Super-Deluxe: Marketing Physical Music Media to MP3-Enthusiasts

In the age of digital music, it takes a little something “extra” to entice consumers to spend their hard-earned cash on physical media.  The enormous convenience and portability of high-bitrate MP3 and lossless FLAC libraries have removed the necessity for dedicating walls (or in some cases, entire rooms) to house and proudly display our favorite albums.

But the beauty of a masterfully-designed and packaged album is one characteristic with which digital audio cannot compete.  The same can be said for the experiential element of removing a vinyl LP from its sleeve, placing it upon one’s turntable, and carefully dropping the needle into the groove.

Record labels are fully aware of this key advantage, and in recent years have funneled an incredible amount of energy, time and resources into developing “super-deluxe” limited editions of albums both old and new to win customers over to buying the real thing.

Compilations, deluxe and limited editions have been an explosive trend in the last 10 years, and albums previously only available as bootlegs are resurfacing as official special releases, all in an effort to earn collector’s patronage.  Official multi-volume Bootleg Series editions are now available featuring live material by Dylan, Miles Davis, and perhaps the kings of the bootleg market – The Grateful Dead, as the classic 36-volumes of Dick’s Picks are being sequentially reissued for the first time on vinyl.

Of course, the concept of deluxe and special editions is nothing new to the media industry.  Deutsche Grammophon produced an impressive 16-volume library of hardbound 5LP sets celebrating Beethoven’s Bicentennial back in 1963.  The complete collection of 80 records and a handsome oversize hardcover book made a perfect gift item for the classical fan in your life… though the set also burdens the recipient with the task of dedicating considerable floor space to accommodate the collection, and is a nightmare should they ever need to move.

Thankfully, the CD era granted increased portability with its more compact format.  DG wasted no time and followed up the Bicentennial Collection with a 111 Year Retrospective of the label’s finest recordings.  The two volumes released in 2009 and 2010 comprised a monumental 111 CDs marketed to completists and obsessive collectors of the finest classical music.

Still, even with all the conveniences of the CD, some deluxe sets take collectability a little too far.  Perhaps the best example is the absurdly-overcomplete 500-disc World’s Greatest Jazz Collection – a compilation of apparently every jazz track that wasn’t nailed down.

These and countless other deluxe releases demonstrate how the market for physical music media has evolved to adapt to the convenience of digital audio.  Listeners have become cultural curators, carefully selecting which recordings they will purchase in physical form to best-fit their personal collections and to tell their own stories.  The act of investing in an LP or CD is now a significant and deliberate decision which serves to contribute to one’s autobiographical library.

In 2014, marketing guru Gene Simmons fully-understood this consumer desire, and produced what is one of the finest implementations of a music product designed for the collector’s market.

This is Kissteria – “The Ultimate Vinyl Road Case.”  Thirty-four LPs, featuring nineteen studio albums, five Alive releases and their four solo albums pressed onto audiophile 180g vinyl.  To further appeal to discerning audiophiles, each of the recordings has been newly remastered in ultra-high definition DSD.  And as an added bonus, the set includes twelve archival posters, a KISS vinyl cleaning cloth, turntable mat, dominoes set, lithographs, and a certificate of authenticity – all of which is housed in an Anvil case weighing in at nearly 50 pounds.

The set was limited to 1000 copies – clearly an exclusive for KISS’ biggest mega-fans.  The set symbolizes the perfect execution of a music product for the digital age.  Listen up record labels – if you want to compete with the convenience of digital audio… this is how its done.

Kissteria Box Set

And in the end…

After a brief discussion with a friend today comparing and contrasting the merits of print vs eBooks, I began to re-examine my obsession with record collecting (and with materialism of any form).  I’ve been grappling with both sides of the collectibility coin for years, but the end of a calendar year seems a fitting time to look back and reflect on exactly what I’m doing and at what cost.

My purchasing of printed books has become more selective and refined in the past year (as it has for much of the public with eBook sales still on the rise.)  Statistia.com forcasts that ePub sales will exceed those of printed books by 2017.  This has been my most active year ever for book purchases – the same year I built myself a virtually-departmentalized library of eBooks.

eBooks vs Print Chart

Similarly, my vinyl purchasing has become specialized as well.  2014 has been Innerspace’s most-active for both digital and vinyl acquisitions, with each directly inspiring activity in the other.

107 LPs (accounting for each of the discs in multi-disc box sets) were purchased in the last 5 months alone, making the second half of 2014 our busiest purchasing period in the history of the Innerspace Library.  Actual spending for album acquisition in 2014 (purchases between Jan 13 and Nov 26) totaled $1,140.30, including all spending for overseas shipping and other courier services, with a mean monthly expenditure of $103 for the 11 months of activity.  The vast majority of these purchases were special-edition, limited releases, and original-pressings of milestones from my favorite genres.

Comparatively, 4,138 of my digital album folders were added or modified in 2014, (though this number includes folders in which tag maintenance or restructuring occurred during the last calendar year.)  The increase in digital album “consumption” had a direct impact on my vinyl-ordering activity.

But increasingly, the reasons I’ve used to justify my LP purchases are being eroded by the changing landscape of the FLAC community.

And so I thought I’d take each head-on.

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CLAIM 1: Vinyl often features better mastering and production quality than their digital counterparts

The genres I collect, particularly avant-garde, modern classical, ambient, and experimental electronic music have an audiophile fan base dedicated to the digital preservation of these recordings.  Where once fans had to rely on pirate remastering work by Purple Chick and Dr. Ebbetts (among other legendary engineers), the democratization of recording technology has made home-archiving inexpensive and easy without having to chase down shiny black discs.

And for albums previously only available on wax, we have claim #2.

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CLAIM 2: You can’t find these recordings anywhere else

Thanks to archival technology, there has developed a large and well-networked community of collectors eager to share their rare vinyl recordings with the rest of the world.  The community has evolved to the point where vinyl-only issued and limited-press recordings are now readily available in the form of community-generated digital lossless archives.  While commercial networks like Spotify offer only a tiny fraction of these recordings (I think there are six) due to their limited commercial interest and costly rights negotiation, actual fans of the music have stepped up to the plate and made the albums available where a commercial market has not.

"Armand De Brignac" Champagne Party at the VIP Room

CLAIM 3: Supporting the artist

This is a moot argument in my specialized case and in the case of those like me.  99% of the albums I buy are used records pressed forty years ago.  The used market has little to no impact on composers and artists, (with a few special exceptions like that of Rodriguez).  One exempt title which comes to mind is Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes LP.  Yorke made headlines when …Boxes became the first album ever to be sold through a commercial torrent channel, demonstrating the viability of the sharing medium.  I saw my purchase of the deluxe LP as a contribution to a cause I supported.  But those two exceptions aside, I don’t think Ludwig or Karlheinz need my money that badly.

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CLAIM 4: It’s all about the experience

The experience is one of the outstanding merits of vinyl albums with which digital music cannot compete.  Selecting the album, removing it from its artful gatefold cover, dropping the needle, and so many other elements of the vinyl experience remind us of the value of music in an age of digital gluttony.  The experience is what still motivates me to purchase records, but with greater selectivity than before.

REAL FRIENDS HELP YOU MOVE RECORDS

With the erosion of the above arguments in vinyl’s favor, the reasons against collecting grow larger than ever.

REASON 1: They weigh a ton.

Ask anyone who’s been generous enough to help me move.  Collecting records requires the dedication of space and the enlistment of an army should you ever need to relocate them.  I know it’s part of vinyl’s charm – they are Objets d’art, but they’re admittedly a burden at the same time.

REASON 2: The stuff I’m after costs a fortune.

That $100 a month is over a grand at the end of the year that I could put toward living more comfortably and taking care of my beautiful partner.  I’m grateful that I am able to accommodate the limited disposable income I have for a fulfilling hobby and as a means of social interaction, but greater selectivity may yield a greater reward in the end.  Contrariwise, the only available digital resource for these vinyl-ripped and rare recordings is the file sharing community, which is 100% free.  And there isn’t much that can compare with free.

REASON 3: Accessibility and Organization

What I love most about our Digital Library is that it is meticulously organized and instantly indexable by multiple points of metadata.  With just a few clicks I can export charts and visualizations of library data for my annual reports.  And with 100% of the content on my home server, I can access any track wherever I go.  My unlimited data plan grants me uninhibited access to my content in FLAC without needing to transcode to stay below a corporate-determined threshold of data.  I take several TB of content to work each day, enjoy it on the walk there and back, and DJ my office for the 8 hours in between.

(Oh yes… and 13,000+ albums don’t take up any real estate on the shelf.)

And so…

Moving forward into the new year, I’m going to significantly pull the reins on my vinyl-buying impulses.  I might attempt to quantify my purchasing decisions with a 3-question qualifier before buying (as I’ve a fondness for doing things mathematically.)  There will still be incredible albums here, and there is no reason I can’t talk about a FLAC vinyl-rip and throw up a shot of the LP… (it’ll be our little secret.)

I welcome your thoughts.  Please feel free to share your support for or against this notion.  And I’ll see you in the new year.

Underworld’s 20th Anniversary LP and a State of Cultural Curation

Today it finally arrived! The 5-disc Super Deluxe 20th Anniversary Edition of Underworld’s incredible album, Dubnobasswithmyheadman.

Underworld is perhaps where I go off the deep end from fan to fringe fanatic. The first album I ever heard which wasn’t commercial pop radio – this record changed my life forever. The album packaging also marked the definitive moment when I knew I had to become a graphic designer.

To date I now have 394 of their albums and EPs in my digital library and nearly every LP, single, book, poster and print they’ve issued since 1979.

It’s collections like this that make me cautious – While I don’t buy these titles blindly, I feel somewhat of a sense of responsibility to have them all – perhaps as a part of what critic Simon Reynolds called the growing “curatorial culture” of music fans.

The snapshot below comprises the majority of the releases linked directly to Dubnobass in 1994. But emotionally it feels like I’m archiving my own life story at the crossroads where my preconceived notions of Music were shattered.

A tribute to Dubnobasswithmyheadman
I’m really at a thoughtful point in my self-appointed archival career.  I’m reading a number of books that examine the nature of post-millennium economy of music sales.  Most address the same fundamental points –

– The ease of distribution of digital files and their compact size has stripped music of its commercial value and rendered the majority of physical media useless, making music more of a utility than a property.  Most casual listeners are satisfied to sacrifice fidelity and dynamic range for the convenience of carrying thousand of albums with them while they shop, eat, and work, or to give up possession of their libraries entire in exchange for cloud-based music services.

Spotify

– Simultaneously, the inevitable gluttony of music acquisition which takes place in the digital age further diminishes the value of commercial music.

– However, vinyl sales continue to increase year after year while all other media sales plummet as music consumers discover the merit of the EXPERIENCE of actively listening and participating in their music instead of consuming it passively while performing other tasks.

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– And finally, there is an ever-growing culture of music curators who collect physical artifacts of any number of periods, artists, styles, and formats in an effort to reaffirm the value of their music.  Another benefit of the digital age is that the Web grants these “curators” access to the furthest reaches of obscure and limited-pressing musics from cultures near and far and from (most) any period in history.

I’ve found myself spending more time and energy (and money) than I ever have before building my library of “artifacts,” in part to document my own personal story via music and also out of a sense of duty to build a library of Music that Matters, so that I can share it with the world and open the minds of listeners yearning for strange and wonderful sounds.

What about you?  Are you a cultural curator?  Are we wasting our time and our money with these antiquated and out-dated treasures or does our very act of collecting them somehow justify their value?

dubnobasswithmyheadman[1]

Making the Move to the Mobile Web

Today I’ve started a new project.  After working for an app development company for 8 months, hearing every day that the app market has hit critical mass, and that mobile web access has overtaken desktops as the primary means of accessing the internet, it seemed in my best interest to invest in a tablet to keep abreast of the mobile “craze.”

I’ve never paid much attention to the Play Store other than my daily use of Sindre Mehus’ wonderful Subsonic media server app.  Projects like music research, databasing, and library management just don’t lend themselves to a mobile environment, much less to an app.

But I took on the project and invested in a Nexus 7 2nd gen (2013) which appeared to have universal acclaim as the best 7″ tablet on the market at present.

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With its quad-core Snapdragon processor and the highest resolution of any available tablet (WUXGA 1920×1200) coupled with its affordable price tag, the choice was simple.  A certified refurbished model from a licensed distributor was $160.  A package of Tech Armor screen shields and a Moko faux leather case/stand with a compact Bluetooth keyboard was only $39 more, so the entire package was $200, tax and shipping-free.

But the question remained – would this mobile device be of any use to a user like myself?

I spent the first evening customizing the tablet.  I compiled a beautiful high res album of photographs from the most renowned libraries in the world and installed Wallpaper Changer to cycle through a gallery of bibliophilia and really show off the resolution of the Nexus 7.

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Next I ported my browser add-ons and settings to sync from my desktop to my mobile environment, which was surprisingly easier than I anticipated.

Then I arrived at perhaps my most empowering conclusion.  To really get the most out of the mobile interface, I needed all of my library resources to be instantly accessible.  As I had a fondness for the desktop interface of most of these services, I learned how to save deep-web links to my home screen instead of using apps.

Below is a snapshot of my fourth home screen where I’ve created shortcuts to everything from my most-traveled music subreddits to my audio reference texts which I’ve converted from PDF to reflowable ePubs and synced to my Google Books account.

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I was excited to explore my record catalog which I had recently ported from a static database to the cloud on Discogs.com.  The interface is clean and customizable in the tablet browser environment.  Here is the Art Rock folder of my top 300 LPs in cover-view.

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And the same folder in detail view.

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And finally, the summary view from the home folder.

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The site functions very well with a touch-based tablet interface, and my Subsonic media server was equally easy to use.  In addition to the high resolution display, the Nexus 7 is fitted with stereo speakers which perform well in the mobile setting.  Better still, I travel with my Sennheiser monitors wherever I go, so I am ready for anything (although I might consider a portable DAC further down the line).

Here is the Subsonic interface, viewing one artist’s folder on the Nexus 7.

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And a view of a primary discographic chronology folder.

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Or if you prefer to navigate by playlist…

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So it would appear that the Nexus 7 is up to the challenge of the majority of my computing tasks.  The one remaining challenge would be to draft an entire blog entry on the tablet.

Which I’ve just done.

This increased mobility will let me seize the opportunity to work on my research and blogging wherever I go.  I’m looking forward to the productivity.

I’ll leave you with an interesting thought piece.

(Begin at 6m 45s if the video fails to jump to that time.)

This is Zimerman’s Paradox. “Music is not sound.”

In this BBC interview segment, Krystian Zimerman condemns digital recording for its perfection, and claims that it strips away the emotion and character of a composition.

What do you think?