Tag Archives: Digital Formats

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.

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?

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.

A million users, a million that will buy less music

Spotify signed its millionth registered user in the UK this weekend. According to Brand Republic, currently around 40,000 new users are signing up every day, with about 50-60% of those in the UK.

How Spotify will upscale and make sure that it retains users while increasing operations via ad sales is another discussion entirely and I would assume that a mobile version is both crucial and imminent for the service’s long-term success.  However, whatever way you look at it these are pretty impressive figures. It indicates that people are getting used to streaming music and are are probably less inclined to buying music either digitally or in physical format.

I’m currently listening to the service as I write this entry and keep finding gems on the service – gems that I might not necessarily go out and buy to check out, but will listen to at my desk. The service seems to be keeping up with newly released music, which will be vital for its success going forward – the new Bob Dylan and Depeche Mode albums are already up.

I’ve certainly bought less music since I signed up to Spotify in the beta-form before Christmas and I reckon a million like me are probably doing the same.

Another nail into the coffin of selling music track-by-track, album-by-album?

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.

Revaluing Music

After wondering how music had got so cheap in my last post and wondering how revenue streams could be re-invigorated going forward, two upcoming releases have answered me in kind, both by long established acts, Depeche Mode and The Beatles. Now, back in the day you could buy an album on CD, LP or cassette and there was a time (around 1990 ish) that all three were bought in massive numbers. That has moved on slightly with CD the major format (for now), followed by downloads and with vinyl (for some artists) being the preserve of the ‘geek’ – let’s face it, you have to try bloody hard to actually buy a record deck these days and then have an amp to plug it into etc… so your casual music fan ain’t buying vinyl anymore. CD and download are pretty similar in cost – around £7.99 if you know where to buy and, due to the rules of supply and demand, vinyl is now double that – if you can find somewhere to buy it. As for the cassette. That died. And you probably didn’t notice.

Now, Depeche Mode are a long-established behemoth, having been around since 1980 and have a loyal international following. Disclaimer – I’m a fan. Their new album is called ‘Sounds of the Universe’ and is due out at the end of April. When they released their seminal ‘Violator’ album back in 1990, it came out in the aforementioned CD/LP/Cassette classic triumvirate. So, how can you buy the new album? Amazingly, you can buy it as a CD, CD+DVD set, Double vinyl LP+CD set – pressed on 180gm virgin vinyl (including a Sounds Of The Universe CD – which I suppose is nice), Download and a Deluxe Box Set containing three CDs, a DVD, two hard-back books and a ‘host of extras’. So, five formats. The cheapest will be around £7.99 (for the boring old CD) with prices going up to around £55 for the Deluxe Box Set. Now, choice is probably a good thing, but if you are a Depeche Mode collector, you are probably going to buy all apart from the download. So, one fan will probably shell out the best part of £80 for one album. A nice little earner for their indie label Mute and the Basildon lads I think you’ll agree…

But the real biggy coming up is from The Beatles. Now, I’m a bit of a fan of the Fabs (I will get round to writing about bands I despise, promise). Actually, I’m a really big fan – I want to do the new MA at Liverpool Uni sometime before I die – that big. So, as a fan I’m genuinely interested in the news. The thing is that, without going into numbingly boring detail, several of the albums haven’t been available in certain formats on CD ever and these are going to be remastered to boot. Basically speaking, when the reissues come out (on 09/09/09 – 9 was John Lennon’s favourite/lucky/significant number, don’t you know) all 12 original UK albums, plus Magical Mystery Tour (originally a double 7″ vinyl EP – you don’t see too many of THAT format around these days) and Past Masters I and II on one CD (basically all non-LP tracks that were rounded up for the Beatles on to CD campaign of 1987) will be released in stereo. That’s 14 new CDs to purchase. But wait. EMI are also bringing out a box-set of the lot. Oh yeah, all tracks that were originally released as mono mixes will also be released as a box set for ‘completists’ (that’ll be me then). Oh, sorry, they’ll be a DVD as well. Now, I’m just guessing, but I reckon that, all in all, that is at the very least a £200 outlay. Eeeek. And as they are bound to sell around the world in gargantuan quantities, EMI and the band will be able to top up those revenues a bit more. Hell, EMIwon’t even *need* an album by Radiohead this year after all to keep going!!!

So, not to worry. For every £3 CD avaiable at ‘Head’, the true giants of the musical stage still know how to make their money.