Category Archives: Collecting Music

Everything, Everywhere, All The Time

Now that music can be squashed into zeros and ones and stored as a “virtual” resource on ever more tiny storage solutions, have we seen the end of the deletion?

Pre-digital days, when you had to have your music on a physical format, such as CD, vinyl or tape, most music was only available for a period of time. This was particularly true for singles. The vast majority of record companies only pressed a certain number of a single and maybe added a couple more runs of the single if it was particularly popular. But, apart from a couple of labels the come to mind (Factory and Virgin), after a couple of months, the 7″ and 12″ single were “deleted” from the catalogue. This meant that some record became particularly collectable. It also lead to the follow-on phenomenon, the “re-issue” – i.e. if a record had become popular again after a period of time, the record company could re-issue it, sometimes in a format that was very similar to the original release, sometimes very different. Some tracks took two, three or even four issues before becoming hits. One that springs to mind was “Take on me” by A-Ha, which was finally a hit on the third issue – the first issue became massively collectable. Some albums were also deleted, although this was much rarer than for the single. Sometimes, vinyl that wasn’t sold was returned to the record company to be melted down to be used again.

But are these days “virtually” gone? Obviously physical product  is still deleted, but due to online digital formats, won’t all music eventually be available all the time? The obvious reasons for deletions of physical product is in the nature of the beast – physical products cost money to produce, money to distribute, money (and space) to store. And as the digital world continues to gather pace, the idea of losing space to something that can be stored on a tiny piece of memory questions why physical formats should exist at all. There is still a hell of a lot of music that has been deleted and never reissued or is currently unavailable – but eventually, as things are “rediscovered”, we will reach a point that music will be available for evermore in a digital format?

And this “everything, everywhere, all the time” state of affairs doesn’t just extend to music. Images, information, literature, ideology, fashion, philosophy, trends etc are going to be constantly around us. But is this such a good thing? In the past, even great and massively popular phenomena eventually died down due to the unavailability of the source, or just that it was a bit tricky “tapping into” that source. I think that this was healthy – it let the next thing come along as the thing it replaced quietly shuffled off to be rediscovered in 20 years time by the next generation with new eyes. Now we can find/listen/see/experience so much via PC, laptop and increasing smartphone. The latter is making access anytime, anywhere more viable than ever.

Won’t this culture of everything being available confuse things a bit? Can something go through a “revival”  if it was always there? Will things be able to disappear only to be rediscovered and deemed cool by the next generation? Or will we all become magpies, constantly picking the best bits of music, art, literature, culture etc and mashing it together?

It’s certainly going to be interesting. Maybe pop (and everything else) is finally eating itself after all.

Your five seconds are up

Staring at my shelves of CDs and vinyl (recently culled – It was vicious and I do feel a bit reborn, thanks for asking) I was wondering if the shiny new world of always available, always on, always there and almost always free music that has been unleashed in recent times via illegal (file sharing) and legal (Spotify) means has fundamentally changed they way we get “into” music. I was looking at certain CDs and picked out a couple that I hadn’t heard in a while (probably a number of years) and got an urge to give them a spin (the albums, incidentally, were REM’s Reveal and New Order’s Technique).

Nothing strange in this, but it set of a chain of thought that reminded me of a term that I haven’t heard of for a while – “it’s a grower”. This term was given to albums that might take a bit of time to get under your skin and become an essential part of your collection. I think this new landscape has changed this concept forever.

I guess it is all down to a couple of things – what we invest in music (i.e. our money) and the mindset to repeat play something. The former has certainly reduced for the vast majority of people as access to new music has exploded – no longer do you need to wait for a track that your mate has raved about to advantageously appear on the radio or (naughty) be given to you on a cassette or by other means. You can pretty much find anything on the web for free now – Spotify and MySpace has made this the way ahead. But this mass availability may have eroded the latter of my points. In the old days, if you spent the equivalent of around £20 on an album/CD, you probably gave it a while to impress you. This is where tracks/albums/artists that were “growers” had a chance. If the album/CD in question really didn’t do it for you, it was off to Record and Tape Exchange to try to get some cash back for it.

But what of the new Warholesque world? Will time-poor people with almost immediate access to millions of songs give something a chance? I’m not so sure. I think that they will probably move on to the next thing. Maybe it fits with the modern world – I, for one, love the new landscape – I was never really an albums person and used to make loads of mix tapes. Today the best way of getting “in someone’s head” is more than likely to be included in an advertising campaign, be on MTV/radio loads and even aligned to a brand. Maybe it is a good thing; I personally have loads of albums that have maybe two or three good tracks and seven fillers – people going forward are just not going to put up with this. Will it push quality up? maybe, maybe not.

But the cream will always rise – it just might not grow in future.

Will musicDNA add value to digital files?

So, MusicDNA has arrived and it’s designed to make people start paying for digital file formats.

The record industry has realised that people aren’t that inclined to pay for a computer file that they can easily (if illegally) get for free if they can use a computer. As much as they have tried, the quality, ease of portability/transfer and quickness of transfer of the humble MP3 file was always going to mean that trying to monetise it was going to be tricky, or at least monetise it enough to sustain an industry.

MusicDNA is being promoted as  a kind of a “super MP3”. The idea is that extra stuff comes along with the song, like the lyrics, the video, artwork and blog posts and extra stuff will be added later – so the idea is you kind of “sign up” to the band. And pirated copies of the file won’t update.

This is a noble effort to get people to start spending on music again and recognises that you need to offer a lot more than the music file these days. Will it work? I think probably not. The thing is that at the end of the day most people just fundamentally want the song – apart from proper fans of an artist, most people hear a tune, like the tune and want to get a way of hearing it as and when they want. As readers of this blog will know, I’m very much an advocate of the whole music experience (or what it once was).

People have always liked music. From the first time that man could bang out rhythms people have liked music. In the last hundred years or so we’ve had the privilege of being able to own recorded versions of music, from wax cylinder, through shellac, to vinyl, tape, CD and now digital file. Cassette tape was the first time when people could realistically copy “records” in the 1970’s. You did have bootleg vinyl, but it was so prohibitively costly that only live gigs and rare mixes/versions were illicitly pressed up. I remember working on record stalls in the late 80’s and bootleg LPs were a good £12 upwards (some of the Beatles bootlegs were £25-£30 and this was 1988). The real issues for the record companies and music industry as a whole was the advent of the CD – “perfect” digital sound – no hiss, crackle or pop (unless it was on the master tape). This meant that people could copy CDs onto cassette tape and it was as good as the cassette tape you bought in the shop – the beginning of the end. When recordable CD became affordable around 1997, things got really bad for the recording industry. Not only could perfect copies be reproduced with no loss of sound quality, but they could be made very quickly indeed. Around the same time, MP3 emerged. Double whammy time.

Realistically the record industry must have realised it was the end of the gravy train then. So the persecution of internet pirates began. But if a kid has a few quid pocket money and has the choice of ripping off a few music tracks or buy the digital files – identical files – what is he going to do? Say to his mates that he can’t afford to pop down the pub on Saturday because he’s given EMI a few quid for exactly the same files he could go to a torrent site to get illegally? What do you reckon? Do you think music fans in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s really bought music to keep the bands in their limos and private jets? Or because that vinyl/tape/CD were the only way they could get hold of the music?

Put it this way, it beer flowed through taps for free, straight into the home, would you go to the pub to pay for the stuff?

So, music will survive. It was around for years before “the buying years” and will be around for years more. And people will always want new music and associated artwork, videos and image of their favourite stars. It will be different – because the digital world has made getting music (and the videos, lyrics, artwork etc) too easy. There really is no going back.

Where will the buzz be in the future?

I met my old mate Pete yesterday. When we meet up, the conversation inevitably heads towards geeking out about collecting music – Pete ran a rare record stall on Greenwich market in the late 80’s and I worked for him on Sundays. Most of what I know about collecting music was gained from Pete. I used to collect various bands, but mainly Level 42 (I moved onto 60’s and indie pretty quickly) when I was 16 and in those days before Ebay, it was amazingly hard to find certain records. but it was FUN. The buzz of finding something that was rare, in good nick and affordable (or, if you were really lucky, massively under-priced) gave such a buzz. I know it is geeky, but I don’t care.

Anyhow, Pete makes me look like an amateur and is still uncovering bizarre pressings and rarities by his favourite band, Blondie. But what will kids in 10, 20 years from now going to have to track down? By definition, everything is available and will remain available via download. No hearing that there is a limited edition, promo-only 12 with only 100 copies pressed and then trying to frantically track it down. OK, having everything available is obviously great and now days people are exposed to such a wide range of music, but I can’t help thinking that something has been lost. And I still think that having your records/CDs physically around you is an incredibly powerful thing – the picture covers, physically putting the music “on”.

The thing is, the record industry needs to create long-term loyalty to bands – in the old days, fans could buy picture discs, double packs, remix 12″s, loads of different stuff. Everything was branded – all part of developing that loyalty. Will downloading zeros and ones promote the same sort of loyalty to a band? Or will bands/musicians become as disposable as everything else in the modern world?

Beatlemania part 3 (or is it 4?)

So, today, 9/9/9, sees the biggest day ever for Beatles releases.

Disclaimer – I’m a bit of a Beatles anorak – slightly lapsed, but they don’t get up to much these days you see…

You know the significance… number 9 was Lennon’s favourite number. He was born on the 9th. He died on the 9th (well, it was the 9th in the UK). Revolution 9, #9 Dream…. etc etc… there is also some game coming out apparently, but as that would have Lennon spinning in his grave (I would hope) I’m not going to go into that here…

I’m talking about the CD reissues. Basically every original Beatles UK album (apart from a couple of exceptions) is being reissued in remastered format on both Stereo and Mono. Not remixed, remastered. This is a big point. Back when the albums were originally released between 1963 and 1970, all of them were issued in both Mono and Stereo versions. The basic rule of thumb is that in 1963 Mono ruled (as Stereo was still pretty “new”) and by the end of the decade, the roles were reversed (mainly due to developments in multitrack recording and sales of “stereo-ready” (think HD-ready, but 40 years before) Hi-Fi equipment). Therefore, the early Beatles albums are seen as “definitive” in Mono (the story goes that The fabs themselves would sit in for hours listening to and commenting on the Mono mixing process and bugger off when the Stereo mix was put together in about an hour). Early Stereo mixing was crude, mainly due to the limited recording techniques and was of little interest to the band. By 1970, the Stereo mix was seen as definitive and Mono had all but died out.

Anyway, I got a bit bogged down there… when The Beatles albums came out on CD in 1987, the early albums were presented in Mono, later ones in Stereo (I’m a Beatle nut, but I pay little attention to such things. I could check them, but can’t be arsed). Anyhow, it is agreed that the intervening 22 years (bloody hell!) has seen massive steps in remastering and as the recordings are, quite rightly, viewed as “The Holy Grail”, Abbey Road bods have spent 4 years remastering all the originally issued mono and stereo masters.

But here’s the thing. To buy all of the albums in Mono and Stereo (in a nice box set with “extras”) costs about £370!!!!! and this is where my argument really begins (sorry about the preamble). Is this price tag arrogance and greed, justifiable or “It’s The Beatles! shut up!”. I shall argue these views below:

Arrogance and greed:

The normal business rules of engagement don’t really apply to The Beatles – even when they were active they ignored such things. Note Apple Corps (still a good pun I reckon). Basically they ran a record/fashion/electronics/erm…. company and lost a hell of a lot of money. The funny thing was that they started it to stop paying so much tax (note Taxman by George…). Fast forward to now and although the rest of the world has stopped paying big money for music, Apple/EMI know that Beatles devotees will shell out whatever. And for EMI, it may well shore-up its profits for this year. Gone are the days of current mega-bands on the label – fortunately even Coldplay seem to have gone over the top of the hill (thank the lord). No other band could get away with asking for £370 for remasters of albums, the last of which came out almost 40 years ago. But The Beatles can…

Justifiable:

We have been told that it took Abbey Road bods four years to remaster the albums. Apparently, according to the reports I’ve read, they are stunning. So, what to do? If they were anything less than amazing, the knives would be out saying “why didn’t they take their time and make them spot on?”. Say they had come out “OK-ish” and it was £200 for the lot? I bet people would say “I would have paid DOUBLE for them to be the best they could”. Remastering costs money. I like a band called The La’s. Last year they brought out an alternative version of their sublime debut album. I have heard off a record company source that they mastered it from a cassette – even though the master tapes were in the vaults. The reason? money – it would cost a few grand to master from the master tapes – and the album wasn’t guaranteed to sell. Quite simply, The Beatles are like, erm, Apple (the iPod maker). Apple know they have “disciples” and can thrown money at a product like the iPhone and guess that they will probably make back the R&D. This is a luxury that very few “brands” have. The Beatles have it…

“It’s The Beatles, Shut Up!”

Well, it has a point. The Beatles are undoubtedly the most popular, biggest-selling recorded group of all time. Forget The Stones. Abba. Queen. Wacko Jacko. If The Beatles remasters its back-catalogue it is a major music event. Check out how many of the albums are on the chart next week. The were a phenomena we will never see again (and I missed them!).

Play it again, Sam

It seems we are a bit closer to a time when we don’t buy music to keep anymore, but rent it to listen to when we want. Apparently the record charts/pop charts/hit parade/toppermost of the poppermost will soon recognise data from streaming services such as Spotify. This is a HUGE and seismic change. The charts were so central to music sales a few years ago and reflected recent releases. Now things could get a lot more volatile. Let’s delve a bit deeper into why this is such a big deal.

One of the main reasons for this blog is to look back at how we bought music and cast the view forward to guess how things will be. I firmly believe that we are quickly heading towards a future when the majority of music will be consumed via streaming services of one form or the other. There may be ways to buy music “for keeps” but for the vast majority of people, the days of having racks in the living room with LPs/CDs in are pretty much yesterday’s news.

Why? well, behind every romantic notion of collecting music, the impact on society of singles and LPs/CDs etc is a business of selling music. For most products and services the way of selling more is by advertising/marketing/PR (I’m a particular fan of the latter 😉 ) But the music industry has always had another method of promotion.

The pop charts.

Since the fifties, getting a record on the pop charts meant the domino effect of free publicity. Records on the charts receive more plays on the radio and on TV. This leads to more sales etc… you know the story. As someone who used to work in record shops and market stalls, I have heard all sorts of stories about how records were “hyped” up the charts. You see, back in the day (I mean before mass communication/broadband/the internet) certain record shops earned a status known as “chart return”. This meant that these chosen shops had a system installed that meant that when they sold a record/CD that data was logged with the official chart company of the day (people of a certain age will remember “Gallup”). Now, not every record shop had this chart return system and to prevent “corruption” the charts were made up of data from a random sample of what these chart return shops scanned in. Still, I recall hearing tales of all sorts of “interesting” and downright dodgy practices employed to try to rig the charts. I’ve heard of record sales reps offering boxes of free product to chart return shops for a few extra “sales” being put through chart return systems randomly during the week (it couldn’t be done all at once – it would have been picked up – a bit like dodgy betting patterns). I’ve also heard stories of record companies/managers of bands paying people to go and buy 5-10 copies of a single from each chart return shop in the area. And ever wondered why certain shops used to sell singles for 99p? Did you really think that they were profitable at that price? No, not really… they were given boxes of the things for free, because the record company knew that if a single made the charts, sales of the associated album would increase…. and since the 1970s, albums are where money has been made.

This isn’t the first overhaul of the charts – a few years ago paid downloads were (rightly) added to chart figures. And I’m not sure what became of the chart return shop. I assume that today pretty much every sale of a single/album could be logged via the web and the hyping of records up the charts has probably become trickier. Who knows? I certainly don’t. But this idea that songs streamed from a site like Spotify will be counted on the charts seems to mark the end for them in my eyes. I realise that the charts have become less important in recent years, but they still told us something about what the masses were listening to.

But adding streaming to the count….? Surely this opens a whole new can of worms. Will the track have to be played all the way through to count? won’t we start getting “song spam” where records are “hyped” by people opening accounts and then continuously repeating the same track? And thinking about it, as everyone is getting linked up, why not create a chart that reports on when you play a song at home? Having “always on” internet should mean that in the future every track you play on any device could be logged for a chart…. actually, thinking about it, it sounds pretty obvious.

And this gives record companies even less reason to release physical formats….

A lovely woozy, breezy album for a sunny weekend – Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career

camera_obscura_my_maudlin_career

As previously mentioned, I’ll occasionally be spurred to post about an album or band. Not a review as such – that would be bordering on being a “critic” and would mean that you would need to review albums that you don’t like! What’s the point in that!! That’s a bit like fancying one girl in a room of 30 and also passing comment on why you don’t fancy the other 29!!

Anyway, this weekend is going to be hot hot hot. A perfect album to listen to around 6pm after an afternoon in the garden (you know, a little sunburned, maybe with a beer and barbie on the go) is My Maudlin Career, the latest release by Camera Obscura. It is, for so many reasons, my album of 2009 so far and it will take something bloody impressive to steal that honour away.

The band is from Scotland and they have a sound that takes bits from the best Scottish bands – the melody of Belle and Sebastian, a sprinkling of soul borrowed from Orange Juice and nods to country and west coast Beach Boys pop that seems to have laced the best Scottish music over the last 25 years or so. There are bits that are Motownesque and it sounds as though it was produced by Phil Spector in his best wall-of-sound period, but with a little less layering. And it has “Forever Changes” strings and is possibly what St Etienne would have sounded if they were Scottish.

I’m not going to go through it track-by-track as that’s a bit like saying “I like the girl I fancy’s nose, because… and her hair is great as it is…” but suffice to say, stand out tracks are “French Navy” and “My Maudlin Career”. But they are all great. And blast out “Honey in the Sun” loudest as that would be apt when you follow my instructions to the word.

I’ll admit that I’ve only recently got into the band and I feel a bit robbed as they have been putting music out for 10 years. But I’m glad I’ve stumbled on them now as I can get the back catalogue as well. Woo-hoo!

It’s on Spotify, so go, seek out and listen now.