Saturday, January 15, 2011

CD's vs. Downloads

Hi -

I posted this on an online forum, and I thought some of you who don't go to that forum might be interested in reading this. I welcome your comments. - Scott

I've been thinking about this one for a while, and after talking it over with Darren, I've decided to put my $.02 in. It's a bit long winded, but I'll try not to put you to sleep. Honest. We're in a rare situation here as the people who make and sell the music interact closely with the people who buy and enjoy the music. This way, we get to learn from each other, find out what matters to each other. This is obviously a contentious issue and isn't going away anytime soon. It's something that we're all passionate about, from those who don't want CD's to go away, to those who see downloads as the future. Think back to where we were 5 years ago. This wouldn't be as serious a discussion then. 10 years ago, downloads were in their infancy. 15 years ago, I was writing a monthly column for a trade magazine called New Age Voice about the Internet. Back then, it was big news if an artist or label even had a website. Where will we be in 5 years? 10? 15? There's definitely an evolution going on here. I'm not sure where it's headed, but there's still tons of great music being made, and that's what really matters.

As a DJ at an independent radio station, I see a lot of this firsthand. We're in the midst of a years-long project to archive all our CD's onto hard drives. We're not getting rid of CD's, just backing them up and making it easier for those DJ"s that are all digital (yes, there are some). But at the same time, there's still physical media. I see new cassettes from indie bands in our playlist. As Mike pointed out, indie bands are still making 7" singles. And we still get a few vinyl records from time to time. I don't think any of those are making a comeback. I think they're just filling niches. I think physical media will be with us for a while. Collectors like having a physical product to hold. And performing artists need something to sell at concerts. But I think that more and more, physical media will be the niche, and downloads (or perhaps streaming "cloud" music, or something else) will become the norm.

I grew up listening to classic rock on a crappy portable radio, then my dad's 8-tracks, then LP's on my mom's stereo. I went to NYC often on record buying trips in the mid to late 80's and came back with bags full of vinyl that I'd listen to for weeks. I bought my first CD player in 1985. My first CD? Eddie Jobson's Theme Of Secrets. Still one of my all time favorites. I remember the first promo CD an independent artist ever sent to me. That was a big deal at the time. There was a time when the only way independent musicians and labels could release music was on cassette. Now well over half of the music I get comes from downloads, either directly from the artists/labels, or from sites like Emusic or Bandcamp. I love having something to hold in my hands, and the recording quality matters a lot to me. But if the music's good, then the method of delivery isn't as important to me. I listened to my dad's 8-tracks over and over again. As horrible as the sound quality was, I loved the music.

What's been missing from this thread, and most of the others like it that I read, is the economics of the situation from the musician/label point of view. What little I've read, and what people have told me privately (which I won't repeat without permission) scares me. From the sounds of it, CD"s simply aren't selling, unless you're a performing musician. I'd really like to hear more about this. If not sales figures, then at least something that gives me more of an idea how things are going, both for those that rely on CD sales and those that have moved more into downloads. There are a lot more options for musicians/labels these days for download sales. Besides obvious outlets like Itunes and CD Baby, there are others like Emusic and Bandcamp, which I've been using a lot lately. There are different pricing options, even "pay what you want". I'm not addressing the netlabel/free download part of it here, as I want to hear more about the economics. Are musicians/labels still selling CD's? Are downloads selling? What makes more sense financially? We may get upset when a musician or label stops selling CD"s and goes download only, but we have to remember that there's usually an economic reason for it. The more we understand this, the better. There are musicians/labels that have stopped releasing music or have gone on hiatus because it isn't financially viable for them. Sad, but true.

From the listeners point of view, we should talk more about the value of music. With so many people illegally downloading music online, the big worry is that music will have no value. We need to look at what we value about music, and how we can retain that value. Collectors find value in a physical product, and don't find value in what's essentially a file on their hard drive. That's fine, but if one of your favorite musicians releases a download only project, will you ignore it because it has no value to you? In another forum, a band released an album of music as a free download as a thank you for their fans. And someone was upset because they didn't offer it for sale as a CD. To me, he's missing the point. It was a gift, and a nice one at that. I downloaded it, loved it, and am playing it on my show. When O Yuki Conjugate released The Euphoria Of Disobedience, their first album in something like 10 years, I wanted it. I'm a huge fan. And since I couldn't get a promo copy, I had to choose between spending $30 for a limited edition release in special packaging, or get it from Emusic (which cost something like $2). The economics of the situation forced me to go with Emusic. And it still blew me away. I value my download files as much as I do my CD"s. And though I get lots of promos, I still buy music sometimes, when I can't get an album any other way. And lately the economics of my situation mean that if I can get a download for less, than I will.

The economics from the listener point of view (and I still consider myself one) is that most of us have very limited budgets. MOre and more, we have to look for the value in any product. CD's might not be going away, but more and more artists and labels are turning to downloads. As a listener, will you spend your money on a CD? Or will you opt for a download? What are you willing to forgo, a physical product, or the music itself? IN my case, I want to hear the music. If it's a CD, great. If it's a download, that's fine too. If you opt for downloads, you have to accept that some artists/labels prefer releasing CD's. Perhaps if enough of you speak up on the subject, they will offer downloads *cough* Hypnos *cough*. If you want a CD, you have to accept that certain albums may only be available as a download. Again, if enough of you speak up on the subject, perhaps they will listen and offer a CD. And the musicians/labels out there need to decide which way to go. If it's financially viable to keep releasing CD's, great. If it's a download release, then still make it something people will value. Some labels may find a niche releasing download albums on CD. Others may find that releasing CD's is simply no longer a viable option for them. It isn't easy for either side, musician/labels or listeners. The more we understand each other, the better we'll all get through this.

1 comment:

  1. Scott...As a musician, download vs CD is more about the quality than economics. CDs usually contain WAV files which are rather rich in information. Downloads/streams are MP3 files which contain about one-fifth of the information. While it still sounds okay, there is a definite dropoff in sound detail. In the not-to-distant future download delivery systems will be able to handle the increase data demands of WAV rich files and that will please both the consumer and the producer.

    On another note, most of my sales (by far!) come via download; streaming, in particular. The rate of compensation is approximately 0.015 per stream (or, one-and-a-half cents per or less). Data shows that Lady Gaga had over a million streams and received a check for $167. So the only way to make any money at all for the "non-famous" is to do live shows. Unfortunately, when a musician such as I does his work via soft-synth with in-the-box production, there is no live possibilities (unless one wants to fake it by having a bunch of people pushing buttons in a most animated and entertaining manner).

    And, then there's this: CDBaby reports that a survey was conducted that showed a large portion of Americans believe musicians and artists should hold various other jobs and NOT expect to get paid for their work. Personally, seeing as each song I create takes something on the order of 20 hours minimum with most taking over 40 hours per, it's WORK and being compensated for it would make life so much better (especially as regards the costly upgrading of software and computer equipment!) Alas, that's not going to happen. While the new digital revolution is great for the music consumer, for the musician it creates a very unjust system.

    Then again, music for a musician (and devoted listeners) is like air that we must breathe. It's not a choice so much as a calling. Music is the single best example of the best humanity has to offer.

    Keep on keepin' on...and play that music, brother!

    Steven Lance