Q&A With Yves Riesel, CEO, Qobuz
France-based Qobuz (pronounced cow-buzz and named after a traditional two-stringed instrument of Central Asia) is one of the premier online music retailers of CD-quality and high resolutions downloads. Qobuz is also one of the first sites to offer a CD-quality streaming service, if not the first, and in my opinion it is also the most advanced website for music download sales and streaming services around. One peak at their home page on any given day will tell a lot of what you need to know—podcasts, blogs, hi-fi, editorials, and more, Qobuz embodies many of the best qualities of online sales combined with a healthy human touch. Yves Riesel, Qobuz's Co-founder CEO, was kind enough to agree to this Q&A and I'd like to thank him for his time and answers.
Can you give us a history of Qobuz?
Qobuz was founded following the work we did very early on at Abeille Musique (from 2003), in order to turn an independent CD distribution and production company into a digitally ready entity. It was difficult as our business partners, mainly independent classical and jazz labels were very reluctant at first - they wanted us to concentrate on selling their CDs and were nervous, sometimes aggressive, when we were speaking to them about a digital contract. This was a time when new digital aggregator companies were offering cash guarantees against rights, and very often the labels disconnected their CD distribution from their digital distribution. Which was an error. But unfortunately most of the CD distributors were not involved with digital music, and as such, were not offering any solutions to the labels.
"I think that our main point is that we love music, we are still fans and we will always stay independent minded."
Considering the way digital distribution was turning - poor quality, no specialisation - we thought that our experience at Abeille would be useful for other labels and so decided to open a BtC music service, enlisting all the competitors of Abeille. We signed with everybody, majors and independents. I think that our main point is that we love music, we are still fans and we will always stay independent minded.
The question of provenance, the exact source, is an ongoing issue especially for Studio Master reissues. How do you ensure that what you are selling is in fact what it is represented to be with 24-bit downloads?
We strongly believe that B2B music distribution should be a serious business done in a professional way. It is not always the case. We saw terrible things at the beginning, even from people with a very good reputation. Producers were just asking for more money to do the job, aggregators were keen to make no efforts at all - in fact the key point is the quality of the B2B music distribution - and there is a lot to complain about. One thing must be clear: 24 Bits for the present and forthcoming productions will be easy. As for the past, for the CD era, it will be quite rare as lots of original recordings simply do not allow this quality. And for the analogue era, the problem is the quality of the original tapes and the cost of remastering them.
"We strongly believe that the labels have to improve their quality controls. It is their role, their job to deliver the right product."
As an e-shop, Qobuz should be delivered with good quality and sincere products by the labels, and then focus on finding customers and giving them a great shopping experience. The reality is a bit different. We have to control and check, and check again. On new releases we have less and less quality problems. On the reissues we are still suspicious and discover a lot of problems. We strongly believe that the labels have to improve their quality controls. It is their role, their job to deliver the right product. There is also the question of 24 Bits albums done from vinyls - in this case we are selling them at the same price than the CD quality.
Another issue plaguing sound quality especially for new releases of popular music is dynamic compression. Do you think DR Values are something that Qobuz should monitor and make available to the public?
We began collecting 24 bits albums 5 years ago. In the meantime many things changed and also elements about the information we must deliver to our consumers. Over the next year we will continue to evolve in this field - I must also say that more automatized functions will help. A continued 'work in progress...'
Qobuz offers a CD-quality lossless streaming service. Can you talk about how this came about, how many titles are available, and how many subscribers you have?
CD-quality lossless streaming service and all our catalogue as CD-quality downloads. In fact we have everything. All the repertoire of the majors + all the repertoire of the independents. Minus lots of shit (sorry) that we are excluding for technical/fraudulent quality reasons or unnecessary duplication of public domain stuff.
Originally my idea was very simple: there was no reason, even technical, to deliver compressed music. Our teams worked hard 2,5 years ago to launch the 1st Lossless streaming service… and we did it. We were also the 1st Lossless streaming service to be embraced by SONOS, and continue to do many deals with lots of audio-connected products and brands.
"Originally my idea was very simple: there was no reason, even technical, to deliver compressed music."
Currently, the Qobuz streaming service is not available in the US. Are there plans to expand this service to the US and other countries?
Yes : )))))) I would LOVE to tell you when - as a scoop ! But I promise : you will be the first to know.
The holy grail for some people is high resolution streaming. Is this something that Qobuz is looking into? What are the main obstacles for offering high resolution streaming today and do you see these obstacles being overcome in the future?
We have now machines which allow us to stream at home 24 Bits files (BlueSound for example). As for a 24 Bits streaming service - labels will ask for more money, which is understandable. Theoretically it is possible, technically not so difficult. But is it worth it NOW? We have an other idea, that I hope we will be able to announce it early next fall.
Accompanying Neil Young's Pono publicity there has been some criticism and skepticism relating to high resolution downloads. The most common complaint being higher samples rates and bit depths do not offer better sound quality and that CD-quality is good enough. Can you talk about why, in technical terms, you feel higher resolution downloads offer better sound quality as compared to CD-quality?
OK - The higher the quality of the sample file - the better your ears and equipment need to be to appreciate the difference.
If you have good ears and a wonderful sound system - then listening to 24/192 should be a routine.
"We are not listening to our systems or our cables. We are listening to the soul of the musician. For Qobuz, even when trying to deliver the best sound, the music is the primary concern."
If not, better perhaps to improve your equipment a bit and listen to 16/44. And do not forget: bad music wonderfully recorded will always be bad music.
We are not listening to our systems or our cables. We are listening to the soul of the musician. For Qobuz, even when trying to deliver the best sound, the music is the primary concern. Because we knew in the past that 24 Bits masters would be always rare and expensive, we have done a lot to make sure everything was available in LossLess both in streaming and downloads.
For many people, the notion of restricting sales of downloads by geographic region seems senseless. I've often had people comment that they wished they could buy all titles from the Qobuz catalog but because they're in the US, they are blocked from doing so. Do you foresee this issue of geographic restrictions for downloads changing in the future?
The frontiers now are much more severe in the online music field than in the CD distribution. We are serious people and we want to preserve the rights of the artists and the producers. We will soon open in more countries having signed the rights and then you will be able to fully benefit from the service !
There have been repeated rumors that Apple will begin selling 24-bit downloads through iTunes as early as June 2014. If/when this happens, how do you see this changing the download market?
For the good if it happens!
"Their [Apple's] catalogue will be not bigger than ours, and dealing with us, for both artists and labels, will always create more value and more fairness than with such a hardware company."
It’s good to have competitors in the field of the quality. Their catalogue will be not bigger than ours, and dealing with us, for both artists and labels, will always create more value and more fairness than with such a hardware company.
Now, for the last 5 years, when starting each day, I’ve known that a competitor could arrive and deliver LossLess and HD files. But what about the music experience? Our philosophy is very different from iTunes and from, I must also say, most of the streaming services.
Different from iTunes because we have seriously and properly organized boutiques for each music genre, and real, human, expert recommendations.
Different from most of the streaming services because our customer is not only floating on an ocean of music: we are helping him to plunge into each genre. And with lots of exclusive content etc
What will Qobuz look like in terms of its services in five years? And ten years?
- Really super-apps with exclusive features.
- Really exquisite meta datas and tons of exclusive documentation; 1st class music journalism, highly demanding music experts.
- Perfect integration with most of the audio brands.
- 24bits, DSD etc streaming service.
- Lots of exclusive releases on Qobuz because it will be worth it for the artists and the labels.
- Worldwide live concerts in audio-video HD, and the best music events within your subscription.
- Fully documented 100 years+ history of the recorded music.
- All in all, an invaluable source for any music lover.