Thursday, August 27, 2015

The answer, my friend, is sitting on your shelf

All the parties involved in music streaming are rapidly coming to the conclusion that it is no more than a short term fix that will not cure the record industry's long term problems. Record companies are realising that streaming means losing control of their precious intellectual property to predatory intermediaries such as Apple Music. Musicians are realising that streaming makes them wage slaves to the same corporate intermediaries. And consumers are expressing their disaffection by remaining loyal to legacy formats that, according to industry dogma, should now be extinct. Yes, streaming revenues have increased dramatically: but the remarkable resilience of CD sales is conveniently overlooked by crystal ball gazers. In the US in 2014 streaming revenues were $1.87bn (up 29% year on year) while sales of 'moribund' CDs were just a fraction less at $1.85bn (down 12.7%). Both of the formats were eclipsed by download revenues of $2.58bn; but sales of MP3 downloads - which were yesterday's saviour of the record industry - were down 8.7%.

Using the Cartesian logic that prevails in the music industry, CDs should now be almost extinct, while vinyl LPs should have disappeared decades ago. But Cartesian logic does not apply in the music market. The logical explanation that vinyl sales are simply a geek driven niche no longer holds water: in 2014 vinyl sales were up 50% - the biggest growth of any format - and at $315m vinyl becomes a significant player against streaming revenues of $1.87bn. Understanding that the recorded music market does not behave in a logical way is the key to understanding the industry's current problems. 2014 research by ICM Unlimited reported that 15% of consumers buying physical music formats bought music to add to their collection and not to listen to. 53% of these bought a vinyl record and 48% a CD that they had no intention of listening to in the immediate future. Now these findings are very important, because they disprove the industry folklore that vinyl is the only format that is bought for its collectability: in fact the research shows that a significant percentage of CDs - the dominant recorded music format for decades - are bought for their collectability rather than music content. And another important finding given classical music's fixation on young audiences, is that this illogical behaviour is most evident in 18-24 year old music purchasers from the digital generation, with 26% of this cohort buying music to collect rather than to play.

Both objective research and hard market data shows that recorded music is not a disposable commodity, it is a collectable asset. Market data also shows that the 'winner takes all' approach to the format wars is misguided. Downloads were once hailed as the winner that would take all, now it is streaming. In fact the market has fragmented rather than unifying: not only is vinyl now a significant player, but - almost unbelievably - cassette sales are growing. Collectable music is the way forward for the music industry, but it will not be the only game in town. Just as in the early years of the market for classical recordings vinyl LPs and FM classical radio not only co-existed but also complemented each other; so, if managed intelligently, streaming services and downloads catering for mobile listeners can complement collectable music formats.

The success of Jordi Savall's lavish book/CDs, which have been best sellers in independent classical retailers for two decades, is tangible proof of collectable music market's potential. Many Alia Vox releases can be seen in the header photo of my library shelves, while several other noteworthy examples of collectable music feature in the footer image. Back in 2009 I wrote enthusiastically about an early music concert in Aldeburgh given by violinist and Reinhard Goebel protégé Johannes Pramsohler with his Ensemble Diderot. Since then Ensemble Diderot have gone from strength to strength and Johannes has launched his own label Audax Records. Its latest release is a musically outstanding and eminently collectable world premiere recording of the Violin Concertos of Antonio Maria Montanari (1676-1737), which comes in lavish Alia Vox-style packaging complete with stylish session photos and erudite documentation.

Staying with strings, but at the other end of the temporal scale, is 'Orbit: Music for solo cello (1945-2014)'. This is a 3 CD compilation exploring the edges of the contemporary music network by the outstanding and innovative cellist Matt Haimovitz. The composers are too numerous to list, but range from Philip Glass, Osvaldo Golijov and Elliott Carter to Lennon and McCartney's iconoclastic 'Helter Skelter' and Hendrix's 'Star Spangled Banner'; the latter is captured, quite appropriately, live at the now defunct NYC punk palace CBGB. 'Orbit' is a sonic document that would be totally wasted as a lossy data stream; not least because it is encoded as a high resolution SACD hybrid multichannel disc. Underlining my prediction that plural formats are the way forward, purchasers of 'Orbit' can download a WAV file of the music. One of the tracks on the discs is Tod Machover's raga inspired 'Dadaji in Paradise'; which allows me to segue neatly to my final example of collectable music. The shrine of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi has featured On An Overgrown Path several times, and 'Jashn-e-Khusrau 2013' is a lavish collectable book/CD celebrating the genius of Amir Khusrau (1253-1325 CE). He was a court poet and disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin, and is credited with contributing to the genesis of Sufi poetry and music. 'Jashn-e-Khusrau 2013', which is published by the Agha Khan Trust for Culture, outdoes even the most lavish Jordi Savall productions: it comes in handsome coffee table book format complete with three specially recorded CDs which range from traditional qawwali to contemporary fusion. Spend just a few hours with any of these collectable editions, and you will realise, my friend, that the answer to the classical music industry's problems is sitting on your shelf.

Ensemble Diderot's Montanari CD was kindly provided as a requested review sample, all other review materials were purchased. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Pliable said...

Jerry White has made the following comment via Facebook:

I'm a collector, that's for sure. Your remarks on the value of the booklets resonates with me. I've told people on numerous occasions this was my main reason for purchasing classical music on CD rather than digital downloads. I play the actual CDs, too. But the tangible resources in the liner notes are my main motivation. Now, I just wonder who I can pass them on to one day. My sons don't currently show much interest in classical music.
Thanks for this informative article, Bob!

billoo said...

Thanks for that, pli! since you mention khusrau..

Ebubu said...

"Now, Ijust wonder who I can pass them on to one day. "

There are many (city or university) libraries with little means who will be delighted to get your collection, I'm sure...

Pliable said...

Hopefully the record industry decision makers have read this -

and this -

Carl L. Hager said...

Excellent analysis, my friend. Possibly above the heads of the whiners and hand-wringers, although Columbia/Legacy understands the idea and has been applying it for years to their Miles Davis and other reissues.