Category Archives: Format Thinking

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.


How Mobile Music Became the Norm

With the advent of smart(er) phones and tiny mp3 players, there is ample opportunity to listen to music when you are away from home, wherever you are. In fact, we are quickly approaching a time when everyone will have access to “music on the move” whether they choose to listen or not. If you get a new phone these days, unless you make a concerted effort, it will more than likely come with a media player. You can then add tunes from your PC (so-called side loading), download mp3’s you can purchase or stream music to the device. And the chances are that you didn’t even get the phone with music in mind.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this – I remember a time when deciding to take your music “on the road” with you was a bit of a chore and made you stand out as a bit “different”.

I got my first Walkman (great branding that – it wasn’t a Sony Walkman of course, they were far too expensive for me, it was a clone) when I was about 13. For younger readers, it may seem a bit weird now, but these were essentially portable tape players. They became pretty small in to the early 1990’s, but fundamentally couldn’t get any smaller than the media you played on them, i.e. cassette tapes. Still, they were small enough to put in a coat pocket. They came with headphones. Yes, “head” phones. In-ear? not invented. These headphones consisted of two rather large foam-covered speakers held together with a piece of aluminium that, erm, went over your head. This made you stand out a bit. Another limitation was that you had to carry around the tapes you wanted to play. Not your 40,000 songs on your iPod – an album per tape was the norm, unless you made up a compilation (which, to add a bit of variety, almost everyone did). Then the device had to be powered. Charged via the mains? Nope – with batteries that didn’t last more than a couple of weeks of pretty light playing.

So, you see, there were obstacles to mobile music back then – but to us it still seemed revolutionary. It didn’t matter that the music was bathed in “hiss” (if you had Dolby B or C “noise reduction” or chrome or metal tapes (I’m not making this up!) the hiss was reduced a bit.) Or that the tape could get eaten up and mangled by the player at any time. Or that you couldn’t skip tracks (that hadn’t been invented either). Or that if you left the tape in the sun, or in a car, or actually anywhere where it could get hot, you ruined the music. Or that if you actually walked with a “Walkman” the music used to “judder” due to the unit being moved. Or that the headphones usually stopped working after about three months of use. Oh no, this was amazing stuff. If you were lucky or rich, your Walkman (clone) would have mysterious switches – Dolby B and C as mentioned above and one to choose the type of tape you were playing – metal, chrome or “normal” (imagine a marketing exec ALLOWING a version of a product to be labelled “normal” these days). Some, even had graphic equalisers, which were sort of a nerd’s revenge – fundamentally sliders that altered the bass and treble of the music that were labelled with unbelievably complex “frequency information” that no one understood.

The Walkman evolved, of course – it was superseded by the Discman – the same concept, but with Compact Discs. This was a little like taking the wheel and making it 50p shaped. carrying tapes around was annoying. Carrying CDs? Well, I didn’t see many with Discmans….

I would love to know how many people listen to music on the go now and how many had Walkmans back in the day. I assume that the benefits of the iPod and like have enticed millions that never would have put up with all the kerfuffle of owning a Walkman. And, as mentioned at the start of this post, smartphones have made music on the go just another add-on.

Still, the  enjoyment of listening to some crap 80’s music on a Walkman did give you a sense of achievement – even if you did stand out.

Anyone for music by the minute?

So Pink Floyd succesfully challenged EMI over the sale of its albums as indivdual track downloads, arguing that their albums are whole pieces and shouldn’t be sold on a track-by-track basis.

This is interesting for a number of reasons and may yet change the way music is sold to the public. As discussed in earlier posts, there are a number of historical reasons why pop songs tend to last around 3-4 minutes, ranging from the physical media that recordings were distributed on before the digital age to the structure of a song to what radio stations are and were willing to play. People’a attention span probably had quite a bit to do with it as well. The fist medium sold to the public, the wax cylinder, could contain around 2 minutes, the 78RPM pushed things to 3 1/2 minutes. The 7″ 45RPM allowed a little more than that, but generally a “pop” single was around 3-4 minutes. The LP 33RPM suddenly allowed a collection of songs to be added to a single disc. This meant that artists had up to 26 minutes per side to play with.

By the late 60s, LPs were outselling the single and music became all the more “thoughtful”. This meant that certain artists started to deliver collections of music that had themes and went way beyond a collection of 3-4 minute pop songs. Chief among these were Pink Floyd. Of course, at the time, a single may be taken from an LP, but there was no way to look forward 40 years and foresee the arrival of digital downloads and the selling of individual tracks. And for this reason, many contracts signed by artists before the digital revolution didn’t contain clauses that albums could only be sold as full “suites” of work. The Pink Floyd ruling is therefore important. I’ve just checked iTunes and “Dark side” is still available as separate tracks, but I assume that eventually it will be sold as an album only. This would obviously impact on sales for EMI, as punters can’t “pick and choose” the tracks they like. We all have albums sitting on our shelves that are good for one, maybe two songs with another ten instantly forgettable efforts.

So, a couple of bands are a bit miffed how their back catalogue is being sold, but how will it affect the selling of tracks going forward? Some bands are already embracing the “immediacy” of releasing tracks as and when they deem fit – why wait for 10-14 songs before releasing an “album” of songs? Has this broken the three year “album, three singles, tour” routine?

Another thing to contemplate is value for money. When music was only delivered on standard physical formats, there was pretty much an accepted recommended retail price for each format. Generally speaking, each format’s length dictated the “value” of the release and thus the price. So, 7″‘s were cheapest, 12″ about double the price and albums 4-5 times the price of a 7″.

But what about digital? Many online stores like to standardise prices – so around 79p – 99p for each “track”. But what if one track is two minutes long and another twenty? Will they both retail for the same price? Probably not…. So, are we going to see a “price per minute?” – The Ramones would have been screwed and Pink Floyd would have tanked their lucky stars for their slightly more middle-class audience!

It probably won’t come to this, but now the physical production of music has been removed from the downloadable equation, I suspect that we will see a variable pricing model emerge. In the “old days”, the more successful an album was, the lower the price became. I remember Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms selling for £3.99 in my local WH Smith in the late 80’s, down from an RRP of around £6.99. Maybe a kind of “digital music stockmarket” will emerge in the coming years.

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?

Will this Apple change its Spot(s)ify?

So Spotify has unveiled its iPhone app. And as you probably know, unveiling an iPhone app is a big deal for any company – because the iPhone is the most important “platform” since the IBM PC came ambling along in 1981. The “phone” bit of iPhone is almost unimportant now. What Apple did was use the phone bit cunningly so we’d all go and by cool handheld computers – all a bit Tomorrow’s World (for those that remember). Maybe Apple will finally get us all whizzing around on jetpacs by pretending they are phones as well.

Anyway, this Spotify app is a big deal as it allows you take the Spotify experience on the road. It’ll also cost you – it is only going to be available to those that sign-up to the Spotify premium service at £9.99 a month. The real killer bit is the fact that you can use it when you are out of WiFi or 3G range as it caches content. And I think that alone might just do the trick. See, Spotify was never going to survive on ad revenue in the current market with its current growth rate – it had to get people to pay. I know ads are a pain, but how many of you were paying £9.99 to do without them? Hands up? No one?

There is all sorts of speculation on the web whether Apple will clear it for the apps store as it is too much of a rival for iTunes and any streaming service that Apple may have been planning. This is interesting. If you subscribe to my view that the iPhone has become “the” platform as the IBM PC became “the” platform that launched the PC as we know it, Apple have to let it through. In fact, if they don’t, I reckon Spotify have provided a masterstroke by announcing it now and putting a demo video on its blog. This is the first app that iPhone users will almost DEMAND.

So here’s my guess. Apple will buy Spotify. Surely that’s a no-brainer?

The Votes Are In…

A couple of weeks ago I asked my legions of readers if they still had a record deck, if they had gone purely digital or whether they still had some vinyl but no record deck.

Well, after all the votes were counted (I’ve just finished – it was stressful) I can tell you that:

54% of readers still have a deck and some good old fashioned vinyl to play on it. This probably says more about the fact that people who are into vinyl will read the blatherings of someone who cares a bit too much about music formats than anything else – and my readers may just be a little older than the average music buyer…

31% of readers have gone purely digital – no deck and no vinyl either.

In last place with 16% are those that have vinyl in a cupboard somewhere, but have ditched the record deck.

So, if you are reading, Mr HMV, you plainly need to fill 54% of your shop with vinyl. It’s a FACT.