February 23, 2014

Special on: Digital vs Physical music (kinda)

Last Thursday I took the final exam of the winter session. In order to pass it, I had to choose a subject of public interest (I chose Digital music vs Physical in lack of a better subject) and work on a presentation. One of the requirements was to interview an expert source, so I asked my beloved blog-mate Thomas a few stupid questions. Needless to say, the teacher loved my project and I've finished the session without failing a single exam.

Instead of writing an entire article of my own about this particular subject, I followed Chester's advice and decided to post the interview. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Thomas for being a bro and dedicating an entire hour of his already tight schedule to helping me out.

1. First of all, tell us a bit about your past and present experience in music.

My name is Thomas Reitmayer, I just turned 40, and I live in Wien, Austria. I have been (co-)running a record store and skate shop for almost 15 years, I set up shows for nobodies and bigger names alike, I used to run a small DIY record label, did publish 4 issues of a glossy professional music (+ skateboarding + art) magazine with distribution all over Europe and I have been buying records for almost 30 years now.

2. In the last few years, we've seen a dramatic shift towards the digital format. People are willing to pay the same amount of money (around 10 to 15 euros, prices don't always coincide) on a few digital files rather than buying a physical copy, which usually contains all the nice stuff like artworks, lyrics and such. Why do you think this happened?

Are people really willing to pay for files? I don't know, to be honest. I have bought one MP3 file in my lifetime, for a total net value of $1. Half a year later my hard drive crashed and that file was gone. I could and should have known that before, so I only have myself to blame. But to answer your question, I think the reasons are simple. On one hand, the Internet is a great resource to find about about new (or old) music, especially in areas where there are no record stores etc... on the other hand, the necessary "hardware" is already there: you don't need a turntable, you don't need speakers, you don't need an amp. You can just very easily play music on your computer. And I think that a whole lot of people view THIS as the actual process of getting music nowadays, especially the younger generation. Record stores are dying left and right, the economy is a wreck, and let's be honest: music is a luxury item. First comes food, then comes morale. In the era of cell phones, tablets and computers, music has become a commodity. The actual act of sitting down and listening to a full album seems like a relic from a time long gone by. I am not blaming anyone and I am not pointing fingers, but to me an album is always something tangible, something I can hold in my hands. The artwork is as important as the songs, and there is a reason why the songs on an album are in a specific order most of the time - because it is the artist's vision. By simply downloading a file and listening to it on crappy speakers and removed from an album context, I feel that you are devaluing the actual art - for the artist and for yourself. I think I know maybe 2 or 3 people who do pay for digital music files: one of them does it for space reasons, another one can buys the vinyl anyway and wants to support the artists even more (and yes, he can afford it). To each their own, it's just not something for me. I pirate my digital music, I will gladly admit that. If I buy a record and want to listen to it on the go, I'll just download it illegally (or use the download code that came with the record, which amazingly has become a very common thing these days!) and don't feel like I am stealing because I have paid for the actual music anyway.

3. The rise of online platforms such as Bandcamp and Soundcloud have made it easier for young bands to promote and distribute their music without becoming dependent on shady abusive record labels. On the other hand, being so accessible to everyone, there's been an explosion of new bands and music, good and bad alike, and the music industry might experience a sudden ''drop'' in quality. Is this ''inflation'' good for the overall health of the music industry? Should it have some sort of ''filtering'' mechanism?

I really like artist-friendly platforms like Bandcamp! To me, it's all about cutting out the middle man. It does not make any sense to me at all to host music on let's say iTunes or Spotify, because the biggest share of the money goes to these platforms and not the artists and yes, that is very shady and abusive. I don't think that the boom or explosion of uncountable new bands has all that much to do with the available possibilities - it has happened before. In the late 70s, everybody could form a band according to punk, it continued in the early 80's with the US hardcore explosion, it happened again in the 90s when techno and all sub genres eradicated the "star" behind the music and made creating music much more democratic. So in that sense, this is nothing new. What IS new, however, are the means of spreading your music and I think that everyone should take advantage of it. To be honest, I could not care less about the well-being of the music industry. They've had it coming for years. To a major label, a band is a tax write-off. A band merely exists to make the company money. And that scheme has imploded at the beginning of the 00s or even before when the big corporations suddenly found out that no one is really willing to pay 20 Euros or more for the latest Madonna or Robbie Williams CD - which, actually, is just a piece of garbage. In the aftermath of the success of Nirvana, labels were signing each and every "punk" band left and right, hoping to make a quick buck, and the bands thought they were on par and could have a similar career. And this is exactly where the bullshit filter comes into play: customers see through that, then and now. If a band is not good enough, does not work hard enough, or has weird ideas of success, well... they won't be going anywhere. You can sell the biggest trash if you have enough advertising budget, but the real deal will always "function" without. Good music WILL eventually sell, without having to shove it down someone's throat - it just depends on the definition of success. To some band, it might be having a record out. To me, when I was running my record label, it was selling 500 copies of that record. I think the only feasible filtering mechanism (as you called it) is yourself. If you don't feel like digging the crates, literally or metaphorically, online or in a store, then you deserve to be spoonfed what's readily available. Or, as Tim Yohannon of infamous Maximum Rocknroll fanzine said: "The good thing is that everyone can make a record. The bad thing is everyone does."

4. We all know that CD sales have been dropping for 7 years in a row now due to the rise of digital music and that vinyl sales are skyrocketing. Even small bands are releasing their music on vinyls now. Should we see this as a good thing? Is this proof that music consumers have matured and shifted their attention towards a better format?

Oh, I think it's been much longer than 7 years actually. And "skyrocketing", well... yes, in relative terms you are right. I just think that music sales in general have gone way, way, way down (and that includes digital music). Vinyl, just like anything, is neither good nor bad, it just is a medium. Truth be told, MOST music sounds better on vinyl - if it's mastered correctly, if it's pressed on good quality vinyl, etc... too many factors to mention. Then again, it can sound absolutely terrible - lots of recent re-releases are the evidence. If you use a bad master (like a compressed CD, for example), you will end up with a bad result. To me, personally, vinyl has never disappeared. It's always been there. The reason why it might be more "visible" recently is because it is being marketed towards certain target audiences: middle aged men who want to relive their youth, hipsters who think it's oh so very ironic to own a relic from the technological stone ages, audiophile opera lovers, the list goes on. As for consumers maturing, not necessarily. There is a certain stamp collector mentality being prevalent: a lot of people think they NEED to own a very limited edition, sometimes not even listening to it, carefully storing it away on a shelf in order to avoid any minor crease on the album sleeve to not lose re-sale "value". To me, this is far from being mature. But yes, I do see a certain renaissance (for lack of a better term) of taking the time to seek out an album, take it home, and play it start to finish. It is a completely different experience than just a mouseclick, and to me, this beautiful.

5. And finally, how do you see the musical landscape five or ten years from now when it comes to format and distribution? Will the physical format disappear?

I don't really think a lot will change, to be honest. There is a trend of re-releasing rare or obscure or long sold out records, and that will most definitely increase because there is a demand for it and no one wants to pay obscene amounts for a beat up copy. Physical formats will most definitely not disappear, but the CD is a dead medium, there is no way around it. There was a time for it like there was a time for 8 tracks or laser discs or VHS tapes, but that time is running out. Vinyl, just like books, is one of the most durable storage mediums ever invented.

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