The Format Conundrum

 An interesting topic has been bubbling away for the last couple of years, amongst the DIY music world, and that is one of physical format.

Fence Records talked about going vinyl only last year, and I got stuck into them for willfully alienating too much of their audience.  And then, just to prove that hypocrisy is alive and well in Toad Hall, it looks like we ourselves won’t be far off being a vinyl only label by the middle of next year – not by design either, it just worked out that way.

Then there’s tapes.  I wrote a post recently expressing my excitement about the relatively recent abundance of tape labels in the UK.  There was a little bit of a back and forth on Twitter about tapes recently, between Ian from Song, by Toad, Adam from Wiseblood Industries and Kevin from Avalanche, where the former were defending tapes and the latter was strongly advising bands not to release on them, resulting eventually in this blog post.

Tapes are certainly an obsolete technology, so resurrecting them is a strange thing for us to be doing.  But then again so are books, really, albeit more recently, and if you are talking about high fidelity sound reproduction, vinyl has been obsolete pretty much since the CD. Nevertheless, the vinyl revival has now become sufficiently mainstream that the Telegraph is writing articles about it, and BBC 6Music are (perhaps less surprisingly) dedicating shows to its waxy splendour.

People may disagree with Kevin’s advice to not release on tape, but pretty much everything he says in his blog post is right.  In the UK you should still, if your aim is to reach as wide an audience as possible, release your music on CD.  CD-R if you have to of course, but the CD is still the most broadly accessible format we have (apart from the mp3) of course. CDs are cheaper to make, they sell faster, more people have the means to play them, in almost every commercial sense they are the best way to get your music to your audience.

And yet, people seem to be moving away from them, and towards more willfully obscure formats which fewer people can play, and hence fewer people will buy.  On the face of it it makes no sense at all.  Nevertheless, of the entire previous paragraph, it’s the bit in brackets which might be the most significant part of the current conundrum: ‘apart from the mp3’.

The fact is that in terms of practicality, cost and efficiency digital music has rendered all physical formats obsolete. Disregarding aesthetic preferences and nostalgia and emotional attachments and all that, by far the best way to distribute music is digitally.  It’s cheaper, easier, gives the consumer more choice, permits greater audio fidelity (or at least it can, not that people ever choose that option), it can be played pretty much anywhere, shared, remixed… it is pretty much better at everything, if you’re looking at it in any kind of objective, rational way.

So of course total physical sales are dropping, the mp3 simply does it better for almost all purposes.  But as the vinyl revival, and the even more recent tape revival, show us, objectively better is not the same as subjectively better.  Just as readers still want to surround themselves with books no matter how much they read on their Kindle, just as wine bores prefer foil and corks despite the fact that apparently screw-tops are better for the wine, so music lovers adore surrounding themselves with objects and rituals which tell them and the rest of the world who they are.

So if physical formats are no longer necessary, which they aren’t, the question becomes different: we don’t need any of these things, so which ones do we want?

And the answer to that seems, at the moment to be music on vinyl and tape. For some reason, despite Kevin’s entirely reasonable assertion that you can make absolutely beautiful packages for CD-Rs if you want to, the CD has never really managed to stir the affections of the music-listening public.

So, to go back to Fence’s original plan to go vinyl only, and Kevin’s advice not to release on tape, labels and bands are left with a tricky decision to make.  Do they willfully turn away from large portions of their audience and press on with formats which have only really become fashionable again in the last couple of years? I know an awful lot of young folk who won’t buy CDs – not ‘tend not to’, actively ‘will not’ – and who actually have no way to play them even if they did, but this is still a relatively recent, young, and small portion of the market.

Cassettes are obscure, and vinyl is both costly and bulky to store.  And given how fast the industry seems to be changing at the moment it would be very brave to bank on either format still be the one to release on in five years time.  I don’t mean ‘bank on’ in terms of armchair commentary either, I mean ‘bet your label or your band’s financial future on’, by putting your money into releasing on the damn things.

The other way of looking at it is that quite simply people are not making much money from music retail at the moment.  Actually selling your album makes you pretty much bugger all, even if you sell a few thousand, so if the difference between vinyl or tape and CD is measured in a couple of hundred quid, then fuck it, that’s a couple of week’s wages at the day job you daren’t quit, so why not go for the format you prefer and hope you snag a publishing deal or high profile booker who might actually make you some proper money.

As a label I don’t want to be snobby or exclusive though, and for obvious reasons, the more people who have access to our music the better. [Edit: also, it is worth pointing out that refusing to offer music in the most accessible formats is probably making people far more likely to pirate them, which is something we should all be looking to avoid.]

As a fan and as someone involved in the process of actually making music, however, I will confess to not listening to CDs anymore either – it’s either digital, vinyl or tape. And yet these formats do, as Kevin says, sell slower, and vinyl costs more.  That means it ties up even more of our capital in stock, and fills our house up with records we will probably never sell.

And as for tapes well, I like them, but I would have no idea if they are just a fad based on the slightly misplaced nostalgia of people of a certain age. Would I personally choose to make an actual bet with my own business on their longevity?  No.  Mind you, given the fact that they are produced as a niche item for the most involved fans and that the digital files are there to act as the commodity anyway, does it matter if they stick around?  Perhaps not.

Either way, it’s not an easy decision.  In every practical sense I agree with Kevin on this one, but in every emotional one I am probably on the other side of the fence – vinyl and tapes are AWESOME! But if you’re in a band or you run a label, making these decisions on such a blatantly non-rational basis is probably not all that wise.

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