The Vinyl Debate – Part 4: Q&A with Shamal Ranasinghe of Topspin

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 Debate – Part 3: Vince Slusarz, Gotta Groove Records

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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 Vinyl Debate – Part 2: Q&A with John Dahl of THX

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”.

Trendspotting: Vinyl’s Comeback – Part 1

I’ve been tracking this trend for a while, the resurgence of vinyl.  I find it intriguing. Not long ago, vinyl was presumed as dead as the 8 track. While there was always a market for used and vintage vinyl among the hardcore collectors, the appreciation for analog has now crossed over to the younger generation and more casual listener. Now record shops, vinyl record shops, are back en vogue and popping up everywhere.

It got me curious to know what’s behind all this.  Is vinyl a fad that will fade or is it here to stay? Is it any coincidence that as the CD has died, vinyl as re-emerged in it’s place? As much as we love the convenience of digital music, do we – at the end of the day – need something to hold and touch? Or is it the music industry that needs a physical format? Does analog truly sound better than digital? Or is being a vinyl lover just a way to differentiate yourself from the music masses?

I decided to ask the experts and have gathered perspectives from a cross section of industries and disciplines. Over the next few days, you’ll hear opinions on the subject from:

  • The Acoustics Expert: John Dahl of THX
  • The Vinyl Expert: Vince Slusarz of Gotta Groove Records.
  • The Music Industry Expert: Shamal Ranasinghe of Topspin
  • The Marketing and Trends Guru: Seth Godin

It was a fun project and I hope you enjoy the series and their perspectives.  And please, chime in and tell us what you think.

Trendspotting: Solo, Side Projects and Collaborations – Part 1

2009 seems to be the year of artists embarking on new solo efforts, side projects and collaborations.  It’s become quite a task to keep up with it all.  So much so I’ve actually created an Excel spreadsheet to track it. (But hey, I’m OCMD like that.) The proliferation of new projects and good music being put forth this year is astounding. And it’s a good thing.  It points to the positive – and much needed – evolution of the music industry.  This multi-part series will try to make some sense of it all by laying out the notable artists and projects released this year in all of their various incarnations. Enjoy.

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Artist: Volcano Choir
Album: Unmap
Type: Collaboration
Who’s Involved: Justin Vernon of Bon Iver with Collections of Colonies of Bees
Featured Track: Island, IS

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Artist: Lightning Dust
Album:Infinite Light
Type: Side Project
Who’s Involved: Joshua Wells and Amber Webber of Black Mountain
Tour Dates: October 6 @ The Independent in SF with The Cave Singers
Featured Track: “Never Seen”

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Artist: Julian Plenti
Album:Skyscraper
Type: Solo Project
Who’s Involved: Paul Banks of Interpol
Featured Track:”Fun That We Had”

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Artist: Brendan Benson
Album: My Old, Familiar Friend
Type: Solo Project
Who’s Involved: Brendan Benson of The Raconteurs (tho his solo work preceded it)
Featured Track: “Feel Like Taking You Home”

Trendspotting: Indie Bands Making Films, Part 3

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First it was The Dead Weather and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, then Sufjan Stevens, now add Noah and The Whale to the list of indie bands making films. With this endeavor, Noah and The Whale’s chief singer/songwriter, Charlie Fink, has crafted and directed a film to coincide with the release of their new album, The First Days of Spring, which is set for October. The First Days of Spring will be released on Cherrytree/Interscope alongside a film of the same name which marks the directorial debut of Charlie Fink and runs the same length as the record.  The release is the highly-anticipated follow-up to their gold- selling 2008 debut album Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down.

Trendspotting: Indie Bands Making Short Films, Part 2

I’ve noticed a trend of indie bands making short films (see Part 1). Well, it looks like Sufjan Stevens has jumped on the bandwagon too with The BQE, a 40-minute symphonic and cinematic exploration of New York’s infamous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Stevens directed and scored the film himself, which consists of footage of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway alongside hula hoopers. Asthmatic Kitty will release The BQE CD/DVD on October 20 with a 40-page booklet with extensive liner notes & photographs and an accompanying stereoscopic 3-D Viewmaster reel.

And if that’s not hip enough for you, Asthmatic Kitty will release a limited edition double gatefold vinyl edition of The BQE on 180-gram vinyl with a large-scale 32-page booklet including liner notes, photographs and a black and white version of a 40-page BQE-themed Hooper Heroes comic book.

Ah but wait, there’s more. The film is going on tour, with modern string quartet OSSO performing a re-arrangement of Stevens’ album Enjoy Your Rabbit. I don’t know what you think, but this smacks of a little too much self-importance for me.