Freedoms of the (vinyl) press …
The new models of publishing and the old realities. Music and ‘print’ publishing both face radical changes. What have they got to say to one another?
He’s now a political and financial functionary, and he was never a revolutionary, but Jacques Attali’s book Noise: The political economy of sound was once widely regarded for
its insight into the nature of popular music. Attali imagined that music by the likes of Jimi Hendrix was an advance warning of what would happen to Western societies. Music, and the production of music, was a window into the future of society itself. He may well have inspired the band called Pop Will Eat Itself. During the 1990s, the formats of music were changing faster than the styles of music itself, and not only because of advances in quality. Some people still swear by the quality of DATs (Digital Audio Tape) though one will search in vain for a new player. With the arrival of the CD, consumers were promised that the discs would last forever, unlike scratch-able vinyl. That turned out to be nonsense, and a vinyl manufacturer told me a few years back that the big music publishers had prevailed on their vinyl manufacturing partners to destroy the printing machines, in the event that the public eventually figured out the fundamental lie of the CD business. Regardless, the advent of the internet offered a very obvious advantage to music publishers – they could now sell digital copies of tunes without having to manufacture a physical object to carry the music. The deeper logic at work was that one day, the publishers would not even need to deliver a few megabytes of music to their listeners. They would just rent it out. Hello, Spotify!
Now that’s a reality, there’s been a debate raging among musicians and publishers about the usefulness of this model, but no one is going to put Spotify back in the box. There was a time when music was considered to be art, and for some people that still applies, but it’s hard to get one’s head around the concept of being a collector of MP3s. For many independent artists, the idea of pressing a piece on vinyl promises some kind of return, even down the road, that will far exceed the return on one million plays on Spotify with the rewarding income paying only sufficient for a day’s groceries. That’s the story on the musician’s side. What about the listeners and fans?
Well, when the options for listening to music involve renting tunes, the mind naturally turns to ways to actually own the tunes. When vinyl is an option, it’s not an unattractive investment. Cheapness is not the only consideration for fans, who understand economics as well as the musicians, so plenty of fans understand that to support an artist, it’s worth throwing down a few quid / dollars / euros to support their favourite artists and labels. But how about if you can throw down a few quid, and know that it will hold on to its value – and will still be playable in years to come? Vinyl collectors know that a combination of a good tune and a good press are going to hold their value. Just on time comes the news that the release of vinyl albums from David Bowie and Daft Punk has doubled overall vinyl sales in the UK for 2013, which is a pretty remarkable jump, with vinyl now accounting for 0.8% of total music sales, up from 0.1% six years ago. (Or as one commentator offer, “We’ve gone from no one buying vinyl, to almost no one buying vinyl.”) People still argue about the quality of vinyl versus digital, but a well-EQ’d digital track is every bit the match of a good vinyl, so that’s not a contributing factor. Some of the vinyl revival is doubtless accidental: one now-owner of a vinyl plant in the UK was buying the place to turn it into apartments but took an interest in the decaying vinyl press sitting in the centre of the factory.
The market for vinyl is probably moving away from Djs towards collectors, because of the advances in (ironically) CD players, which can handle all kinds of digital formats, and have as many varies lights and switches as small spaceships, or the phenomenally successful controllers such as Traktor or Serrato. The attraction of playing digital versions of tunes is huge for DJs, when you can carry thousands of tunes on a hard drive instead of lugging 100 vinyls in a couple of heavy bags. A friend of mine is currently transferring his thirty-year old (and sublimely brilliant) collection of vinyls onto hard disc so he can play out using Traktor. It’s not as simple a proposition as it sounds as it involves a bit of EQ-ing and balancing, as well as ironing out the variations in tempo that mark pre-drum machine music, along with a bit of mastering. It can easily take an hour to transfer one 20-minute EP to hard disc. It’s possible to do four EPs in a morning. His collection comprises about 8,000 records so at a rate of four a day every weekday, he should be finished in about … oh, eight years? By that time, vinyl may be the new digital, but don’t hold your breath. Vinyl will remain a niche for collectors, though maybe a growing niche.
So, what has any of this got to do with print publishing? Have the changes in music and musical technology got anything to say to the world of the written word? Perhaps, but if the model of vinyl printing has anything to say, we may be looking at a future of limited edition newpapers and magazines that will not support anything like the numbers of staff on national papers and magazines that we currently know. As Dan Lyons at Hubspot notes, print publishing, like music publishing, used to make a lot of money. “Hardly anyone makes money in print publishing anymore,” he writes. “Online publishing is just as bad, maybe worse.” Lyons wrote earlier this year about his decision to move from journalism & media and into marketing, after observing the decline in advertising that traditionally drove print publishing, and that in his opinion heralded the end of journalism as we know it. Now he’s confronting the rise of automated content production technology that’s threatening the future of those who write blogs and what’s known in the business as ‘content creation’. Read Dan’s piece here.
One of the issues at play here is that newspapers wanting to compete in the online world started throwing their content online for free, and now they’re finding that it’s not so easy to take back all that freely consumed but expensively produced content. There’s so much content online now that there is no way to take back that original offer. Paywalls only seem to work for very specialised material, such as is supplied by the financial press, and websites that survive with the support of readers are still rare.
So we now have the conundrum whereby high-level investigative journalism has suffered badly as a result of cutbacks in income for newspapers and broadcasters. Investigative reporting is expensive and time-consuming and often doesn’t produce publishable results. Yet, there have been a couple of new initiatives towards a new model of print publishing. French journalist and editor Edwy Plenel started investigative website Mediapart back in 2008 and it’s been broadly successful, breaking big stories, while operating with the support of the public through subscriptions. The model, however, has yet to be successfully developed elsewhere.
Most other successful investigative sites are supported by philanthropies that are themselves supported by wealthy individuals. When Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras broke the Edward Snowden story earlier this year with the co-operation of the Guardian and the Washington Post, many readers were genuinely surprised at the quality and impact of the reporting. Now, Greenwald and his team are reported to be moving on to a new venture supported by billionaire Pierre Omidyar, the founder of Ebay. Kudos to Omidyar, who seems genuinely interested in supporting independent media, but when we are depending on the wealthiest people in the world to support some kind of “free” press, there’s something clearly gone awry.
In the words of A.J. Liebling, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”