I’m about to release a new CD, my first in nearly 15 years. When I did my first CD in 1999 and my second in 2004, I followed what my singer/songwriter friends did and pressed a thousand, as that’s where the big price break was and still is (it costs perhaps $150 more to press a thousand than five hundred). Plus, at that quantity, if you keep the artwork modest, you can get the cost down to about a dollar per CD. While the economy of scale may have made sense, I still have boxes of hundreds of both CDs in my basement. For do-it-yourself singer-songwriters, this is pretty much the norm.
Now, it's 2018. The CD has lost massive ground to digital sales. And the culprit isn't even mainly digital downloads. Napster may have started that bandwagon rolling in 1999, but these days it's streaming. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reports that, for 2017, streaming constituted 64% of sales, with downloads 20% and physical sales 16%. And why not? When ten bucks a month will get you streaming of most popular music, why blow it on a single download?
So, for those of us roll-your-own musicians trying to push our stuff out there into the cruel world, it makes even less sense to press a thousand CDs than it did 15 years ago, price break or no. If you have 300 of your last CD in your basement, you'll have 900 of this one.
Unfortunately, the reality of it appears to be that, at least in the folk world, if you want your music played on the radio, you still need to put out CDs. DJs want a physical product, with artwork and a spine they can read when it's on the shelf, and ideally with a lyric sheet inside. Folk music may have a higher Subaru-and-kale quotient than other musical forms, but to be taken seriously, you're still expected to put out a professional-looking product.
It's ironic. When the ability to plug a microphone into a computer, play and sing a song, record it to a wave file, and burn the result to CD ramped up in the late 1990s, it seemed that the barriers to entry had fallen completely and anyone could make a CD. This was something you never could do with a vinyl record. But there's a world of difference between home-recording and home-burning a collection of songs for your family and friends as opposed to developing a professional product for airplay and sales. You can buy a high-quality microphone and use free or inexpensive PC-based software to record tracks on your computer, but there are very few people who have the ears, the expertise, and the experience to be able to make the end-product sound remotely as good as professionally-recorded music. If you estimate the cost of producing a professional-sounding and packaged CD as ten grand (which, by the time you pay the recording studio, the musicians, the producer if there is one, the person who masters the disc, the photographer, the graphic artist, and the promoter, it may well be), and if you figure that, when you pay for radio promotion, the CD is going out to perhaps 200 radio stations, much of that ten grand is being paid to get the product in a form that those 200 people regard as credible, and any remaining copies just come along for the ride on the tail of diminishing returns.
Now, obviously, art doesn't respond well to this kind of harsh-light-of-day analysis. Artists make art because, ultimately, they're unhappy when they don't (ask me, who didn't put out a CD or book gigs for 15 years, about that). It's really challenging to draw a line on one side of which is money that's clearly well spent and on the other side of which is only ego, vanity, madness, and creditors calling you up.
In this way, recording and releasing a CD is similar to writing a book. Sure, anyone can sit down at a computer, fire up Word, and bang out a book, or at least a book's-worth of material with a title on page one, but sending that Word file, or a printed copy of it, around is highly unlikely to get you squat. Even if you want to self-publish your manuscript (and there's no value judgment to that; that's what I do these days), you need to turn it into a book in order to have a hope that anyone will read it, and that means having a book design (typography and layout) for the inside, and a professional-looking cover for the outside. Just like with a CD, if you have some graphic skills, perhaps you can do the artwork yourself, but most professionals can tell in a second if you did, and unless your graphic skills are up there with your musical skills, you may be dinged for it.
So you do these things. You record your music and write your book. And you do what is necessary to push it out into the world, including getting it packaged in the way that will best represent it.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that, right now, in 2018, one of those forms of packaging is the vinyl record.
Yes. Not only does vinyl have a reputation as having a warmer sound than digital (and we'll get to that), it is experiencing a resurgence. According to RIAA, physical sales are down 1% since last year, but vinyl sales are actually up 3%.
So what's going on?
Obviously, there's a lot to like about records. The full-sized artwork. The graphic inserts. The way you could use double albums to roll out seeds (I swear I can still smell certain strains of reefer on the inner spine of Tales of Topographic Oceans). The way that those of us of a certain age can remember what it was like to wait for a record to come out and spend hard-earned money buying it. The way a practiced hand can take a record off the turntable, hold the edges lightly with both middle fingers, flip it over, and slide it back on the platter. The way you can twirl the cover on one finger like a Frisbee. The way that the records became ours like an article of clothing, via owner-specific wear on the cover and pops and scratches in the music that you not only learn to expect but miss them when you listen to someone else's recording. I'm not sure I can hear a recording of Gordon Bok's Peter Kagan and the Wind without expecting the loud pops at the end that accompany my nearly 50-year-old copy.
But let's talk about that "warm sound" issue for a minute. Maire Anne and I have a turntable in the house (the Thorens TD160C I bought in 1976), and it's not a museum piece. It's fully operational, connected to the home entertainment system in the living room. Our albums are right around the corner in the dining room. It helps that we've only lived in two places since 1984 (and in our current house since 1991), so we haven't had to schlep the records through a dozen moves, which I imagine is the event that triggers many folks our age to get rid of them.
I'm pragmatic about the records, as I am about most things. When CDs came out, the first two I bought were Beatles' Hard Days Night and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, as those records were played to the point of having bad scratches. I certainly replaced a few others. But I never rushed to replace them in bulk, both because of the money involved as well as because many of them still sounded fine.
|The Thorens TD160C turntable I've had at the ready for over 40 years. The Lego VW Camper probably tells you something as well.|
From a sound standpoint, I had a hard time understanding the "warm sound of vinyl" movement that seemed to swell up in the 1990s. A friend of mine, the fellow who mastered my first two CDs, explained it to me as follows.
Actually, since I just used the word "mastering," let me digress for a moment. "Mixing" is the process by which multiple separate tracks--say, guitar, vocals, bass, and drums--are combined. Their relative levels are adjusted and equalized (a little more bass here, a little less treble there), and effects such as reverb are added. The result of mixing is a two-track (stereo) recording. "Mastering" is a set of processes applied to that stereo recording. It's often used on an album's worth of songs to make the album sound uniform. The volume levels of the individual songs are adjusted so that they're consistent song-to-song and are in accordance with the levels of other commercial music. Compression may be added so that no portion of any song is too quiet. Space at song beginnings and fade-outs at the ends may be adjusted. And equalization may be applied to the recording to tighten up the bass or to apply sheen and polish to the high end.
With that background, here's what my friend the mastering professional said. There is zero doubt that the 44.1 KHz digitization rate used by CDs kicks vinyl's ass, making it an inherently superior medium for preserving and replaying music. A CD certainly can get scratched, but because it's read by a laser, the actual act of playing it isn't destructive like it is with a record. However, when CDs started to sell like hotcakes in the mid-1980s and it was clear that they were replacing vinyl, there was a rush to not only release new music on CDs but also artists' back catalogs. Because you had this medium that was scratch-and-pop-free, the assumption was that recordings would sound very clean. So when a lot of music was either first put out on CD or re-released on CD, it was often mastered with the equalization set to provide a fair amount of high end to give people the clean glossy sound they associated the new medium. This, according to my friend, is the root of the misconception that CDs sound "harsh" and that vinyl has a warmer sound. It's not the CD itself; it's how certain material may have been mastered for CD.
Two other layers add to the sound-of-vinyl issue. The first is the compression used on .MP3 files to achieve the magic of reducing their file size by a factor of ten as compared to .WAV files to make them quicker and easier to transfer online. There's a corner of the audio world that says that MP3s (or some MP3s, depending on the bit rate) sound like crap because of the compression.
The second issue is hardware. The '70s was the golden age of hi-fi. Stereo power amplifiers and big speakers had been around for a while, but prices fell and consumer hi-fi stores were ubiquitous in the 1970s. You weren't a dude if you didn't have a big loud stereo in your dorm room with speakers that dwarfed the dresser. Very few people except die-hard audiophiles have held onto this kind of equipment. It's incredibly ironic that, now that we have several sources of clean scratch-and-pop-free music (CDs, digital downloads, and streaming), it's mostly played through earbuds or tiny plug-in speakers.
The reason for this is that portability has become more important to most consumers than fidelity. Consumers don't want to be forced to only listen to their music in their living room. The cassette tape and then the home-burned CD were revolutionary in their day at allowing people to take their music wherever they wanted, but the iPod blew that out of the water. Now, the assumption is all music should be available anywhere for negligible cost. For decent at-home fidelity, some folks do what I do and play music through a home theater system set up for Dolby Digital 5.1 or some later version. It sounds pretty good, but with the big subwoofer, really it's optimized for theater, not music.
So, at one end of the scale you have folks listening to clean, scratch-and-pop-free music anywhere and everywhere through earbuds. At the other end you have some audiophiles who say that that music sounds harsh and unnaturally compressed, and that to make it sound warm and natural, it needs to be listened to on vinyl over audiophile-quality amplifiers and speakers.
Here's what I think. Rolling these three issues together, I think there's not one person in a hundred who can tell the difference in audio quality between an uncompressed wave file and an MP3 in a blind test, and that, for most people, having access to clean digital music trumps any "warmth" that they may experience from vinyl.
So, having said all that, you may be surprised that I can completely understand the resurgence in interest in vinyl, both from the artist's and the consumer's side. Here's why.
When you stream music, you're not buying anything. You don't own anything. You're paying for a service that gives you access to most popular music at any moment, and any individual song you stream and listen to is part of that service. It's ephemeral. And maybe that's fine. Of course, not all music is available via streaming.
When you download music, at least you're making a choice and a transaction. You're deciding that that album or song and the musician or band who created it are important enough to you to pay for. But there's nothing unique about the product you're buying; it's just a set of files on your computer. It's not even well-fixed in time; I doubt many people remember the time they downloaded a certain album.
When you buy a physical CD, there's both choice and a physical object involved. These days, most folks I know associate purchasing CDs with hearing live music in clubs or coffeehouses and then buying a CD directly from the artist. But the disc itself is no different from anyone else's. And, these days, most likely you'll take it home, pop it into your computer, and suck it into iTunes anyway.
But a record is different. It resists digitization. Granted, there are turntables you can buy these days that have USB connectors so you can plug them directly into your computer and rip music off them, but if that's the primary reason you have a turntable, you'd probably just be downloading or streaming music. You can't listen to it while driving or walking the dog. It forces you to be in one place and listen to music. How the hell about that.
Plus, these days, a record is like a hand-developed analog photograph shot on film and enlarged from a negative. It's an art object. You're not buying it because its music quality better. You're buying it because it's not.
And right now, vinyl is hip again. As my friends at Hagerty Insurance who specialize in the vintage car experience would say, it's like crafts such as brewing beer, making cheese, throwing pots, or riding horses. You do these things not only to have the things, but to have the experience that surrounds the things.
Speaking of vintage cars, as many of you know, I'm a vintage car guy. The cheapest new Korean import beats the pants off any of my vintage cars in nearly every way, but that's not the point. I don't love my vintage cars despite their drawbacks; I love them because of their drawbacks.
So I get it.
Just don't talk to me about "the warm sound of vinyl."
One of the duplication houses I'm looking at for my CD also does short-run vinyl duplication. It's $1750 for 300, or about $5.83 a record. (And, interestingly, they offer download cards as part of a package, acknowledging that some folks want the vintage physical object AND the clean digital music they can listen to anywhere.) In comparison, 300 CDs from them is $450, or $1.50 per disc. So you're paying one hell of a premium for vinyl.
I won't do it, but I have to admit, I find the thought of my CD cover in 12"x12" form irresistible.
And the ability to roll seeds out on it would be... priceless.
|Come on--you'd love to use that as a big horizontal surface.|