Tag Archives: Collecting Music

Repackage, revitalise, resell…

In the beginning there was the wax cylinder. Then the 78RPM disc ushered in the “record”. Then records slowed down, so more could fit on. Some went at 45, some at 33. And the, the cassette tape allowed us to listen to our choice of music in the car and then portably. The CD came along, but apart from giving us an “indestructible” (yeah, right) format and crystal-clear reproduction, it was pretty much business as usual.

However, the CD sowed seeds in the marketing brains of the music industry…. the idea of selling the same music to people that already had it was born. The premise was that you had the vinyl or tape, but, well, CD was digital! It was better! Buy it again.

Repackage, revitalise, resell…

But this gave the music industry a bit of an “extended” idea… if it could be resold once, why not time and time again? After a while, we started to see “remastered” albums. The idea was that newer technology allowed better, cleaner, clearer versions of old classics to be released. So, a third time to buy the music then. All well and good. We even saw Super Audio CD, DVD-Audio and other formats launched to get in on the act (Mini Disc, anyone? DAT??).

Then pesky MP3 arrived. This brought the music industry money-milking juggernaut to somewhat of a halt. Bugger. Not only couldn’t you resell the same music to the same (and new) people again and again, but now the buggers could get it for free. What to do? This was a proper quandary.

Right…. We can’t actually sell the music anymore, that’s the business plan out of the window…. Now, what else can we actually do? Got it! Actually make an effort on the packaging of the product! This was a bit of an about-turn. Formats had been gradually getting worse since the 1960s, the halcyon days of beautiful thick, loud vinyl in lovely laminated, sturdy sleeves. I recall seeing vinyl LPs in the early 90s that were so thin that you could almost see through them and they could have been used by dear old Rolf Harris for one of his “wobble boards”. They were also made of such poor vinyl that the came with clicks and pops from the start and the slightest surface scratch would be audible. Not to worry, thought the music industry, they’ll still buy them, or, hopefully, graduate to CD where we can make more money out of them!

But then the fun stopped. With MP3, the music industry suddenly realised that if people could get hold of music quickly, easily and anonymously for free, they stopped buying it. They bleated, they moaned, they panicked. The party had stopped. No more fleecing of fans. But, what about the biggest fans…. The ones that bought the vinyl, CD, remastered CD, De-Luxe CD, Super-Audio CD, DVD-Audio…. OF THE SAME ALBUM!!! Imagine if you could get, say, £200 out of one super-fan? That’s better than flogging the CD to 20 other not-so-big fans!

The upshot of this is that the music industry is now quick to release music in lavish packaging with lots of additional stuff –Limited edition vinyl pressings in heavy sleeves on beautiful thick vinyl once more and the ultimate offering to the super-fan – the “everything we could possibly think of” box set. This beast doesn’t merely include the CD, but often posters, books, badges, vinyl and CD, etc, etc, etc… and, if we can produce a super-deluxe boxset for the well-heeled fan, why not a slightly stripped-down version for the slightly less well-at-heel fan? As well as a single CD, double CD, CD with magazine (and exclusive tack), download on iTunes (with different exclusive track), version for HMV (with different artwork), version for German release (with yet another different bonus track)…. You get the picture.

This trend has coincided with music fans realising that something is missing – merely having the music of their favourite band isn’t sometimes enough. They miss artwork. They miss the ritual of going to buy something and then studying it and “owning” it (come on, who really “feels” they own a digital file? Do me a favour…). They miss remembering when they put a joint on the LP cover and it left a mark. They miss the whole experience.

So the music industry, never one to miss a trick to fleece the fans, is responding.

Repackage, revitalise, resell…

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.

Meet The Beetles – how counterfeiting hit the high street

I’m a bit of a Beatles fan. So how excited was I by the launch last year of the Mono and Stereo Remasters box sets? Just a little.

However, those that know me will also point out that I like a bargain. After delaying buying the Mono boxset until my mate tipped me off that Computer Exchange (eh?) had some brand spanking new ones in for £125 (rather than the MSRP of £220 or the £180 ish you could find them for online), I thought I’d better get hold of a copy of the Stereo boxset.

I had a voucher to spend at its online store from a very famous and very large high street supermarket given to me after it failed dismally to deliver a game in time for Christmas. I noticed that the same supermarket had the boxset for a keen price, which after cashing in my voucher made it the best deal by far – about £145. Before taking the plunge I had been looking on Ebay and noticed that there were a ton of them going for about £70 a piece. Erm, I’m guessing that the dealer price for the Stereo boxset is around £130 at the cheapest, so I immediately suspected that someone was churning out counterfeit copies. Pretty much a no-brainer; biggest band ever brings out multi-disc boxset for premium price that is going to sell a sack-full – of course the counterfeiters are going to cash-in. But, from the reputable high street monolith, I’d be sure to get the legitimate thing, wouldn’t I?

So, the order was placed, the box set turned up, happy happy joy joy. I unpacked it – all sealed up nicely in cellophane…. to me, this unveiling is the equivalent of an Apple-freak unpacking that first iPhone, but probably a little bit more so. Off came the cellophane, to unveil the boxset. And I was immediately struck that something wasn’t quite right. I am just a little bit into how music is presented and having worked in various music emporiums over the years I am pretty familiar of the quality of product from major record labels. Well, this was a wrong’un. The green Apple on the black outer box wasn’t right. Then I removed the box from the outer sleeve….. Hmmmmm…. creases in the cover….. a general feeling of “cheap”. And then I opened it up. It took me about five seconds to realise that I had received a counterfeit boxset – right about the time I came across the Please Please Me disc. The Yellow print on the front was “washy”. I then took some of the discs out of their sleeves. They were in crumpled, cheap poly-liners. Really cheap. By now I was convinced. The same friend that had tipped me off about the Mono boxset in Computer Exchange had mentioned that apparently the counterfeit boxsets had been made in China and that some of the text on the back of the Revolver sleeve was comical. So, I had a quick look…..

OK. Apparently the band included Paul MCCARIRMY, Ringo START and George HARRISUN. I did a little more digging about this. It seems that the Chinese counterfeiters colour photocopied what they could, but the text on the back of Revolver was just too small. So they had a go and got it wrong.

Anyhow, my next question was how the hell this counterfeit copy had got into the hands of the very large supermarket that sold it to me. So I contacted them. And I must say that they were very accommodating and understanding. And not a little embarrassed. Well, it was a potentially highly embarrassing situation for a massive brand. I have contacts with a few national press and one was interested in writing a story about the situation after seeing one of my tweets about it.

The whole issue got me thinking (think of the chances – sending a bootleg to a massive Beatles fan that writes about music formats and is a bit of a format geek!). I think the most obvious way this got into the system was thus: Beatle fan doesn’t fancy buying a full-priced copy. Fan goes on to Ebay and buys hooky copy for £70 ish. Fan also buys copy from very large supermarket for proper price. Fan then sends back hooky version to very large supermarket asking for a refund (which is in his rights I believe). Fan has legitimate copy for £70 ish.

So, a simple ruse, eh? And potentially a HUGE can of worms for retailers. I actually discussed this with the very large supermarket. But what can they do? Number each physical product they send out? Otherwise, everyone could pull the same stunt, couldn’t they?

The very large supermarket did mention that EMI was thinking of putting a press release out about it. I didn’t see it, but I may have missed it.

And what of these counterfeit boxsets? Surely they aren’t freely available…. well, have a look on alibaba.com, home of global trading. Do a search on the obvious terms (say, “Beatles Boxset”) and see what you find.

Hmmm.

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!).

Adding value in the digital age

As I’ve discussed on this site, the record industry has taken an almighty bashing in recent times – basically it has been attacked on all sides via new innovation, new consumer behaviour and a changing society.

Record companies have seen a huge hit with the development of digital formats and associated piracy. With the capability to copy music in perfect quality coupled with new and varied marketing tactics in the online world has eroded much of their power. Retailers have seen their market decimated by both piracy and more convenient ways to buy music – CDs through the post from cheaper off-shore companies and directly to the consumer for MP3 purchases. Coupled with masses of information and images online, the poor old record shop is going the same way as the video shop and to a lesser extent, retailers of print media.

On top of all this, with various other entertainment formats growing over the years, buying “records” just isn’t as essential to most people as it was a few years ago – although it is still a massive industry.

But whereas a hardcore music fan of twenty years ago would have a collection of vinyl and CDs as well as magazines and other memorabilia, today it is quite possible that you can be a big fan of a band and have a bunch of essentially computer files to show for it. How the hell are they going to be able to look back at a number of zeros and ones in twenty years and conjure up what it meant to them at the time?

Music needs some tools to encourage fandom – replacing the picture sleeve and physical format. Both retailers and fans need something “exclusive” and interesting to “attach” to the recording – like the music fan of old used to look at the picture sleeve, read the liner notes, go through the lyrics…

So it is encouraging to see some innovation beginning to take place, from a record label and a retailer, even though the long-term effects of either are questionable.

First I spotted that to promote the new Eminem album “Relapse”, Polydor has created browser skin, blog spider and augmented digital art competition. The browser app flips all letter “E” backwards in the style of his logo and all banner ads and videos are replaced with Eminem images and videos – clever. Although not permanent, clever… the digital art competition allows users to create 3D visuals with a mix of tools, a printout and a webcam (http://www.therelapse.co.uk/3dartcomp/) and the blog spider keeps an eye on online activity around the release. Maybe this is the way major labels will get fans involved going forward. It’s an interesting selection of promo tools in the very least.

The retailer that is trying to get fans back in store is HMV. It has launched a loyalty scheme, PureHMV that offers “money can’t buy” items such as signed albums, signed posters, concert tickets, exclusive events and rare memorabilia for a number of points. It costs £3 to join and you get 100 points for each £1 spent. I noticed one of the offers at the moment is a signed copy of the latest CD from McCartney’s “Fireman” project. It costs 95,000 points…. which, with my bad maths means that you will need to spend, erm, £950 to get one. OK…. maybe it will draw people in. But will a glorified loyalty scheme really save record shops? I’m not sure… but it is a start. Maybe something will come along that will be as romantic and long-lasting as the picture sleeve.