Friday, May 27, 2011

Hail To The Clear Figurines: How Artists and Indie Labels Can Make Rock ‘n’ Roll Better If It Can’t Be Saved

I just stopped writing this big, overblown history of how digital format has changed the music industry in both good and bad ways. I’ll spare you by not clogging the blogosphere with more garbage that only a select few will read and like all opinions thrown out there, will generate an endless barrage of conflict and bickering. However, I’ll repeat my often touted opinion that the music has gotten much better while the industry on the whole, at least the larger parts, are failing. The digital revolution gave smaller indie and unsigned acts a better chance to have their music heard. It’s an ongoing problem that there’s so much out there that nobody cares anymore. They don’t discover music anymore. They don’t go to a record store and hear something new. Radio and internet radio can still do that, but with being able to change songs on internet radio, the limited audience of satellite radio, and pure radio being only heard as an effort by the devoted, the opportunity and therefore, the excitement of hearing something new is not there anymore.

We’re overloaded. MP3’s have advantages, but it’s a nonstop feed. Even if we hear something good, we can buy it on download or many illegally download. It’s binary code and holds little meaning. There’s this whole generation that’s grown up on collecting binary code. Music is art. Albums are art because the packaging is how the artist presents their work to the world. It has greater meaning as a whole. Vinyl has always had a small but devoted audience, and that’s mostly been from musicians and audiophiles. It has advantages. It sounds better, it’s visual, listening to vinyl is a ritual and one can’t sit there with a remote and switch between thousands of songs. It’s more active.

Many of us and the bands we love appreciate technology and like that we can take the music we love anywhere, but it comes at a cost to those who make it since one can buy a few songs and even a full mp3 album is cheaper than vinyl. However, and this is the most important point: Vinyl was the only music medium that grew last year. The digital revolution is here and has been for a long time, but we see its disadvantages, and a growing audience is beginning to see that, too.

CD sales are declining, MP3 sales are stable, vinyl sales are growing. So why not press only vinyl? Vinyl is a lot more expensive to make. It’s 50 cents to make a CD, they sell for $15, it’s $10 to buy an MP3 album, but no art. A CD cover is small and cheesy, though. Albums? They’re big, sensitive to heat, need to be held and cared for gingerly, the art is better, you can read liner notes, oh, and we know: They sound better. Albums are $5 to make, though, and one has to order them in larger quantities, so it’s a bigger investment.

We love rock ‘n’ roll, we want it to live on. Most of our indie label friends, bands, and unsigned ones feel the same way, but the truth is that CDs and MP3’s are cheaper for them to make, and vinyl is not huge in sales.

We all want the same thing, don’t we? We do! We want great music. We want to see the artists get recognized. We want them to do well so they can keep making music. We want the labels they’re on to keep putting it out. So artists, labels, and fans: We want the same thing, only the first two are the ones making and selling, the third needs to buy it. Make it special. Be creative. Not just with the music, but how you put it out into the world.

It’s not just the music that matters. It’s a product that we’re investing in. It’s art. For many of us, it has symbolic meaning as material culture. It’s the packaging, the artwork, the care and effort that one puts into not just making the music, but presenting it to the world. I started telling people a few years ago that they should phase out CD’s entirely. They’re cheap, they don’t sound as good as we once thought, and most of us just burn it into mp3s and then put it away anyway. Wicked Cool Records was including CD copies with their vinyl. Although many still said the CD market was big when I made the comment, some started to ease toward multiple formats. Labels? You figured it out. Give us both formats and don’t force us to choose between one or the other since both have advantages and disadvantages. I want to listen to an album in my home. I want to take it out of the sleeve, put it on the turntable, and put the needle down, but I also want to take it with me so I could hear it at work, or in the car. We deserve multiple format and shouldn’t have to buy the same thing twice. I’m glad more of you have caught up.
We appreciate it. It’s not easy for you. The costs are higher for vinyl and you have a small consumer group for it, although it’s growing. You want to sell volume. You need to. You’re not here for just a few of us. We want you to so you can stay with us.
We love this music and we love you for putting it out, so we want to see the audience grow as much as you do.

So how do you do this? There’s a number of options that everyone’s playing around with. Right now, the accepted norm is vinyl with a download card. That’s pretty much industry standard. However, a few labels have tried new things that make it more exciting. Yep Roc Records offers a free instant download with album purchase. Great! Good things take time. We don’t mind waiting for fresh vinyl, but that extra step tells us, the consumers, that you’re offering instant gratification for our investment. How do you make that better? Do you remember when you heard upcoming releases on radio before they came out? Do that again! Send only vinyl to some radio stations. Release the album on your band and label site a few weeks later for preorder with the free instant download. We get the music early, the album arrives the same day it does in stores! How cool is that? It brings excitement and anticipation back.

What about Hail To The Clear Figurines? It’s stellar. Simple yet complex, droned out yet primitive, acidic, fuzzy yet clear, and with a genuine feel that’s simply unmatched. “ignition Slated For Eight” is the closest anyone’s ever gotten to “Piper At The Gates OF Dawn” despite the numerous psuedo goth sounding drone bands that try to get there but mostly can’t feel it and get nowhere near it. Consequently, The Asteroid #4 are still the most listened to band on Rainbow Quartz’s last fm station, but here’s where they set themselves apart from the rest of the industry currently. The Asteroid #4’s new album and their label, The Committee To Keep Music Evil, threw something new at me. Like a few others, they decided upon colored vinyl. This is special. A small amount more for manufacturing, depending on the volume, but it stands out. Again, it’s the presentation. It’s the details and just one more way one presents their art to the world. Not only that, but some of their earlier releases are reissued and available on colored vinyl also. It was very, very special when it came in the mail, I opened the records, put on the new one on red vinyl, marveled at the reissue of “Introducing The Asteroid #4 on dark, opaque blue vinyl, listened to the new one all the way through, put on the new 10 inch and marveled at hearing The Catherine Wheel Cover “I Want To Touch You”, which was almost a revelation when I heard it live a few years ago. I stayed up way too late that evening with the lights out listening to “Introducing...” on high volume and soaked in how the music filled the room, all the while thinking how the blue vinyl gave it a new feel that somehow should have always been there. The Asteroid #4 and TCTKME did something really, really special, and they have a few more reissued gems on colored vinyl that I’m really looking forward to getting and hearing again as if it’s for the first time.

Many you are rightfully thinking in practical terms. Vinyl is a big investment and most indie labels are boutique labels that cater to an audience, so it’s a bigger investment that’s not really feasible. The vinyl market is growing and will continue to do so substantially for the next few years, but maybe not to the point where the artists and the labels will be able to reap larger, tangible results to make the investment in pressing vinyl seem worthwhile. The Love Me Nots, an unsigned garage (for a lack of so many other great adjectives to describe them) act from Phoenix, AZ might have come up with a solution. They pressed 400 mango vinyl copies of their new album, The Demon And The Devotee on Project Infinity Records. Their last album, Upside Down/Inside Out, was also pressed in limited number. The first pressing in red vinyl sold out, so they made more in two tone black and red vinyl, so not only did they press a limited number, but made more that were slightly different once those sold out, thus appealing to some of their fans who might want to own both versions. By their example, a return to vinyl is possible if one keeps their numbers smaller but doesn’t create a snob factor by not making more available.

So there you have it. A problem. CDs are becoming obsolete and most real music fans are not going to take a download only copy seriously. You can’t cherish binary code. Vinyl is the only medium that’s growing. It sounds better, but it’s more expensive to make. Press vinyl. Do so in limited quantities. If you sell those, make more but experiment with a different color. Include the mp3 download card with the vinyl. It’s better if one offers the instant gratification for your fans by having a free download at the time of album purchase. Have it available before release date so the fans can feel special and to show them some gratitude for their enthusiasm. If you find a service that you can include download cards or link for the automatic download, but also feature you with other artists from the same or similar genre on their site. Apollo Music is a great example. Rainbow Quartz artists The High Dials, Solaram, TCTKME with The Asteroid #4, The Quarter After, and Brian Jonestown Massacre, Optical Sounds, a prolific psych label from Canada with act The Hoa Hoa’s, Planet Creature, The Disrealis, and others such as unsigned acts Sweet Jane and The Cult of Dom Keller. Apollo Music also offers download purchases, as well as free full length album streams. After all, having a place where you’re included with other unique, similar indie acts and especially if you have free streams on the same site increases your audience by giving you opportunity to be heard by an audience that’s genuinely interested.

Material culture has symbolic meaning. Cover art, liner notes, a unique color, whether solid, opaque, or marbleized, making limited vinyl copies, then making more available in a different color so more people can purchase it without making a huge investment to begin with that you might not be able to recoup, enabling the consumer to exercise their right once they buy your music to own it in multiple formats, and rewarding them with an instant download upon purchase of an album so they can enjoy the music before it gets to them in a few weeks is a reasonable, multitiered approach to keeping your costs low, making something unique that will encourage more excitement and devotion by your consumers, and getting your music out there to a larger potential audience with vinyl only advance copies sent to stations who will play your music and digital downloads and streams on a site that can highlight you among similar artists is a better tactic then doing one or the other, or as many are, struggling with a market that has different formats and can’t decide which way to go. You win, the vinyl fans win. Your music gets out there faster and is more available in the dominant format and the growing format.

Music is a gift. Great wrapping included. However, in the end, if your music isn’t great to begin with, what goes around it and how you present it to the world doesn’t make a difference. The music in the end has to speak for itself. For those of you that I’ve cited and those of you that I’m writing to, it already does.

Hail To The Clear Figurines.

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