Tuesday, June 26, 2007

On Records as Physical Objects

In the last month or so, Rhino Records went through a round of layoffs. A friend had to let go a couple of members on her team, and another friend working there (who had been nominated for an important award for package design) lost her job. A friend who doesn't work there -- but who designs record covers -- is teaching himself Flash because he's not sure he'll have work in the future. And one friend (OK, one of the previous friends) posits that the decline in record sales in the face of digital downloads is largely a construct of record company executives, who have an interest in music being largely intellectual property -- not a physical object. If music is a digital file, it removes the need for packaging, for presentation, for representation. And costs decline.

When we saw the transition from record albums -- LPs -- to CDs, we saw packaging take a hit. As physical sales continue to decline, we see notable record stores closing. And in a recent attempt to help preserve the presence of record packaging, even in the form of CDs, I bought two records physically -- not online... and found them wanting.

Is the record industry killing itself? Today, New Record Day, I bought two CDs, the new Beastie Boys instrumental record, and the first Bad Brains record in ages. (I wanted to get Tim Armstrong's solo album, which came out awhile ago, but none of the two stores I went to stocked it. I'll buy it online, perhaps digitally given the outcome of this experiment.) I bought the CDs for at least $4 more than I could have digitally online -- the Beasties CD ran $7 higher (Both sold for $9.99 on iTunes, and I paid $14.99 and $17.99, respectively.). What did I get for my financial troubles? A piece of plastic that I quickly digitized in order to listen to, catalog, and document.

Neither CD came with a booklet, or liner notes of note. The Beasties CD included personnel and production credits, and the Bad Brains CD included same, as well as a thank-you list. So I turned back to my online options. In iTunes, the Bad Brains record came with a "digital booklet." The Beasties record did not. I bought the Bad Brains record again -- for $9.99, making my total purchase of the recording $24.98 (for the physical and digital versions).

What did I get? Nothing. The "digital booklet" was a four-page PDF document that consisted of almost exactly the same information that I got with the physical CD. (I'll upload it and when I have time.)

What did I learn? Two things. One, Digital booklets in iTunes are neither a value add nor a differentiator. If you buy online, you'll either get no information, or the little info included in the physical product. Two, the record industry continues to move online clumsily and to its own detriment.

The point of moving online is that you can offer more... and better. File compression and audio quality aside -- which I believe remains a big issue -- online, you can offer more information, more design, and more context. More of a product. Yet labels do not. That leads me to wonder whether the business concerns are less about costs of production and sales declines due to file sharing... and more about IP in general. If the music is reduced to file-level IP, and other content is removed, what do we lose? Information, design, and context. Limiting the amount of content available with digital downloads and physical CDs isn't about the cost of producing atoms and matter -- it's about the costs of producing content after the recording is made. Limit content, limit brain power and people hours. Then let the staff or contractors go!

I've recently begun to document the VHS tapes I'm transferring to DVD for personal and archival use. The fact that I have to put this text content somewhere -- all gleaned from physical packaging -- irritates me. Today, there's no reason it can't be included in the physical CD or DVD... or online file -- in an easily readable, transferrable, and usable format.

The fact that we collect album cover knockoffs (Full disclosure: I sang in the Anchormen, the first knockoff featured on that site.), and celebrate classic album cover design (Thanks for the tip, Bud Plant!) indicates that it's important.

Why is the album cover -- package -- going away?

And so I have the following recommendations. If, record industry, you want me to buy records:

  • Help musicians make music I want to buy.
  • Offer it a variety of formats.
  • Make physical records that are worth buying more than digital files.
  • Make digital downloads that include more information, design, and content than their physical counterparts -- or the same amount as.
  • Allow transferral and annotation -- and other user-generated content-oriented opportunities.

If you don't, chances are that I won't buy a physical record again. I'm not sure that's what either of us wants.

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