Who doesn’t love an infographic? They’re all the rage and I’m just waiting for the Portlandia episode to emerge that mocks it. With SXSW fast approaching and over 1,400 bands and artists set to play at the festival, MusicMetric, a company that specializes in tracking all of that new data about music and entertainment, has assembled this fun infographic outlining which of those artists are getting the most online buzz and activity.
Looking at this survey from The Nielson Company of global music consumption habits I think not. Digital music sales are flat, music consumption habits are changing and so are the demographics and desires of music fans themselves. So why is there no innovation in music product to cater to these new habits and consumers? Why aren’t the labels listening? Why aren’t they cooperating and creating appropriate licensing models that will spur new product innovation and….revenue?
Clearly the old model of buy and listen isn’t winning the popular vote anymore. When the labels had control over music supply it was a very viable and lucrative model. But guess what, they don’t have control over the supply anymore, whether they like it or not. Consumers have a choice and try as they might to squelch piracy with their iron fists of legislation, at the end of the day they’re losing…and making everyone suffer along the way. It’s a slippery slope of defense with an inevitable ending. The reality is right there in this chart. This isn’t the music consumer of yore. It’s a YouTube generation filled with a new kind of music fan that wants to experience music and share it. So let’s put this lame horse known as the old music industry out of it’s misery, make some glue, and build new product strategies that support both the artists and consumers. Goddamnit.
Grand Canyon is a New Mexico-based band that recently emailed us about their debut album release ‘The Hits’ on cassette tape. They shared with us their insights for choosing cassette as their physical medium. The group also has a digital version of the album, which you can download for free on Bandcamp.
For us, cassettes were the right choice for a lot of reasons. The biggest was that a lot of the material (mainly drum tracks and vocal tracks, but some guitar and bass too) were recorded originally on cassette tape on a Portastudio. So we wanted to keep some of the release analog in the same way. We also took a very DIY approach to this album (it’s all self-recorded and self-released) and the lithographed and uniquely colored j-cards, and uniquely colored tape labels (all done by the band and a few friends) were just another way we could showcase the do-it-yourself experience. Tapes were only a little cheaper than CDs, which helped, but we thought that the appearance of the final product of the tapes was aesthetically much better than the similarly priced discs. Plus the coloring party was fun.
Sound wise, we were into the idea of tapes too. Three of our four band members are in our mid-twenties, so we grew up listening to music on cassette. Cassettes, of course, offer “that analog warmth,” and while the sound doesn’t stay as pristine on cassette as it does on cd (assuming you can keep your discs from getting scratched, but that’s a different story), we kind of thought the weird sounds you get as tape deteriorates and cassettes warp are at least interesting, and can add to the listening experience. CDs make for boring, over-compressed background music.
Our last reason for going with tapes was that we think in the world of mp3s, even cds are totally obsolete, or at least will be soon. So we figured it didn’t matter what medium we used to release the album physically. We had all the reasons I listed above to do tapes, plus it worked as a marketing tool. When people asked us, “Why tapes?,” we responded, “Why not?” And it got people talking. Plus we thought an interesting looking, and uniquely designed cassette was something people could take home as a collectors item, whether people listened to the 29 tracks of our original music on it or not. And we sold all 50 of the run at the release show, so it seems to have worked.
Dig out your boom boxes, tape decks and head cleaners because another almost obsolete music format, the cassette tape, is quickly being brought back to life. They’re turning up everywhere, being released by bleeding edge DIY hipster indie bands with a penchant for the self-released EP. Dive deep into your local indie music scene and you’ll see what I mean. Merch tables are filled with them and the frequency of the cassette EP press announcements in my inbox are quickly rising. If vinyl is the format for the high browed music snob, then the cassette is the format for the DIY, crafty crowd.
It’s been a source of great frustration for me of late to discover fabulous up and coming bands live, then realize the only option for continued enjoyment of their music is a format I haven’t owned equipment for in a good decade. Grass Widow, The Baths, Blank Dogs. These are all bands that released music on cassette that I would have liked to have in my music rotation but couldn’t do so because….I DON’T HAVE A CASSETTE PLAYER! God dangit. Who still owns a cassette player? (Besides Blogger Mike who has three. Sheesh.)
Frustration turned to anger after my third attempt to buy music from a band with a cassette only option. (Why, why, why are you making it so difficult to support you?!) Then the anger turned to action. I needed to understand the rationale these artists had for adopting a format that is clearly not widely used. Was it a cost factor? Cool factor? Sound factor? Did they want to languish in obscurity because no one could readily appreciate their music? What…what was the allure?
Welcome to The OCMD trendspotting series, “Cassettes Are The New Vinyl”, where we’ll explore the rational of artists and labels reviving this nearly dead format that so dominated my youth. Tune back in for Part 2 where we’ll get insight from a band and their reasons behind choosing cassette for their physical format.
Everybody’s in a band these days. Everybody owns a label these days. The newest addition to the music label ranks is David Letterman’s new venture called Clear Entertainment/C.E. Music, a subsidiary of Worldwide Pants, Inc. production company, which will release the self-titled debut for the pop-punk group called Runner Runner later this summer.
First of all, what kind of BS genre is pop-punk? It’s a complete oxymoron. I already don’t like it. Secondly, is owning a record label the latest trend du jour? Every blog of importance seems to have one now and it seems to be crossing into the celebrity sphere. I fear this is heading down a dangerous and misguided path. Like the en vogue trend of actresses launching their own fashion/makeup/ fragrance lines. Just because you’re pretty and dress well, does that mean you should design clothes too? I don’t know. But it all seems to be a bit much.
One thing for sure about Letterman, he has the eyeballs and the media power to truly make a difference for a band. So more power to him. Too bad he doesn’t have better music taste. Take a listen to his pick and see if you agree.
I’m not sure what’s going on, but I think there’s an Australian music invasion afoot. Ever since I returned home from Austin my inbox has been pinged by an unusually high number of Australian-based indie bands looking for blog love. Hmmm. I did attend the SXSW Aussie BBQ showcase in Austin. Perhaps I was tagged. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. Or maybe there is a plot to take over the airwaves. Every geography has it’s moment of musical dominance after all. Why not Australia?
Whatever the case, I met some lovely folks in Austin and have been introduced to some talented bands since then as well. And seeing as I love themes, I’ve decided to roll out my Aussie faves for you all week. Welcome to Aussie Week on The OCMD! Hope you enjoy.
The Marketing and Trends Guru: Seth Godin, bestselling author, entrepreneur and agent of change weighs in on the vinyl debate. Godin is author of ten books that have been bestsellers around the world, including the recently published book Tribes.
To read the entire series, click here.
theOCMD: After reading your book, Tribes, it became clear to me you are a music lover. I’ve have been musing over your notion of the ‘tribe’ and how it relates to vinyl’s comeback. Is there a correlation? To what do you attribute vinyl’s resurgence?
Seth: Vinyl is handmade, it’s visual, I can show you my collection. It brings us closer.
Vinyl requires effort to play. Especially if you clean it first. It’s a process and a ritual.
Vinyl can be shared, digital is only given.
And Vinyl is not the standard. Which means you can be in a tribe. There is no tribe of normal.
theOCMD: The community of vinyl advocates seems to be evolving from cult status to a full-fledged movement. What’s unclear to me, however, is who’s leading it – the ‘tribe’ itself or the music industry?
Seth: Not the industry, not at all. They’re too clueless to do that, too focused on large numbers as opposed to passionate users.
theOCMD: It seems to me what made vinyl so unique and special was the fact that it was rare and inaccessible. As the format’s pervasiveness and accessibility increase, will the tribe be compromised? Will members defect and find something new to covet – like cassette tapes? Is vinyl just a trend or here to stay?
Seth: The mantra of, “on one goes there, it’s too crowded.” There’s always the early adopter and outlier that likes something simply because it’s not popular. Vinyl has plenty of room, I think, to triple or 10x in size without losing most of the people. And I also think the expense and hassle will prevent it from ever being a mainstream product again.
theOCMD: As a purveyor of change and ‘what’s next’ – what do you think the music industry look like in 10 years?
Seth: Plenty of music, not so much industry. There’s no poetry industry, is there?
theOCMD: Lastly, and for the record, analog vs. digital. Where do you stand?
Seth: When I listen to music, I prefer to LISTEN. Background music is not so much my thing.
And when I listen, vinyl makes me smile more.
The Music Industry Expert: Q&A with Shamal Ranasinghe (pictured on the left), VP and Co-Founder of Topspin, a technology-focused direct-to-fan marketing, management and distribution platform designed to provide artists the tools they need to market music directly to their fans and build successful businesses.
To read the entire series, click here.
theOCMD: CD sales are in a tailspin. Some have even proclaimed the format dead. Interestingly, in that same period, vinyl has taken off. Do you think this is coincidence or not? Does the music industry need a physical format to survive?
Shamal: This is not a coincidence. Thanks to the promotional and distributional efficiencies of the Internet, fans can consume music in whatever format they want. The rising format of choice is digital in both downloadable files and streaming, and digital’s superior convenience and accessibility are causing CD sales to rapidly decline. These same efficiencies have made it easier for vinyl stalwarts to discover and acquire music in their preferred medium since it’s easier than ever for artists to directly merchandise and promote their music on a variety of formats. And no, I do not think the music industry needs any one kind of format to survive. Music is more important culturally than ever before and is too intrinsic a human quality for it to ever die. It will only grow in human relevance. Thus, there will always be an industry in and around music regardless of format.
theOCMD: From the artists represented on Topspin, what impact does a physical product, like vinyl, have on sales? How have you seen vinyl sales grow among your artists?
Shamal: At Topspin, about 48% of transactions have a physical product but these physical + digital packages represent about 76% of revenue. Here’s a slide to represent that graphically (http://www.flickr.com/photos/21542327@N06/4319531229/).
Topspin artists have seen that bundling physical with digital drives the overall sales and revenue of their campaigns. I also see more and more artists offer vinyl in their campaigns because now the tools exist to create a variety of flexible offers from vinyl to USB shaped Uzis (http://getbusycommittee.com/store/). I’m excited to see what the future holds for creative marketing in multiple formats.
theOCMD: Is vinyl a trend or here to stay?
Shamal: I think it’s here to stay at least in our lifetimes. Vinyl has a stronger chance of surviving in the long-term over CD’s as there is an inherent analog audio quality to vinyl that is considered better than what you experience with digitally encoded music. The CD format is just another digital format not much more differentiated than a digital file with a bit more artwork and plastic so the substitution effects should make the CD obsolete sooner.
theOCMD: Analog vs. digital. What’s your preference and why?
Shamal: I like the convenience and immediacy of digital for my daily music consumption on my PC and iPod. Digital helps me to swim through more music than ever before. On the other hand, I collect vinyl as well and play it when I want a more in-tune music experience so I can savor the sounds and depth of the music. Plus it’s kind of ritualistic taking the record out of the crate, pulling the vinyl out of its sleeve, putting the needle on the record, and getting up to turn the side on the record. It seems laborious describing the process, but I feel I’m more connected with the experience of listening to the music when I play vinyl.
theOCMD: What do you hope the music industry will look like in 10 years?
Shamal: I hope the music industry will achieve a true revolution in how artists and fan connect directly with each other. There has definitely been a revolution in the way fans experience music thanks to disruptive distribution platforms like the old Napster and legal services like iTunes, but the revolution has yet to be fully realized for the way fans are able to support their favorite artists. We are focused on this specific area at Topspin and have seen promising indicators that if given efficient and convenient options, fans will pay for their music and compensate their favorite artists directly. Once these methods and mechanisms are perfected over time, artists will be able to thrive and survive based on their direct connection with their fans.
The Vinyl Expert: Q&A with Vince Slusarz – Owner of Gotta Groove Records, the newest vinyl record plant in the US, adds his perspective to the trendspotting series – “The Resurgence of Vinyl”. To read the entire series, click here.
theOCMD: You’re the newest vinyl record plant in the country. Congratulations! What made you get into the business and invest in a new plant? What opportunity did you see that wasn’t being met?
Vince: I always wanted to start my own business, and I had a desire to do something in manufacturing (my previous employer was a manufacturing operation). I’ve been a consumer of vinyl for my whole life. Admittedly, I had stopped buying new vinyl for a number of years, but invested in a new turntable about four years ago, and started to get into playing the vinyl from my library. While a fan of vinyl, I had no idea how it was made. I researched the manufacturing process and, in doing so, also found data indicating vinyl sales have been steadily increasing since 2006, so much so that customers were complaining about the lead times to have a record made.
So, demand was up, and capacity was fixed- new vinyl pressing equipment was last made in the 1970’s. I began to look for some used equipment, but had no luck. I was about to give up on it when a couple of local people in the music industry told me they thought the idea of a plant was a good one. I made one last effort by sending an email to four existing plants asking if they knew of any used equipment for sale. Two did not respond; one said “no”, but the other- Dynamic Sun out of East Newark, New Jersey, told me that they had recently decided to put their assets up for sale. I visited them and closed the deal last March.
From what I understand you are now one of four plants in the US producing vinyl. Who did you turn to in order to learn about the process? It sounds daunting and complicated.
Vince: Actually, there are 15 plants left here producing vinyl. With six presses, we are around the seventh biggest plant.
Regarding the process, we have brought in the former plant manager from Dynamic on two different occasions, and another consultant for a week. But, we are learning much about the process on our own. My operations manager used to work with me at my previous employer, and he is wonderful with the machines.
the OCMD: I’ve been asking everyone if they think vinyl is a trend or here to stay. I’m guessing you’re placing your bets that vinyl is here to stay. What was your ‘ a ha moment’ in that conclusion. Were there trends, statistics or insights you uncovered to lead you to that?
Vince: As mentioned, RIAA stats since 2006 for vinyl sales have steadily risen. 09 was the biggest year for vinyl sales since 1991. The RIAA stats are misleading, however- they really only capture about 10-15% of the overall market.
I do believe vinyl is here to stay- after all, it has outlasted every other physical format. It will never be what it was in the 60s and 70’s, but it will remain an important niche market.
My “aha” moment was realizing that my college age daughter had stopped buying Cd’s in favor of downloads- however, when she bought something physical, it was vinyl That’s when I knew that this growth I had been reading about wasn’t due to just old farts like me.
theOCMD: To what do you attribute the resurgence of vinyl in the industry?
Vince: The attraction of Cd’s (and before that, cassettes, and before that 8 tracks) was the portability factor- you could play your music in the car, while working out, etc. Downloads and mp3 players have rendered that kind of physical portability obsolete. But, many people still want to have a tactile representation of their music. Vinyl is a much better physical experience- the artwork, label art, liner notes you can actually read, the heft of a record- all make more of an expression.
Then, there is the sound of vinyl. While certainly subjective, I know that I prefer the sound of vinyl better than digital- it’s deeper and warmer- 3D, if you will.
Finally, and maybe as important, vinyl requires some attention on the part of the listener. You can’t put it on shuffle play and walk away. It demands listening, and when done with friends, it is a communal activity. Our lives are constantly interrupted by technology. Taking the time to listen to a record is a way to decompress, and I believe this is also an attraction to the format.
theOCMD: What kind of growth do you expect to see for vinyl in the coming years?
Vince: I believe it will continue to grow for at least the next 5-7 years. We are only beginning to see younger individuals becoming aware of the format. Best Buy is now handling vinyl, and turntables are being mass-produced with USB ports; these companies would not be entering the market if they thought it had peaked.
theOCMD: Let’s talk analog vs. digital. Advocates of vinyl say that analog sounds much better than digital. Everyone seems to understand that there are various qualities to the digital format and it’s easy for a consumer to figure out what they’re getting with digital. However, I’ve also heard there are various qualities to vinyl as well. And that there is a lot of poorly produced vinyl out there. Is this true? What processes do you have in place from a manufacturing perspective to ensure quality sound? And how can consumers know they’re getting a quality vinyl record?
Vince: There are only a few suppliers of the vinyl compound needed to make records, and while they behave differently in ways such as melt temperature and flow, they are all capable of producing a quality record. That said, the entire process can have an impact on the sound. Cutting the master recording to the black lacquer- the first step in making a record- is extremely important. An audio recording should ideally be mastered for vinyl; using the same mastering as done for digital sometimes can present problems. While vinyl is a wonderful medium, there are some physical limitations that affect how “loud” a recording can be made- which is the tendency of most digital recordings.
We do a comprehensive quality check on every 25th record that comes off the press. I had the good fortune to visit eight of the competitive plants, and they all have similar quality checks in place. As for how a consumer knows if they are buying a quality record, you can’t really tell until you open it up and play it. As my friend Tom at the Brooklyn Phono pressing plant says, one key is the sound of silence- that is, listen to the lead-in’s to the tracks, the spots on the record that are supposed to be dead quiet. Often, the recording itself may cover up some noise.
The Sound Expert: John Dahl, Senior Fellow and Director of Education at THX.
theOCMD: The popularity of vinyl is on the rise. And with it comes the resurgence of the vinyl vs. digital debate. As an audio expert, what’s your opinion on the subject? Does vinyl truly sound better than digital?
(Disclaimer: Please note that THX does not have or need a position on vinyl vs. digital since virtually 100% of the recorded audio in the THX universe is digital.)
I think it is very important to make a clear distinction between “better” (subjective), and “accurate” (objective). Better is purely in the brain of the individual listener and I can’t really comment. On the other hand, the market has come down 99.99999% on the side of digital. So by any rational measure digital is resoundingly “better”. But I doubt that’s the issue here.
A couple of observations. The word “vinyl” describes a storage media (a vinyl record) while “digital” refers to a coding methodology. So the terms themselves describe entirely different things. Also note that there are dozens of different types of “digital” coding techniques but a scant handful of analog techniques for “vinyl”. For this debate let’s assume that most people making this comparison are talking about 33 1/3 rpm vinyl albums versus the common 16/44 PCM CDs. The debate might be better described as Analog versus Digital. Remember too that all microphones, headphones and loudspeakers are fundamentally analog devices so no matter what the coding and delivery method one is always listening to an analog of analog (so to speak).
There is no question that the analog record/playback chain imposes long list of changes to the recorded signal that are themselves analog and are directly audible when they fall in our normal range of hearing. There is also no question that a well-done digital recording imposes no such analog changes to the signal. Note the emphasis on “well done”. It is true that there are any number of poorly done digital recordings, particularly after they have been filtered through the internet. Of course there are also innumerable badly done audio recordings that when digitized don’t (usually) get any better. There are even analog recordings that are digitized, “cleaned up” digitally then delivered to consumers on vinyl!
So what? When the same material is played through the same set of speakers in the same room under the same conditions it is clear that fans of vinyl really like the changes to the signal imposed by analog. So vinyl is better subjectively in the sense that, as the consumer, they prefer that sound. Because they are paying customers they are by definition “right” subjectively. Quality digital recording does not impose these changes on the signal and is by definition objectively “right” in the sense that the electrical signal being fed to the speaker is identical to the electrical signal coming from the microphone. For digital I think a better descriptor than “right” would be “accurate”. In the movie or games business we are primarily concerned with delivering a consistently accurate copy of the signal and leave it to the consumer to change it as they see fit.
theOCMD: Do you think the recent resurgence in vinyl is a trend or here to stay?
You will notice that I’ve avoided speculating on why some people love vinyl (including my brother Steve and my sister Laurie, both respected professional musicians). From my days in the Hi Fi business I remember a lot of physical involvement in vinyl; special storage and cleaning techniques and products, selecting, mounting and adjusting the needle, getting the best turntable/tonearm combination, special record flattening products, fine tuning the speed and so forth). All of which introduce an important ritual component to playing vinyl that is not present in digital. But at the end of the day, I don’t really know. I doubt vinyl will ever be more than a tertiary part of the music scene because it’s not so much about the music, as about expectations, history and arcane knowledge. Being into vinyl makes you part of a special group with esoteric knowledge and such groups have always occupied an important place in society. I’m not one of them but long may they prosper.
theOCMD: Regardless of the music format, do you have some simple tips readers can employ to improve their listening experience at home?
Assuming you use good quality electronics and do not push them beyond their designed limit, quality sound is ALL about the matrix of:
- Quality of the recording
- System setup and calibration
- Loudspeaker quality
- Room acoustics
Regardless of the equipment you use it pays to consider the following.
- Seats away from the walls three feet or more, facing the stage
- Speakers placed logically and have clear coverage of the listeners(s)
- BEST TRICK – Aim the speakers at the listener(s) by listening to pink noise
- Send all the bass to the subwoofer(s) regardless of speaker size (yes, even for music)
- Position the subwoofer(s) for the most accurate bass response at the listener(s)
- Reduce audible and visible distractions
Hands down the most useful reference book on this topic is Floyd Toole’s “Sound Reproduction, Loudspeakers and Rooms”.