New formats are not the answer to the music industry's woes

Guy Holmes seems to have a weird take on selling records. In a piece at the Guardian about his label Gut’s experiment with releasing a single on a hybrid vinyl/CD disc he comments:

The music business desperately, desperately needs to invent new formats; the CD is an antique, it’s 20 years old.

With little context available it’s hard to tell why, exactly, he thinks the industry needs a new format, but my guess is he’s been looking at the figures for the bubble the music industry experienced while consumers switched from cassette and LP to CD and wants to experience them again.

There are several problems with that approach. One is that now most of us have the means to rip our CDs into digital form it’s going to be much harder to re-sell us the same content. I might have replaced an LP with a CD because I didn’t have a record player any more, but not only do I still have several CD players, it’s easy for me to prepare for the future by ripping those CDs to use on a wide range of devices.

But that also leads us to the fact that the industry already has several new formats and only one of them is working. There’s DVD audio, there are HD CDs, there are SACDs and there are dozens of digital-only formats. And most consumers are only interested in the digital formats. For the vast majority of us (ie. everyone but serious audiophiles) CDs are good enough, and of the new options only the digital ones offer us a better experience.

Rather than casting around for gimmicks, labels would do well to look at why vinyl sales are rising in some quarters and why the new CD-like formats are failing. With their large canvas for artwork, LPs still offer a tactile experience that CDs can’t duplicate, as well as connecting us with a nostalgic experience and a wealth of cheap back catalogue items. DRM-free digital formats give us a way to play our music on a wide range of devices, to store, back-up and even repurpose the music, but lack a tactile experience.

Radiohead’s digital+discbox approach recognises that those options can be complimentary and provides something extra for their fans (their track record of high quality artwork doesn’t hurt). Beck‘s “make your own sleeve” approach with The Information also tapped into a little of that. Understanding what’s going on may yield a sustainable model, self-acknowledged gimmicks won’t.

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