the CD to increase their “political” power. The CD is thus no longer a means of listening to music but a way to influence the future of AKB48. This has created a legion of fans who buy dozens and hundreds of the same AKB48 CD or even 5500 copies. There are now doubts about that story’s authenticity but it basically was an exaggeration of an existing principle. Regardless, the marketing strategy of AKB48 does encourage the purchase of multiple goods, thus amplifying the buying power of nerds beyond their small numbers. This means as a consumer bloc, the AKB48 otaku fans can rival the non-otaku consumer base.

This otaku bloc strength, as well as other niche’s dedicated buying, can be seen through the music charts. In 2010 only three artists made the Oricon best-selling singles market — AKB48 and a Johnny’s Jimusho group Arashi. (At this stage, you can almost argue that music fans of Johnny’s groups are themselves a conspicuous cult rather than a mass market phenomenon.) Only two artists taking the entire singles market is unprecedented in Japanese musical history. In the previous decade, the average number of artists in the top ten was 8.2. The best explanation is that mainstream consumers stopped buying music, even single song downloads, so the favorite acts of marginal subcultures now appear to be the most popular.

Otaku and gyaru: winners by default

This principle demonstrates how AKB48 became an unlikely “mainstream” phenomenon. Despite AKB48 being so clearly marketed towards a niche audience, their success in a declining market has made them perceived to be the most popular in the entire market. Therefore 2010 and 2011 saw AKB48, with backing from advertising monolith Dentsu, doing advertisements for mainstream brands and chains such as 7/11. (Lawson’s has now countered with a nerd-drooling K-On! campaign.) With no major competition from more mainstream-oriented idols and groups, they became the obvious spokespeople and magazine cover girls — thus amplifying their fame more.

In the case of gyaru, there are larger numbers of gyaru than otaku, meaning that the gyaru can just consume their standard number of items and still dominate the market. Before I mentioned that the extremely “normal girl” fashion magazine non•no once sold close to a million copies per issue in 1996 at the peak of the publishing market, which was once far above the 310,000 copies for hardcore yankii/gyaru magazine Popteen at the same time. Around 2009, however, non•no dropped to a mere 180,000 copies a month while Popteen was still hovering around 310,000. Gyaru are still consuming fashion, and therefore need fashion guides to tell them how to do so. “Normal” girls have generally lost interest in clothing and do not need fashion guides as much. So in this collapse of the mass market, a magazine representing a marginal taste has become one of the best-selling.

With the yankii and otaku culture being so proportionally conspicuous in the market and mainstream and avant-garde styles being so minor and invisible, the once marginal looks have a greater legitimacy for less engaged consumers who mostly just desire socially-acceptable styles. As a result, gyaru and yankii fashion have had a strong moment over the last five years, leading to large-scale booms in things once unfathomable such as “hostess fashion.” University students at elite schools like Keio are likely to have hairstyles reminiscent of yankii hosts. Films and books with obvious yankii narratives, such as Rookies and cell phone novel Koizora, became huge national hits in 2009. Gyaru singer Nishino Kana is one of the few well-selling artists on Sony (formerly known for alternative musicians Supercar, Puffy, and Denki Groove). And even former “arty” magazines like CUTiE have moved towards the gyaru style, and the fiercely indie girl mag Zipper put gyaru icon Tsubasa Masuwaka on the cover. There is no popular female style that does not see a little influence from the yankii side of gyaru culture.

Not truly “the most popular”

While otaku and yankii cultures are enjoying a new cultural influence in their deep commitment to consumption, we should not forget that these groups do not make up any kind of actual societal consensus. The masses may be consuming parts of their culture, but these groups are at best pluralities rather than majorities — dominant in the market but nowhere near 50% of tastes.

For example, if you look at the sales numbers for the #1 single of 2010 — “Beginner” by AKB48 at 954,283 copies — this would not have been enough copies to make the top ten from the years 1991 to 2000, when the wider public bought CDs in droves. In 2001, it would have ranked in at #10 — a successful hit for a niche, but not the symbol of J-Pop for the era. The population of Japan in the last ten years has not dropped enough to make this smaller number of sales proportionally relevant — just less people are purchasing music.

AKB48’s narrow popularity becomes very clear when the group appears on television — a medium that continues to have a mass audience (although disproportionally elderly viewers.) Maeda Atsuko had been repeatedly voted the #1 member of AKB48, and yet her recent drama Hanazakari no Kimitachi e (Ikemen Paradise)saw extremely low ratings (episodes around 6%). AKB48 variety show “Naruhodo High School” has drawna dismal 4.5%.

AKB48 have also been extremely popular on YouTube, which skews towards a tech-savvy male audience in Japan. And yet a song like “Heavy Rotation”— at over 50 million views — has nearly one-third “thumbs down” votes. This is an extremely high amount level of dislikes compared to other music videos on the site.

So AKB48 are the most conspicuous music group in Japan at the moment with the highest record sales and highest number of appearances, but they should necessarily be considered a “mass” phenomenon with widespread fans across multiple segments. The group has captured the strongest plurality in the market, and companies have mobilized around them in desperation. If Dentsu could sponsor a different hit idol group with an even broader fan base, they would. But ironically, no one other than AKB48 or Johnny’s Jimusho groups have the sales or market legitimacy to work in the context of mass market advertising. Marginal groups are now feeding and over-influencing the remnants of the mass market just as counter-consumer once did.

Next time, we look at whether marginal subcultures can produce goods that are easily exportable.

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