Revaluing Music

After wondering how music had got so cheap in my last post and wondering how revenue streams could be re-invigorated going forward, two upcoming releases have answered me in kind, both by long established acts, Depeche Mode and The Beatles. Now, back in the day you could buy an album on CD, LP or cassette and there was a time (around 1990 ish) that all three were bought in massive numbers. That has moved on slightly with CD the major format (for now), followed by downloads and with vinyl (for some artists) being the preserve of the ‘geek’ – let’s face it, you have to try bloody hard to actually buy a record deck these days and then have an amp to plug it into etc… so your casual music fan ain’t buying vinyl anymore. CD and download are pretty similar in cost – around £7.99 if you know where to buy and, due to the rules of supply and demand, vinyl is now double that – if you can find somewhere to buy it. As for the cassette. That died. And you probably didn’t notice.

Now, Depeche Mode are a long-established behemoth, having been around since 1980 and have a loyal international following. Disclaimer – I’m a fan. Their new album is called ‘Sounds of the Universe’ and is due out at the end of April. When they released their seminal ‘Violator’ album back in 1990, it came out in the aforementioned CD/LP/Cassette classic triumvirate. So, how can you buy the new album? Amazingly, you can buy it as a CD, CD+DVD set, Double vinyl LP+CD set – pressed on 180gm virgin vinyl (including a Sounds Of The Universe CD – which I suppose is nice), Download and a Deluxe Box Set containing three CDs, a DVD, two hard-back books and a ‘host of extras’. So, five formats. The cheapest will be around £7.99 (for the boring old CD) with prices going up to around £55 for the Deluxe Box Set. Now, choice is probably a good thing, but if you are a Depeche Mode collector, you are probably going to buy all apart from the download. So, one fan will probably shell out the best part of £80 for one album. A nice little earner for their indie label Mute and the Basildon lads I think you’ll agree…

But the real biggy coming up is from The Beatles. Now, I’m a bit of a fan of the Fabs (I will get round to writing about bands I despise, promise). Actually, I’m a really big fan – I want to do the new MA at Liverpool Uni sometime before I die – that big. So, as a fan I’m genuinely interested in the news. The thing is that, without going into numbingly boring detail, several of the albums haven’t been available in certain formats on CD ever and these are going to be remastered to boot. Basically speaking, when the reissues come out (on 09/09/09 – 9 was John Lennon’s favourite/lucky/significant number, don’t you know) all 12 original UK albums, plus Magical Mystery Tour (originally a double 7″ vinyl EP – you don’t see too many of THAT format around these days) and Past Masters I and II on one CD (basically all non-LP tracks that were rounded up for the Beatles on to CD campaign of 1987) will be released in stereo. That’s 14 new CDs to purchase. But wait. EMI are also bringing out a box-set of the lot. Oh yeah, all tracks that were originally released as mono mixes will also be released as a box set for ‘completists’ (that’ll be me then). Oh, sorry, they’ll be a DVD as well. Now, I’m just guessing, but I reckon that, all in all, that is at the very least a £200 outlay. Eeeek. And as they are bound to sell around the world in gargantuan quantities, EMI and the band will be able to top up those revenues a bit more. Hell, EMIwon’t even *need* an album by Radiohead this year after all to keep going!!!

So, not to worry. For every £3 CD avaiable at ‘Head’, the true giants of the musical stage still know how to make their money.

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3 responses to “Revaluing Music

  1. Hi Jeff,

    Here’s my North American perspective, which is a bit rosier regarding the state of music sales, playback, and retail.

    Living in New York, where Virgin is in the process of dying a slow death and the much-loved Greenwhich Village outpost of Tower Records was put to sleep about three years ago, we’re actually starting to think that specialized music retailers might return. Strange but true – residential rents all over the city are dropping by significant amounts. Usually corporate real estate follows a few months behind. So hopefully neighborhoods like Greenwhich Village and parts of Brooklyn will retain the specialized music stores they have – stalwarts like Kim’s Underground (which just moved to a smaller place – smart move) and Bleecker Street Records and many more, well, not that many. And possibly one or two new ones will start up, since the best time to start a new business is to catch the end of a recession (which is hopefully soon). I’d assume London, especially places like Camden Town, could benefit from the same situation.

    As for the deep inventory chain stores like Virgin and HMV, they’ve been dying a slow death for years. You know it’s all over when they start selling porn. The last giant standing in NYC is venerable J&R Music which still has an enourmous inventory, including vinyl (more on that later). But they have a huge advantage over the others – they own their building.

    Vinyl has definitely made a comeback in the States. You can buy turntables from $500 – $50,000, a huge amount of accesories to go with them, and the selection of heavy weight vinyl is growing. Smarter labels, liek the Depeche Mode example you gave, realize it’s easy enough to sell records with codes to download the respective MP3s as a bonus. And that way everyone’s happy.

    And maybe that’s where the “serious” music market is headed – specialized, remastered editions of the established “canon” of rock and jazz and a few other genres. Which is great for the Beatles, Pink Floyds, Dylans, Coltranes, and Clashes of the world, but probably a tight space to enter for young bands trying to establish themselves. Overall, bands, labels, hifi manufacturers, etc. need to do a better job of communicating to younger people that music has real value. Anything simply taken for free off the internet obviously has little to no value, it’s just a commodity.

  2. priorknowledge

    All valid points Antonio but I think that the centres of major cities like New York and London will always be a little different – specialist shops will survive (or possibly launch) as there is a big enough market to sustain them. Specialist stores will survive for the collectors and connoisseurs, but the majority of people that buy music (or try not to buy it) are really not interested in anything beyond liking the latest hit single. you know the types – have 10 CDs on the shelf and after seeing the first couple of them you can pretty much guess the other eight…

    Maybe the rise of sales in vinyl is a definite reaction to not ‘owning’ music, which is an interesting point. If I was starting out now I’d probably like to have my music ‘around me’ rather than in virtual format. It’s a bit scary to think that only dance music kept a few pressing plants going…

    I like the idea of getting a code to download the MP3s when buying an album – great idea, as even vinyl fans probably have an MP3 player and will want to hear the music on the go. A nice touch.

    I still think that we will soon reach a time where certain artists or whole labels are never available on physical format.

  3. Pingback: Putting the fun back into buying music « Music Matters

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