Category Archives: Where We Bought Music

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.

(Pop-Up) Shop Til You Drop

You may have noticed that record shops have changed quite a lot over the last few years. Actually, the high street as a whole has seem some radical changes. The recent down-turn has accelerated the effect of online retailing radically changing the way we shop for certain items. This has led to the record shop as we knew it almost disappearing entirely from the high street – Our Price went, Tower Records went, Virgin went. HMV were manfully struggling on, but it could be argued that as it was the last, it could probably limp on for a while by diversification.

But there may be something fundamentally changing on the high street. Many shops have lain empty due to chains going bust – Woolworths and the short-lived Zaavi to name two. And this has led to a new phenomena – the “Pop-Up Shop”. Due to developments in technology, brands can set up shop in an empty retail space for a period of time and then rip-down and go. Like some rent homes others buy, now shops can have the same option.  An obvious time for this sort of activity is Christmas time when the high street traditionally makes the majority of its annual take.

And HMV got in on the act this Christmas. It set up in 10 premises in areas that didn’t have an HMV. And, guess what….  they are keeping six of them open – at least for the time being.

This opens up a whole plethora of options and discussion points and may change the high street for years to come. If you think about it, we knew that certain types of shop would probably be decimated by internet retail. Low cost items that people are not really bothered about seeing “in the flesh” before purchase can be confidently bought online, for a cheaper price than on the high street. So that’s CDs, video games, DVDs and books basically. And these specialist retailers have been really struggling and closing as discussed. Certain shops will survive, mainly those where people need to try on (clothes, shoes etc) or where the item needs to fit into a home (so kitchen stuff, bedding etc). So the big chain stores are probably OK. But what about all the empty shops? Who is going to move in? This is where the pop-up shop becomes compelling. We could see models evolving where landlords rent out space at different rates during the year – so, a much cheaper rate during the summer (where other functions such as art galleries could rent the space), more expensive at Christmas (when the CD/book sellers – traditional stocking filler items – can literally set-up shop). And with the modern shopper demanding an “experience” more and more, what better than to have a constant evolution of short-term shops?

So, maybe the high street will fight back – and maybe we haven’t seen the end of the record shop afterall…

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….

HMV makes profit out of selling music and entertainment on high street shock

HMV will announce its full-year results later and it is expected that they will be near the top end of estimates. Like-for-like sales at its HMV UK and Ireland shops were up 4.3pc in the 16 weeks ending April 25 – which seems at odds with what is happening on the high street in general and particularly with music and entertainment retail.

However, HMV is now the last remaining music retail chain on the high street and bought 23 (profitable) stores from the collapsed Zavvi chain. Simply put, if you aren’t a downloader you are more likely than ever to buy your entertainment from HMV. Look back a few years beyond recent problems and it is shocking to remember the choice we used to have on the high street – Our Price, Tower Records, Virgin/Zavvi and Woolworths were all around as competitors to HMV – now they’ve all gone.

So, perhaps one strong high street music/entertainment chain is sustainable for now. And HMV is also looking at diversification – a smart and necessary move. A couple of days ago they announced a plan to open a chain of arthouse cinemas above its stores. This is potentially a clever move – although people now have DVD systems as a norm at home and many have 42″ screens and surround-sound AV set-ups, many people still like to view movies on very big screens. Clever.

Going forward HMV could strenghthen its position as the only music/entertainment chain left on the high street, offering physical formats to those that still want to buy them whilst offering entertainment “experiences” that you can’t get down a broadband line. I expect more in-store gigs and exclusive digital offerings. How about remixes that you have to visit the store to recieve… charging stations for MP3 players… maybe HMV will prove survival of the fittest is still alive and well.

Record Store Day – Next week, Chocolate Teapot Day

When I started this blog at the beginning of the year it was primarily to discuss music in the wider context – discussing the way we used to buy music and how this has fundamentally changed – for good, if not better. I blogged about “the good old days” here.

They say timing is everything and there appears to be some nostalgia rising for the humble record store. I was listening to 6 Music (BBC’s digital-only station aimed at over-30 music lovers) a couple of days ago and caught Steve Lamaq (the indie-fan’s, indie-fan) asking his listeners for their recollections of visiting record stores and getting the predictable responses of people romanticising visiting these citadels of music almost as a religious experience. Now, I used to work in second-hand record stores, at various record collector fairs and on the late, lamented Stockwell Street Market in Greenwich in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It was a brilliant time and I think my posting about it outlined it was a great time for me and lamenting that these days have gone FOR EVER. Without stating too much of the obvious, back then, there was no internet, no broadband, no MP3. If you wanted to hear a tune, you had to buy it on a physical format. As I also discussed, sometimes you had to pay big money to get a hard-to-find version of a tune. It was fun, it was a bit geeky (OK, VERY geeky) and it was of its time. today we have too many ways to get hold of music, legally and illegally. So, I was interested to discover that yesterday, Saturday 18th April 2009 was world “Record Store Day”. Obviously this was a noble idea and done with the best intentions to “save” these (mainly independent) places where you could go and discover new tunes. But it is too late and one of the last fairly desperate acts of a dying industry. In the future record stores will be very niche. Some people like crochet. Some like to go fly-fishing. Some morris-dance. I’m sure that the centre of big cities will still have enough people to keep a record shop or two going. But it is over. Done. Finished. As much as the people behind Record Store Day would like to think that we can halt the closures or maybe turn things back, it isn’t going to happen. Unfortunately the majority of people will go for convenience everytime. This coupled with a whole generation of kids growing up that cannot fathom why they would need a room to house their record collection rather than an iPod and the whole “save record shops” idea is about as likely to have a positive outcome as a “let’s go back to black and white analouge CRT TV” campaign. Luke Lewis of the NME also raises similar arguments here – and he also used to work in record stores. A really good article, go and read it.

As I have already said, I loved the days of vinyl/CD collecting and the buzz of finding a rare record or saving up to buy a new album. It was less immediate and was fun. But the genie has been let out of the bottle and no one is going back.

Ooo-arr Jim Lad, am I missing something….?

Yesterday the guys behind The Pirate Bay (note the name) were each sentenced to a year in prison. For those that aren’t aware of The Pirate Bay, it acts as the “middle man” for those wishing to (mainly) illegally download music and films by providing “torrent” technology. I’m not expert, but my understanding is that torrents work on a peer-to-peer principle. That is, I allow some of my hard drive to be “open” where I can place files that others can essentially copy on to their drives. Those sharers will also allow a portion of their drive to be “open” as well. Therefore, nothing is hosted by The Pirate Bay – it is merely facilitating the connection for the download. The really clever bit about torrent technology means that you can download files in smaller, broken down parts – this speeds up the time it takes to download the file as the torrent software will intelligently look for the fastest way to download the file from multiple sources. So, you might look to download the latest single by a band. You would go to The Pirate Bay (it’s one of many, by the way, but the most famous), look up the song and request it. It would find the file (if it is available on another user’s PC – that PC needs to be on and connected to the internet with the torrent client running) and if it is available, you click on the link and download it. The more people that are hosting the file, the easier and quicker it will (probably) be to get.

So, taking whether illegally copying music is right or wrong out of the equation, is it really that surprising that these guys have been sent down and asked to pay over £2 million in compensation? I’m not surprised in the least. Some of the comments I’ve read over the past couple of days have been pretty jaw-dropping. Mainly along the lines of this being an unbelievable miscarriage of justice. Really? Do you really think that? One comment I saw along the lines of “they are just like Google – providing links to content – they are just a directory!”. Erm, sorry, but OK, Google certainly points you to illegal/questionable content from time-to-time, but I don’t think that was their business model. The Pirate Bay, however, operated with that idea explicitly in mind. They knew what they were doing. Surely at the very least they are accomplices in the crime of stealing music. Say I Lent a car to a couple of mates who I pretty much suspected were going to rob a bank. They then robbed a bank using the car as a getaway vehicle and the police traced the car to me. Now, I was pretty certain that they were going to use the car in a crime. Would I be fearful or being prosecuted as being compliant in the crime? You bet I would…

As well as taking the moral standpoint out of the argument, I have no doubt that this will make absolutely no difference to whether people will continue to illegally copy music files or use similar sites to The Pirate Bay to do so. None whatsoever. Likewise if I was arrested for lending my car to some mates who then used it to rob a bank, I doubt it would stop others from robbing banks. The future of marketing/selling music isn’t the argument here. We all realise that will change radically and it is only due to the size and power of the worldwide music industry coupled with the public at large getting used to the fundamental change that has meant that things are still a little up in the air. I clearly recall the moment that I discovered MP3. It was in 1997 during my previous life as an IT manager. One of the guys on the team knew I was into music and downloaded a 5MB file of a single I liked there and then and played it to me. I realise that audiophiles will argue about the compression of an MP3 file versus uncompressed vinyl or not-as-compressed CD audio, but to 99% of the population, MP3 sounds as good, if not better than a CD bought in a shop. It was immediately apparent to me that such a ridiculously easy and convenient way of copying and moving top-quality music files around the planet was going to fundamentally change the way we buy (or not) music and listen to it. There was obviously no turning back. I remembered the “home taping is killing music” campaign of the 1980’s, but transferring an LP or CD to tape was never going to really dent sales. But MP3 was different. I heard a whole industry start to creak there and then.

Since that moment back in 1997, we have seen broadband become available to the masses while speeds have gone up and prices for broadband in the home go down. We have also seen the “music system” that most people own change from a stack Hi-Fi or portable “ghetto blaster” to a music player no bigger (and sometime a lot smaller) that a packet of cigarettes that can contain around 6,000 CDs. And people look at my all funny when they see my CD and vinyl collection taking up most of a room. “Why not burn them to MP3 and sell them?” is their perfectly reasonable argument. See what’s happening?

People will always want to listen to music and now it has become easier and more convenient than ever. Where convenience goes on the internet, various peddlers of services sprout up to make it even easier. But a fundamental shift in behaviour does not make everyone exempt from prosecution. We should not hold up these self-confessed “pirates” as a cause celebre to move things along with the marketing of music. We’ll get there, but there are far too many people with too many financial interests for it to happen overnight.

Devaluing music

As previously blogged, I despaired at the state of Zavvi in Bluewater and likened it to some sort of music jumble sale. Obviously Zavvi has gone to the wall and the flagship store on Oxford Street is currently standing empty – which begs the question, what the hell is going to take its place? T o me and many others, the store will always be the Virgin Megastore and is pretty damn huge. HMV already has two stores on Oxford Street and I can’t see them taking a third on. I guess the obvious evolution of the store would be for it to become an entertainment store of some sort – maybe a games store of some kind? Or, maybe one of the huge mobile operators will see it as an ideal place… Apple are around the corner in Regents Street – so I can’t see them taking it on either…

Anyway, I digress. I was in Bluewater again this week and walked past the former Zavvi store – which has been re-branded ‘Head’ – same logo as Zavvi and same ‘bring and buy’ sale feel. Apparently the former CEO of Zavvi has bought up eight of the former Zavvi/Virgin Megastore sites and is carrying on. What really grabbed me though is the price of some of the CDs on sale. The majority were cheap anyway, then there was an additional 25% to take off. I managed to buy the remastered ‘Infected’ by The The for £3. It got me thinking about how cheap music has become and that I wanted to compare it to what we used to pay for CDs/LPs/Cassettes in the old days. I’m pretty sure that around 1987, a chart LP would cost £5.99, a cassette the same and a CD £11.99. I visited thisismoney.co.uk which has a great tool where you can put a price of something in a particular year and find out the cost in ‘today’s money’. So, based on these prices, a vinyl LP or cassette would cost £10.05 and a CD would cost £22.11. So, the original CD of Infected would have cost me over seven times what I paid at ‘Head’. And it was rare to find CDs at less than £11.99. I think we can safely say that CDs were overpriced back then, but would people be willing to pay £22.11 for the latest Kylie album? I don’t think so. Basically we have become used to paying very little for music – and books, newspapers, DVDs. I realise that my purchase was of sale stock, but you can pick up most new release CDs for £7.99 maximum online if you look around a bit.

This also leads to another point – will record companies stop pressing CDs soon? I remember when the CD really took hold in the late eighties and there was a massive programme by record companies to get back catalogue onto this new pristine, shiny, ‘non-crackle’ wonder format. For example, when The Beatles back catalogue was transferred onto CD it was big news and an enormous cash-cow. But now, if a record company could get rid of the hassle of creating physical formats, why wouldn’t they? The cost of producing the disc and booklet and transporting them to stores isn’t really required anymore. I know that there will always be a certain consumer that won’t want to pay for something that is basically a computer file, but are they a big enough population to stop things going this way? I suspect that the record shop will go completely and the last place to buy physical formats will be supermarkets.  Certain niche releases are already only available via download stores such as iTunes and the fab Lost Tunes (http://www.losttunes.com/) already deals exclusively in stuff that is only available from them in digital format.

But, going forward this may be the way of maintaining music’s ‘value’. Once a CD is pressed and released, market forces dictate its ‘value’. If you have a load of copies of ‘Infected’ by The The to shift, why not sell it for £3? But if certain music is only available on-line and can be properly DRM’d (another whole discussion), the ‘value’ of the music *could* be maintained.

But with the rise of Spotify and other excellent streaming services such as Rhapsody, there may be no point in trying to sell music in the end…