Robair Report: Give the People What They Want

There’s a certain level of artist who doesn’t have to think about flogging their own merch at shows. Then, there’s the rest of us. For some, these are confusing times because of the many formats available for artists to present their work—streaming, download, USB stick, compact disc, vinyl and, yes, analog cassette. They must consider not only the sound quality, but also the demographics and expectations of their audience and numerous other intangibles.
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“I’ve never really understood why anybody would want to buy Pro Tools files on vinyl.” — Anonymous

There’s a certain level of artist who doesn’t have to think about flogging their own merch at shows. Then, there’s the rest of us.

For some, these are confusing times because of the many formats available for artists to present their work—streaming, download, USB stick, compact disc, vinyl and, yes, analog cassette. They must consider not only the sound quality, but also the demographics and expectations of their audience and numerous other intangibles.

Vinyl, for example, can be seen more and more at gigs and in stores, and pressing plants have been doing record business to meet the demand. But is the growth just about artists wanting the cachet of a vinyl release, or is there an audience that actually listens to these things?

I asked Marc Weinstein, co-founder of Amoeba Records, whether he has seen an increase in the sales of turntables as well as records. He said his shops are “selling many turntables; dozens each and every day. Huge upsurge with all this crazy interest in vinyl. Vinyl sales have doubled in the last four years, and we were already selling a lot.”

Billboard noted in January that LP sales were up for a sixth straight year at the close of 2013, around 32 percent over the previous year, with more than 6 million units sold (or 2 percent of all album sales). That’s at a time when overall album sales are down, with CDs showing a 14-percent drop.

As if on cue for this article, Billboard reported on June 18 that Jack White sold 40,000 copies of his latest LP, Lazaretto (Third Man Records/Columbia), according to NielsenSoundScan. (The magazine also noted that it was the biggest sales week for a vinyl release since 1991, when SoundScan started tracking such things). Combined with sales of downloads and CDs, White’s album reached Number One on the Billboard 200. In this case, the LP provided nearly a third of the total sales so far. Call it an anomaly, but it’s not trivial in today’s economy.

To some, the various features of White’s LP—vinyl-only “hidden” tracks, dual-grooves, locked grooves, hologram—may seem gimmicky. But in reality, gimmicks don’t sell that many LPs at a premium price; music and audio quality do. The label’s Website notes: “Absolutely no compression used during recording, mixing, and mastering.” Not many consumers will fully understand what that means, but who cares? The result is a recording specifically designed for the medium, and tens of thousands of his fans get that.

And that’s where the comment from “Anonymous” comes in, which I found on the Digital Music News Website. What Anonymous fails to recognize is that most music fans have no idea what his comment means or implies. For them, it’s not about the recording media: It’s about the music and the experience.

Forget the analog vs. digital recording debate for a moment: If a client wants to present his or her work on a vinyl record or cassette, that’s their prerogative. If our job is to help artists realize their dreams, and for whatever reason a fully analog-based project is not possible—and there are plenty of reasons beyond affordability that can prohibit a fully analog approach—we should still help them meet their needs no matter what the source material is on.

I am not suggesting that audio quality doesn’t matter (it certainly does) or that we should dumb down our standards. My point is that it is dangerous to let recording resolution or things like SPARS codes create confirmation bias when it comes to judging the suitability of a release for any format. If that’s his biggest worry, poor Anonymous may never enjoy another record again.

Most of us have favorite recordings that sound sub-par by modern standards, but we enjoy listening to them for other reasons. And a fully analog signal path doesn’t guarantee a great record. In addition to the risk of shoddy recording techniques or bad pressings, we have to avoid unwanted surface noise, warpage and increased distortion in the high frequencies as the needle approaches the center of the disc. Of course, once you’ve experienced the weight of a stack of LPs while touring, you may get the urge to go back to download-only on your next release.

As I write this, yet another Beatles reissue is being prepared—mono vinyl LPs. To help you fully enjoy them, the press release promises that they’re “Pure analogue, cut to acetate. Pressed to 180 gram vinyl.” No Pro Tools files used here, mate!

It also says, “Sleeve artwork identical to the original.” Now we’re getting to the crux of the matter—presentation. Although the mono mixes have been available on torrent sites for years, this release is intended to give the listener as accurate an experience as possible as to how the music was originally heard by British listeners (minus the lo-fi equipment used by most of them at the time); such crass commercialism, giving the consumer what they may actually want.

While Sony and others work hard to transition listeners into high-res downloadable formats, which they hope will create enough excitement to actually get people to pay for music again, owners of some of the most popular intellectual property in the world are carefully repackaging their material in a format that is still regarded as a niche product.

What a great way to re-introduce today’s audiences to the idea that there’s more to a musical experience than downloading as many song files as possible for free.