Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The death of vinyl -- an allegory

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Gather round the fire kiddies, and grandma will tell you about something they used to call the “record business.”

Once upon a time -- Caleb! I told you! Stop setting your sister on fire! -- music was “sold.” There were places called “record stores” and the clerks in them were cool. What those clerks really wanted, though, was to someday work at a “record company,” which was a building filled mostly with balding fortyish men with little ponytails who yelled into the phone all day long.

One day the VP of Filling Up Warehouses walked into a marketing meeting at the coolest record company of them all, holding a little silver disk. (Yes, kiddies, your grandma was there.) It would last forever, he said. You could smear peanut butter on it and it would still play, he said. And the music sounded so much better, he said!

Soon everybody in what we used to call The Industry fell all over themselves trying to get rid of the big, clumsy, heavy “records.” Why, they told us and we told distribution and they told sales to tell the customers, would anyone want something that could develop a skip in it? Everybody knew that the silver discs -- CD’s, they called them -- never would, because you could smear peanut butter on them and they’d still play. And besides, records were expensive to warehouse and CD’s -- well, they were lighter, and you could print the booklets cheap -- no more overindulged “artists” demanding embossed covers with big pictures on them -- and they could close half the warehouses and save some serious cash that way and man, could they save big bucks on shipping. And it wasn’t like anybody wanted to see pictures of those “artists” anyway. Most of them were ugly, and besides, all those big jackets were expensive to print. And, best of all, you could charge twice as much for the CD’s, because they were cool!

Well, kids, your grandma had some doubts. What about the packaging, she said. The portraits you could see, the liner notes, the sense of ownership of something tactile and real? Got into a few arguments with the boys that ran $ales. Lost.

The retail people were thrilled, though. You could actually get people to buy their entire record collections all over again! Cash registers rang out all over the land, and life was good. The party went on.

But it didn’t take long for the “market” to figure out how to get the music for free. (Hey, that’s why they call it the “free market!”) Turned out it was real easy to steal digital music. Generation after generation after generation with no loss of quality! It was a counterfeiter’s dream. Music could be made and sold anywhere, by anybody, ready or not. And then came digital downloads. And then Napster. And pretty soon the party was over, as sales went down and down down until the record companies got gobbled up by big corporate sharks a.k.a. “The Suits.”

Then an odd thing happened. Vinyl became cool again. Well, not to everybody, but to the people who actually liked music.

It turned out that there was something, well, authentic about these big clumsy scratchy heavy records. That those grooves contained something that came to be called “analog warmth.” That people actually did want to see photos of the artists that were bigger than “postage stamps.” Pretty soon all the coolest bands were releasing their music on vinyl again.

You see, kiddies, the record “business” had screwed up. In this mad rush for happy bankers and a big ole bottom line, they had underestimated their customers. Just a bunch of baboons with greasy “cash” in their grubby palms and yeah they’ll buy what we tell ‘em to buy, because we are the coolest of the cool and we know what’s what.

Guess not, eh?

Now, most of those former “buyers” get their music cheap. Nobody’s paying $20 for a whole CD’s worth of music any more; not when you can download the one song you really want for free, uh, 99 cents; oh, wait, $1.29, which is roughly what a “single” cost in oh, 1970 or so.

They say if you live long enough you’ll see everything.

In other words kids, the “record business,” like your great-grandpa used to say, shot itself in the foot.

But we all know: nobody’s that dumb now.


Perfumeshrine said...

Very thought-provoking in elation to latest development to other industries. Shooting oneself on the foot never made for a graceful walk, I guess.

(and I so agree with you on the vinyl jackets...aren't they so lovely to hold under one's arm and go about their business? I used to do that getting some from a friend's house to mine and from there to a party..ah good times!)

Rappleyea said...

I just found your blog, thanks to your link on POL. And so I am just reading this. This was absolutely brilliant! I loved the analogy to the record industry. Of course as someone who avidly collected 45's as a teenager, I would.

You are now bookmarked, so I'll be back!

Olfacta said...

Hi E -- Is that (insert name of major fragrance house here) limping along?

Dear Rappleyea -- Thanks! Who doesn't love being called brilliant! I just hope my predictions don't come true but have an uncomfortable feeling that they will. Glad to have you!