Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What You see and what you get / Are two totally different things

This week I’ve uploaded (or to be exact, asked to have uploaded) a 2009 remaster of the, if I say so myself, classic 1982 Screaming Meemees album, If This Is Paradise, I'll Take The Bag . We’ve added a few extra tracks, the singles and one off bits that helped define one of the biggest New Zealand bands of the 1980s, including See Me Go, the first NZ single to go to number one.Screaming Meemees

It’s available on Amplifier, and shortly on iTunes and eMusic. And maybe in a physical format at some stage, but that’s increasingly unlikely.

There is a bit of a history of the band and my involvement with them here.

When I first looked at remastering this album some three years back (and talked to a couple of band members about doing it, with a very positive response) I considered that this album would come out in some sort of rather attractive CD package, with a secondary role for the digital release on iTunes, Amplifier and eMusic. Even, I, a reasonably, I hope, informed observer of the recording industry naturally assumed a physical format would be the primary format.

How things change. Today, the CD format is really only loosely required on a package like this..ask anyone who’s done one a reissue of recent..even the beautiful and highly desirable ones like the New Order or Buzzcocks re-masters if they sold any appreciable quantity (and the reissue market is the one niche where CDs might still have legs) and the answer will likely be predictably depressing. You are more likely to see a return from a reverently packaged and pressed vinyl edition in 2009 than a CD.

In the US this week EMI announced that the new Robbie Williams album will only be available in digital formats. There will be no physical format release at all, which, even if Robbie is not the star in the US he is everywhere else, is quite a thing. No physical. No requirement.

Indeed the forthcoming Beatles remasters are widely being spoken of as the format’s last gasp, it's last major release, in the US at least, and even if that’s overstating things a little, the fact that it’s increasingly hard to even buy a CD in many big American cities means that it’s relevance to the marketplace is shrinking at a faster rate than even the hard-format optimists predicted.

It’s almost over, or at least you can see over the horizon to a land beyond it, and with it goes the album and thus the last vestiges of any hope the major record companies have of surviving as they are. Without the dollar value of the album, the record companies are, to put it politely, rather fucked.

Which brings us to the CMX, the new wunder-format that the record companies have spent god knows how much money inventing over the recent years. Not only is this supposed to be the saviour of the format the record labels, or at least the big ones with their bloated infrastructures and rather hungry shareholders, need to survive, it’s also, and one must assume rather arrogantly (who, the majors? arrogant?) and unwisely, taking on of the few growth areas the recording industry has left for it's recorded masters, the digital store owned by Apple, which we all know as iTunes, as Apple have their own proprietary format in the wings and are unlikely to roll over in response to what is clearly a power re-grab from the big four.

Yep, everybody is trying to reinvent the album.

And you can’t help feeling that’s like trying to give CPR to a stuffed Dodo. It’s another don’t you bloody well get it moment? Like Napster, like the law suits, like the rise of iTunes.

Well clearly no, they still don't.

They album rather rapidly died this decade, primarily because that’s the way the buying public wants it. They want tracks, they want songs, they want the digital equivalent of the old 45rpm single, but instead of being told that ‘this is the single’ they like the ability to choose which personal single they want. Which is why, despite the much touted gloom, which really just translates to ‘our dollar sales are down’, unit sales of tracks and, yes, CD albums..i.e. The sale of one unit, as desired by the customer, are up last year driven by mostly non-album sales.

And the UK music industry was up 4.7% in 2008. Which is probably a more important, and vastly more credible, figure than the billions of lost sales touted by industry bodies year in and year out.

So back to the CMX. Boy does this feel last ditch and desperate, almost like a suicide note from a broken and largely unfixable business model whose only answer is to try and quickly reinvent the past. Banging a bit of artwork and a whole album in a single file is really not going to fix anything, nor, I think is it going to prove exceedingly attractive to a generation who is now accustomed to getting their add-ons to the music they are listening too from a web site, or via their wired held-held device as they may choose, without having to listen to the extraneous tracks they really don't want.

Of course people of my generation, myself included, still crave long players, and bemoan the loss of the enjoyment of delving into an album to find that lost gem, but I feel our time is almost passed. And now you find those gems on blogs, on a myriad of sites or from word of mouth. Which is where I mostly get my music from now and I very rarely want or need to play an album despite the need of the record companies for us all do do so.

Tom Yorke agrees.

In the meantime, The Screaming Meemees sound rather wonderful again right now. Any track you want, or the whole damned album...

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