Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Goodbye, Old Friend.

Recently I've been starting to plan album number three. Despite all of the inevitable creative thoughts and debates, one question keeps coming back and slapping me in the face.

Should I release it on CD?

This may seem a strange question to be concerned about at this stage, but is is a critical one for someone in my position. Download sales of my previous albums on iTunes alone have far outstripped CD sales since release. Manufacturing CDs is an extremely expensive business and there is no guarantee that I will be able to sell the vast quantities that the manufacturers demand as a minimum order. The other option is to go CD-R, but these are frowned upon by some listeners and also cost a lot more per unit to produce so there is no margin in them when you do sell them.

But there is a strong emotional attachment to CDs for people of a certain age. In the 30 or so years since they first appeared, they have become part of our culture. I am just about old enough to remember their appearance on the music scene in the early 80s, when it became quite the party game amongst my circle of young pals to see how hard it was to render them unplayable. We were used to chewed up cassette tapes and scratched vinyl, and this magical shiny disc that claimed to be indestructible (not strictly true) and to provide the ultimate in sonic quality was the sexiest thing to appear on the market for a very long time. It also used a "laser" to read it, and this was an unbearable amount of excitement for a generation that had only just got back from the cinema having watched Star Wars on its original release. The future had undoubtedly arrived!

I often wonder whether Jean-Michel Jarre would have enjoyed quite the iconic status he does if his "Oxygene" album had not somehow become the pin up girl for the new format. Those subtle electronic breezes somehow came truly alive when freed of interference from the crackle and hum of vinyl or the hiss of cassette tapes. The record companies never had it so good either, as they fell over themselves to release their entire back catalogue on CD to persuade us to buy albums we already had just for the quality. It worked, too.

The transition to download in the last ten years has not had anything like the launch party the was enjoyed by CD for a number of reasons. It's not about the quality any more, in fact MP3 quality is usually noticeably worse than a CD thanks to the compression used to get the size of the file down to something manageable. Instead its about the convenience of instantly accessible libraries of music and total portability. When CDs first appeared, music enthusiasts now started to concentrate on the quality of their sound reproduction hardware since the source material was already as good as it was ever going to get. I still remember when a man was measured by the size of his sub woofer. Other than a few die hard elements who have now transitioned this approach to their cars, this is not really the done thing any more. Now it seems to be about miniaturisation. You can get an iPod that is literally the size of a postage stamp that will hold more music than you can get through in a lifetime, and it's all very impressive technically but I do think its a bit of shame that we've lost the focus on sound quality. I'm as guilty as the next, having an attic full of CDs that have long since been ripped to my iPod.

Music producers such as myself as a rule go out of our way to produce the highest quality sound recordings that our equipment will allow, but much of this effort is now wasted at the receiving end. We are also engaged in this crazy "loudness war" which for the non-technical amongst you is about making your music sound louder than the next guys (usually by compressing the life out of it) in the belief that this somehow makes it sound better. We all do it, but I'm really not sure why....

To get back to the point, poor quality audio MP3s are the future and high quality audio CDs are on the way out as far as the consumer is concerned. To be fair, the quality of MP3s will generally improve as available disk space and internet bandwidth increases but at the moment, that is where we are. So the poor old CD is inevitably going the way of vinyl and will soon be relegated to the dusty shelves of specialist record stores populated by men in beards waving their sub woofers at each other. I shall mourn its passing with my heart, but not my head. The download world is actually a fantastic thing for musicians, diminishing reliance on the record companies and enabling musicians everywhere to distribute their music.

So I am tempted to get with the times, not to mention save a lot of hassle, and release album number 3 on download only. Services such as Amazon On-Demand now exist whereby the beards can still buy a shiny disc with 50Mb per song instead of 5 if they wish, and I suspect that this kind of service will multiply rapidly in the way it has for physical books. So if you want a CD, you would still be able to get one. But I'll let someone else make it.

I shall await the howls of protest, and have a sneaking suspicion that I shall probably be pretending that I never wrote these words in due course, but we shall see.


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