Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Orchestras need to wake up and smell the coffee

That photo was taken in Concerto Records - a candidate for the best record store in the world - in Amsterdam on Monday. It shows part of the extensive range of new and reconditioned (Thorens etc) turntables on sale in the store, a range that is complemented by a wide selection of vinyl LPs. High end audio stores have majored on turntables for some time, but their appearance in mass market outlets is significant. The resurgence of vinyl can no longer be dismissed as a fashion fad. No one is suggesting that digital formats will be replaced by analogue LPs. But, as reported here recently, vinyl sales increased by the same percentage (40%) in the first half of 2014 as streaming, and vinyl presses are currently at maximum capacity to keep up with demand. Of course vinyl is fragile and non-portable. But let's drill down below the obvious. Consumers are embracing (re-embracing actually) a music format that defies the 'music to go' movement. They are voting with their wallets for a format that demands, to quote Britten, "some preparation", or, to quote Copland, requires the listener "to pay attention and to give the music [their] concentrated effort as an active listener". But it is the rock/alternative sectors that are capitalising on this trend, while orchestras and classical labels continue, lemming-like, to give their music away as effortless sonically-challenged digital streams.

There is no clearer confirmation of this lemming-like behaviour than the forthcoming annual conference of the Association of British Orchestras. At the January 2015 conference the keynote speaker will be Helen Boaden, director of BBC Radio. Ms Boaden has absolutely no track record of winning new audiences for classical music. Her rise in the BBC was in current affairs and business programming. As head of news she was criticised by the BBC commissioned Pollard report over her involvement in the Jimmy Savile fiasco: the following is a quote from the Guardian: 'The Pollard report also said she failed to take responsibility or act decisively even as her news division was in "virtual meltdown" in October"'. Despite this Ms Boaden was promoted to director of BBC Radio in February 2013 by new director general Tony Hall, who had been appointed following his predecessor's resignation in the wake of the Savile scandal.

In the twenty-two months since Ms Boaden became director of BBC Radio the audience for classical network Radio 3 has continued to shrink and Proms attendances have dropped 5%. During her reign the controller of Radio 3 has departed in opaque circumstances, and a successor has been appointed with zero broadcasting experience, and, to judge by his first pronouncements, zero understanding of classical radio. But I may be doing the Association of British Orchestras and Helen Boaden a disservice. Perhaps the theme of her conference keynote speech will be "How not to win new audiences for classical music".

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psu said...

I don't know how much we should read into this alleged "renaissance" of vinyl. Even with all the increased sales in recent years the business is *minuscule* compared to the retail music industry at large. Most of the figures that I find on the Internet are that total vinyl sales have been in the $100-$200M range in an industry that generates $5-10B in revenue.

So while it looks good on paper to talk about 50% year-over-year growth I think we should be careful about saying that vinyl is currently even close to downloads or streaming in the mass market.

I'm still happy about it though. I like LPs. ��

Pliable said...

psu, thanks for that. As I say "No one is suggesting that digital formats will be replaced by analogue LPs". It is not the absolute numbers that are significant, but consumers' willingness to embrace a less than user friendly music format.

Received wisdom in classical music says that user friendliness - aka accessibility - is the only thing that it important. The resurgence in vinyl, even if small in absolute numbers, is more evidence of the danger of blindly accepting received wisdom.

Some interesting ECM vinyl rarities here -

Christopher Culver said...

Don't assume that vinyl purchasers are listening to that vinyl in a focused, contemplative setting, or even listening to it at all! I own quite a large and growing vinyl collection, but I don't even own a turntable. Usually I pirate a CD rip of the recording, and I listen only to that through my media centre computer, but when I purchase the physical product to support the artists, I choose vinyl because it has larger cover art and it adds some pizzazz to my flat’s decor.

I live in a city with a considerable amount of young people holding to the "hipster" fashion movement and spend a lot of time in these circles. Vinyl is a very popular purchase, but few indeed are listening to it. I’m almost the only person I know who tracks down high-quality digital audio from other sources, while most people simply find the song they want to hear at the moment on YouTube!

Pliable said...

Christopher, there would not be a healthy market for turntables - both new and reconditioned - if vinyl purchasers were not listening to their discs. For example, Pioneer would not have launched the new PLX-1000 high end turntable in 2014 if nobody was listening to their LPs -

I am puzzled as to why the classical music community is so close minded when it comes to vinyl. Nobody is suggesting LPs will become a major force in the market again. But is there nothing we can learn from vinyls against all odds renaissance?

Christopher Culver said...

"Christopher, there would not be a healthy market for turntables - both new and reconditioned - if vinyl purchasers were not listening to their discs."

I have no doubt that some vinyl purchasers are listening to their records. However, I strongly suspect that is a minority of vinyl purchasers. The upsurge in vinyl sales is to a large extent driven by the fashionable nature of vinyl as a physical artifact. Now, when people are increasingly doing their music listening from YouTube and the like, when purchasing a physical product one goes for what looks the hippest, not what sounds the best; it was only sound quality that made vinyl seem antiquated next to CDs, and now that the sound quality debate is of less importance, vinyl can enjoy a resurgence.

With regard to my local market (Romania), the cost of a vinyl release is roughly the same as a CD, and so it is perceived as affordable. Those fancy turntables you point to, however, are viewed as a considerable expense. At the same time, when you've bought a lovely piece of vinyl (ECM vinyl has become a hot purchase here), you don't want to listen to it on your grandmother's scratchy turntable, especially when that very same content can be heard effortlessly on YouTube or, for people with audiophile demands, our pirate sites. So, the vinyl sits in the corner as a fashion statement, and people listen online.

Pliable said...

Christopher, let's amicably agree to differ before this particular debate starts to go round in circles at 33 rpm. Anyway, I need time to listen to the LPs I bought in Concerto Records...

Philip Amos said...

I am not at all sure that retail sales of the limited number of new vinyl LPs available is the best measure of the resurgent popularity of vinyl. It was a few years back that I first noticed stores specializing in used vinyl sprouting, and the prices of many items far exceeded the average price of a cd. If you spot someone foraging through used vinyl in a thrift store at top speed, pausing only to check the condition of an occasional find, it's likely to be dealer. Prices on the used market for mint-condition issues long available on cd but scarce in the original vinyl have been astronomical for decades, the market driven largely by Asia.

Christopher Culver said...

To follow up on my earlier comments, and give some hard figures instead of my own anecdotal experience, this survey from last year found that over half of vinyl purchasers bought a record without intending to actually listen to it (getting the music instead from the internet). One wants to own the physical artifact for various reasons, but that doesn't necessarily mean one will put it on a turntable.

Pliable said...

Christopher, thanks for pointing out that very useful research.

You tell us that the research reports that "over half of vinyl purchasers bought a record without intending to actually listen to it." But you do not tell us that the research also reports that 48% of CD purchasers did not intend listening to the disc.

So, far from vinyl attracting an inordinately large number of non-listeners, in fact vinyl purchasers behave in almost exactly the same way as those for the most popular music format - CD.

Also I can see no mention in the research summary that vinyl purchasers are "getting the music instead from the internet".