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.

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Calm down. Abbey Road will never become flats.

EMI wants to sell Abbey Road studios and I don’t really blame them. I haven’t been blogging recently due to being laid low for a bit, but I had been meaning to blog a bit on the state that EMI finds itself in. The company is a giant in the history of popular music, no question. The problem is that, as we are all aware, the music industry is changing beyond all recognition – we know that.

Now, I know very little about the finances or workings of EMI or any other record company, but I don’t think it takes an industry analyst to guess that the changes that have hit the music industry in the last 10 years have knocked all its member companies sideways. And I’m also guessing that the bigger they come, the harder they have been hit. Bigger companies have bigger outgoings as well as incomes. When things change quickly, they cannot react as quickly as smaller, leaner companies. Recently EMI posted massive losses and they are obviously looking at how they can turn things around. Owning a recording studio in central london probably doesn’t make much sense economically. Apart from the fact that most artists can record in so many more places these days apart from the “traditional” recording studios that were absolutely required right up until a few years ago, there is no real reason why a recording studio cannot be placed somewhere a little, well, cheaper. And the figure to buy Abbey Road has been quoted at about £30 million. That’s serious money for a house, albeit a pretty hefty one.

So, it’s going to be sold by EMI. There has been an outcry that it may be bought by developers who would change its use – possibly to residential. Obviously this won’t happen, for a few good reasons. They include having the space to record large orchestras for a start – which Abbey Road is known for. But the most obvious one is that it is where The Beatles recorded the vast majority of their work. Without going into detail here, it wasn’t just the sublime, timeless, massively influential music that they recorded at Abbey Road (which, wasn’t actually called Abbey Road Studios before the 70’s – the name was changed because of….. you guessed it) it was the massive strides in recorded music that were undertaken here. The Beatles started on 2-track, moved to 4-track when it became available and ended up using 8-track towards the end of their career. Although these advances weren’t created with The Beatles in mind, it was their huge influence that pushed these methods forward. The Beatles did it, everyone else tried to copy it. Also, due to their incredible success, The Beatles pushed the technical staff at Abbey Road to keep producing new things to try. Before them, bands simply didn’t demand new things as they didn’t have the clout to demand. The Beatles became a huge cash-cow to EMI and wanted to wring every last piece of ingenuity out of the pretty primitive equipment at their disposal. Automatic double tracking of vocals was invented by an EMI engineer and used by them. Lennon put his voice through a revolving Leslie speaker for Tomorrow Never Knows…. and Paul got people all over Abbey Road to hold pens with loops of tape going round them to be mixed live for the same song. Ground-breaking band. Ground-breaking technical ideas. Ground-breaking Studios. For these reasons, this important building will be preserved, either as a working studio (less likely as time goes by) or a museum/tourist attraction. In PR terms it would be a disaster if it was lost and if it isn’t stopped before getting as far as the PM or the Queen, Gordon and Liz will do the right thing for the nation. So stop worrying.

UPDATE: Since writing this post, EMI says that it isn’t looking to sell Abbey Road, just raise additional funds to “revitalise” it. So that’s OK then.

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.

(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…

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!).

I’ve got an iPod, about time I used it…

So I’ve never bought an Apple product. Not a Mac, not an iPod. I do, however, have a 4th gen iPod Nano. Now, for someone who’s obviously a bit into music, I’m not actually that into the hardware… I’ve always bought cheap (but good) hi-fi gear from Richer Sounds (right back to the late 80’s when I got my fist NAD amp at the London Bridge store – still got the amp 🙂 ) and as long as it sounds OK to my ears, that’s cool.

So, I won this iPod (thanks Gadget Show!) and meant to use it quite a lot. But for a few reasons I left it gathering dust  (mainly I didn’t get a case for it and couldn’t be arsed loading my music onto it) but not through any anti-Apple sentiment, I didn’t bother for the first nine months or so of ownership. I had a 60GB Creative Vision:M and a 1GB 1st gen Creative Stone and they did me fine. But about a month ago, I thought I’d buy a case for the Nano and give it a whirl.

Blimey. The sound quality is fab. Beats both Creatives hands down. Listening to The White Album on the way to work yesterday, I was hearing bits I’d never heard before in over twenty years of listening.

So there you go – another Apple convert. Well, I like to let things bed down a bit before jumping in…