Tag Archives: music formats

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.

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.

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!).

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….

The Votes Are In…

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

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

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

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

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

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