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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

20 Trends For 2009

I don't know if I agree with them all, but here's what Trendhunter considers the 20 trends for 2009.  Most of them reflect how people will cope with the sagging economy.

2008 In Review

We're at the end of another interesting year in the music business.  2008 provided few shocks but plenty of evolution.  Here are a number of items of significance, in no particular order.
  • Record labels, both major and indie, continued to take a revenue hit as CD sales decreased by about 14% again this year.
  • Paid digital downloads started to plateau this year at about 2 billion.  Sounds like a lot but at $.99 each it doesn't begin to make up for the lost CD revenue.
  • Perhaps coupled to the above, Apple iPod sales also began to plateau.  Has the market been saturated?
  • Guns N' Roses long awaited release Chinese Democracy falls well below expectations both sales-wise and artistically.
  • AC/DC's long awaited release Black Ice does well, just not as well as what a superstar act sold 10 years ago.
  • Musical Equipment and pro audio manufacturers skated through the tough economic times mostly untouched until the last quarter.  2009 might not be so bright though, as major retailers are cutting inventory due to the credit crunch.
  • Major musical equipment retailers hold the price line.  New policies keep discounts to a minimum.  The tag price is the sales price.
  • The RIAA sees the light and decides that suing their own customers for 7 years hasn't stopped unlawful digital downloads in the least.  The policy is discontinued.
  • Sony BMG discovers bigger isn't better and separates.  Oh boy, one more major label than last year! That will get the music business going (ha!).
  • 2008 was the year that ringtones traveled past their prime.  They're no longer hot either for the buyer or the seller and became a declining revenue source as a result.
  • Games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band are more popular than ever, giving legacy artists a real shot in the arm revenue-wise.  Now if only all the kids playing these games spent the same amount of time learning real instruments.
  • Concert promoter Live Nation gets into the long-term exclusive promotion business with deals with Jay-Z, U2, Shakira, Madonna and Nickleback.  The wisdom of such deals, which costs significant amounts paid to the artists, is questioned by the industry in face of the country's current economic condition.
  • In what may be deemed as a reply to Live Nation's move, Ticketmaster acquired the venerable Frontline Artist Management (home to the Eagles, Jimmy Buffet, Christina Aguilera, Aerosmith and many more), installing longtime industry kingpin and kingmaker Irving Azoff as CEO.  Ticketmaster immediately eliminates the hated service charges for many of its major act's concerts.
  • And finally, the merger between satellite radio giants Serius and XM finally came to pass.  Even though subscriptions continue to rise, the new company is still bleeding massive amounts of money, making their long term prospects dubious.
Happy New Year!  Even though it doesn't look great at the moment, it can only get better from here.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Kill The CD To Save The Industry, Study Suggests

A new study from Gartner (a leading research company) thinks that the sooner the music industry kills the CD, the sooner it can turn the corner on sliding revenues.  

This might sound good on the surface, but the fact of the matter is that CD sales still generate about 75% of the industry's revenue.  And while digital sales might seem to be on the rise, the fact of the matter is that they've actually flattened this year.  Plus the fact that most consumers buy a single song at a time for a bit more or less than $.99 as opposed to the $10 - 20 per CD, and you can see the discrepancy in the thinking.

One of the points of the study that actually makes some sense is the suggestion to press CDs "on-demand" at the time a consumer wants to purchase.  The technology for this currently exists and could be implemented if the RIAA decided to do something useful rather than suing its customers (although that's been curtailed in recent weeks).  

An in-demand CD kiosk could actually be a boon to industry sales.  Imagine having such a kiosk in your local 7-11, for instance.  You'd be able to press any CD that was in the catalog and have it available in a few minutes.  Sure beats searching for an old fashioned record store, which are fewer by the day.

That being said, Kunaki is a great on-demand CD creator for the average band or artist (without the kiosk - they're just on-line).  Each CD can have up to 4 color graphics, comes shrink wrapped in a jewel case, and looks like a million dollars (if your graphics are great) for $1.75 each, regardless of the amount ordered (that means it's the same cost per disc from 1 to 100,000).  They'll even drop ship for you.  For a band or artist who doesn't want to press 1000 at a time, it's a great alternative.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The 10,000 Hour Threshold

In Malcolm Gladwell's new book "Outliers: The Story of Success", he states that there's no such thing as a true genius and that any complex task can be mastered after 10,000 hours of repetition or rehearsal. If that's true, then the music industry is truly in trouble.

Back in the 50's, 60's and 70's when clubs were everywhere, musicians had the opportunity to learn and master their craft both as players and entertainers thanks to the abundance of available work. As I stated in a previous post, with the DUI laws that came into effect in the 1980's, the number of clubs were players could hone their craft dropped by a huge amount (as much as 85% by some estimates).

As we look back on the 50's through 70's, it seems to be a true "Golden Era" of music in general (for all music, not only for Rock). Is it a coincidence that there were more clubs during that era? It sure doesn't look like it and plays into Gladwell's 10,000 hour concept. The more time you spend on any task, the more likely your skill level goes from merely good to great.

Now with the tough economic times we live in, the number of venues available to musicians will no doubt decrease. You can still get your 10,000 hours of playing in your bedroom, but true music genius still requires interaction with others to be truly great.

Gladwell also states that when and where you were born has a tremendous effect on your "genius", maybe as much as the 10,000 hours, and this is probably true as well. If you create or participate in a new sub-genre of music, chances are that you'll need far less than 10,000 hours to rise to the top of the genre. But for world-class competence that borders on or is considered "genius", the 10,000 hour goal (or even more) appears to always apply. Woodshed anyone?

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Concert Industry Thrives, For Now

According to Billboard magazine, the concert business grossed just under $4 billion dollars worldwide in 2008.  This was the highest gross ever for the industry and up almost 13% over 2007.  What's more, in North America the gross was up 18% and concert attendance 6.3%.

The top 10 highest grossing acts were:
Bon Jovi 
Bruce Springsteen 
The Police
Celine Dion
Kenny Chesney
Neil Diamond
Spice Girls
Rascal Flatts

Notice anything about this list?  Only one artist, Rascal Flatts, is a relatively new artist from this century.  Kenny Chesney and Spice Girls have been around since the early 90's. Maybe it's too much to expect, but it sure would be nice to see some newer artists on this list, but unfortunately there are few new artists that have broken through on that level (you can blame the entire industry for not developing artists to replace the legends).
It's also interesting that there has been an increase in concert attendance.  You could've predicted that revenue would've increased since ticket prices and surcharges have grown to unprecedented levels, but it seems that in dire economic times people still want a few hours of escapism and are willing to pay for it.

Next year will be different though, and here are some predictions:

1) The country's bad economics finally catch up to the industry, and people just won't consider that $200 plus ticket as much of a necessity as they once did.

2)  As a result, the industry lowers it's ticket prices back to more reasonable sub-$100 levels after a few months of half-sold houses.

3)  Irving Azoff and Ticketmaster follow through on eliminating the ghastly surcharges that everyone hates so much, which helps lower ticket prices more and helps drive attendance.

One thing's for sure, 2009 will look much different from 2008, at least in this part of the industry.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Famous Christmas Song Videos

While most Christmas songs personally don't float my boat, here are a few that I think are really great.

Happy Holidays!

Elvis - Blue Christmas
Elvis at his peak.  The so-called "Come-Back Special" just gets better with age.

John Lennon - Happy Christmas War Is Over
Lennon also at his peak.  Everything about this is great except for Yoko (as always).  I looked for a live version of this (I know there's one out there) but couldn't find it.

Dan Fogelberg - Same Old Lang Syne
This is a completely compelling piece.  The songwriting is great (about meeting an old girlfriend in a supermarket on Christmas Eve), the playing is terrific (although I hate the chorused piano sound - definitely a sign of the time period when this was shot), and I love the way he features and appreciates the band at the end.  What a class act!  
I had both goose bumps and tears when watching this - a rare combination brought about by a rare song and performance.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rubin's Time Up At Sony?

There's no question that Rick Rubin is a brilliant producer and has been for many years. From diverse acts such as Metallica, Johnny Cash, and the Beastie Boys (among many others), Rick has proved that he indeed is a hit and taste-maker.

But a record label exec he has proved not to be. The current underground buzz is that Sony is about to quietly push him out of the label's co-chairmanship, proving that having a magic touch in the studio doesn't automatically translate to the boardroom.

We live in interesting times for the music business, and it's in desperate need of visionary guidance. But it's too much to expect of anyone who's on the creative end of the business to lead it from the financial desert. The music industry has a reputation for constantly looking in the wrong place for leadership (save for the glory times of true music lovers like Ahmet Ertegan, Alpert & Moss, Mo Ostin and Berry Gordy), lately settling on attorneys and accountants as their chief execs instead of true music people. At least Rubin's pick was outside the box, but not far enough.

The industry is now living and dying electronically. Maybe it's time to look to Silicon Valley for a new generations of leaders?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Staggering Statistics

According to a study by Will Page, chief economist for the MCPS-PRS (a royalty collection service), more than 10 million of the 13 million digital tracks available on the internet failed to find a single buyer.  What's more, 80% of the revenue came from only 52,000 of those tracks.

And it gets worse for albums.  Of the 1.23 million available, only 173,000 were ever bought, meaning 85% did not sell a single copy all year. It's hard to believe that many artists have no friends or family.  

But seriously, one of the biggest problems of the music industry is too much product.  In the past, there were numerous filters set up along the pipeline from music creation to consumer that ensured some level of quality (the first being the record label and the last being the radio station program director).  Today, the old gatekeepers have far less influence, for better or for worse.  Given the ease of recording and distributing music today, quality of the product is far more of an issue than the quantity.

But what if you have a truly great product?  How do you get a great product in the first place? How do you get your hand higher in a sea of upheld hands?  We'll uncover some answers to these questions in future posts.

Friday, December 19, 2008

200 New Music Startups

By one estimate, there have been 200 on-line music startups during 2008.  
These include 
  • 28 social and sharing sites 
  • 12 music video sites 
  • 25 music store and service sites 
  • 22 streaming music sites
  • 7 place-shifting sites (enabling music downloaded on one device and play on another)
  • 24 recommendation and discovery sites
  • 7 digital music labels
  • 13 P2P and file sharing sites
  • 9 game and virtual world sites
  • 7 live music and ticketing sites
  • 25 artist services sites
  • 8 on-line mixtape sites
  • 7 MP3 search engines
  • 10 music tools sites
  • 1 interactive music site
  • 1 "more cowbell" site 
Although it's difficult to know just how successful any of the new sites are, the sheer number indicates that there was some serious investor interest in the music marketplace.  All indications are that venture and angel funding will be way down in 2009.  It'll be interesting to look at this list next year to see just how many of the 2008 sites are still around, and how many new ones appear.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Digital Sales Not Always The Answer

The third and fourth largest selling music releases in 2008 are available in CD only, with no digital downloads whatsoever. Kid Rock's Rock N' Roll Jesus sold 2.5 million while AC/DC's Black Ice sold 1.6 million CDs.

Both acts are vehemently opposed to digital download sales and it appears they may have a point, since the lack of downloads hasn't seemed to deter sales for either.

While some say this was a brilliant move to keep fans from cherry-picking only their favorite songs, other would say that CD sales might've been even greater if these albums were available digitally.

It's also possible that Kid Rock and AC/DC's audience prefers CDs to digital downloads, something we've seen before from hard rock fans. Unfortunately there's no way to tell definitively if the addition of digital downloads would've helped these acts sales, but it hasn't affected the sales for #1 selling Lil Wayne or #2 selling Coldplay.

CD sales will never return to their heyday, but there does seem to be a place for them, at least in the near future. What could change the equation is if hardware manufacturers stop making DVD players in favor of cheaper flash memory units, which have no moving parts and are therefore a lot cheaper to manufacture. We'll see how close to reality these units really are at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show in January.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Using Music For Torture

We've all heard about music used as a healing therapy, and for those of us who meditate or just seriously enjoy, music will transport us to a  pleasant other world.  When done well (or even not so well sometimes), music carries us to a place that we can't get to without it.  That's what it's designed to do.

But the US Military has found a new use for that beautiful noise - torture.

New reports have surfaced that Guantanamo, Afgani and Iraqi detainees have been subjected to long sessions of blaring music by artists such as AC/DC, Nine Inch Nails, Eminem, Dr. Dre, Mettalica, and even songs from Barney and Sesame Street.  The songs are played repeatedly at ear-splitting levels.

This is just another example of how an art can be perverted.  The unusual part is that this time it's not about money.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Why Radio Is Irrelevant

Radio used to be the lifeblood of music.  Airplay on any kind of station, from the smallest college station to the largest 50,ooo watter, meant recognition and an eventual audience for an act.  Not anymore.  Radio using music as it's main programming, like the traditional music industry, is dying a slow and painful death.

How did this happen?  Let's look at some of the causes.

1)  Local radio dies.  It used to be that each area of the country had its own sound by virtue of the fact that all radio was local.  As a result, the music played in Philly would be somewhat different than Miami which would be different from Memphis and so on.  When playlists became virtually the same everywhere, radio lost the edge that made it great - each city's unique playlist.

2)  Big Money buys in.  As radio became more successful during the 70's and the advertising dollars poured in, it became the beginning of the end since it attracted the Big Money station groups who bought up all the small indie stations.  Management became homogenized as did the playlist because of........

3)  The rise of the consultant.  In order to keep those ad dollars flowing, station groups hired consultants to program all their stations with a format that was proven to draw ratings.  Never mind that this destroyed what was unique about the station, or that the format that worked in LA might not work in Kansas.  Once you could hear the same songs in Wyoming that you'd hear in New York City, the element of music discovery was eliminated for the listener.  Radio became the same mediocre programming that we hear today with the same bunch of middle-of-the-road songs.

I've often thought that AM radio could be the saviour of radio because it's doing worse as a whole than FM, so it's able to take some chances as a result.  If a station would go back to the system that caused radio to rise to greatness (giving DJ's the authority to choose their own playlists), you'd see it take off again.  Especially today, people want to discover music but they want someone they trust to make suggestions (which was the basic premise of FM radio during its heyday of the 70's).  You can get that on the Internet, but you can't check the Web while driving in your car.

Recent Arbitron studies have found that 90% of adults listen to at least a short period of radio every day (only 50% of adults watch prime time television).  They're mostly unhappy with what's available to them, so let's give them something worth listening to.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Chinese Democracy Sales And Playing Live - Connection?

Guns N' Roses Chinese Democracy sales have dropped by 78% to only 57,000 in the second week after its release. It looks like the most expensive album ever made (at a reported $13 million) is cooked. But there's a reason for slow sales that goes beyond the music of Chinese Democracy and it's because the band didn't tour behind it. In fact, the band has only performed infrequently over the past 10 years or so, which doesn't exactly build an audience.

G N' R missed one of the rules of the music business, especially as we enter the Music 3.0 era - the album release (regardless of format) promotes your tour and not the other way around.

A popular misconception about the music business is that most of the money an artist makes is made on the album sales, but from the beginning of the music business that's never been true. In fact, artists have always made the bulk of their money on the road (the songwriters make the most money on a release). As stated before, in Music 3.0 (of which I'm writing a book right now), the music promotes the tour. You just can't expect to release a new album with any success without performing in front of your current or potential fans.

Guns N' Roses (which is really just Axl Rose with a backup band) still has a chance to become relevant again and rescue this album from the scrap heap. They need to get out there and tour relentlessly, give their fans unforgettable show after unforgettable show, and not worry about album sales. The sales will happen if they just go back to the old school way of building an audience, one fan at a time.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Jill's Next Record

Indie artist Jill Sobule has just raised $87,760 from her fans to help her release her next record. Her funding drive was hoping to raise $75,000, but continues to exceed that amount. As she says on her dedicated donation site "...who am I to refuse."

Jill had donation levels starting from $10 all the way up to $10,000 (wonder how many of those she sold), from which the donor received anything from a free download to dedicated song to a free house concert to coming to sing with her on song on the CD.

This is a brilliant new way for artists to have their fan base directly participate in their success. It works on so many levels. The artist gets enough money to finance his/her art, the fan (at the very least) gets to directly participate in something that he deeply cares about.

Welcome to the new way of doing business in the music industry, and applaud this innovator for being able to actually pull it off.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Is The CD Really Dead?

Britney Spears' Circus sold 505,000 CD's in the first week on the market.  Add to that 286,000 downloads of the single Womenizer, and you have a pretty healthy first week of sales.

I'm not suggesting that this is ground-breaking or even long lasting music, but it does prove that there is still a market for plastic shiny discs from popular artists, despite what the Music 2.0 naysayers may say.  Considering that this was a rather low-key release (as opposed to G n' R, who sold only 286,000 first week after a huge marketing campaign), Britney's team should be commended for going Gold right out of the box despite the hard economic times and difficulty finding the product to buy (there's not many brick and mortar CD retailers these days).

But next week will tell the tale, since a large sales drop-off has become the norm.  Just how large a drop-off will really be an indicator of the album's success.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

5 Lies Indie Musicians Tell Themselves

This is from Bruce Houghton's great Hypebot blog but I couldn't resist commenting on a couple of the points.  Go here for the entire post.

1.  "The Internet leveled the playing field for indie music."  Not quite.  Imagine you're in a stadium filled with a hundred thousand people who are all raising their arms as high as they can.  The only way you can get noticed in that crowd is not just to get your hand a little higher than the rest, but a lot higher so you can't be missed.  That's the trick of marketing, getting noticed in a crowd.  It takes the same serious strategy to make it happen regardless if you're marketing on-line, to print or broadcast media.

2. "I'm going D.I.Y (Do it yourself)."  If only that were possible.  You can probably get started by doing everything yourself, but at points along the way you'll start to need specialists in order to stay successful or become more successful. Pros are pros for a reason - they're good at what they do, and they can spend the time on aspects of the biz that you're either not good at or hate to do.  You want to keep making music, right?  That takes up enough time to do well let alone having to concentrate on management, marketing, web, getting gigs, etc.

You can read the other points on Bruce's blog, but I couldn't resist commenting on the above.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Caught Red Handed?

It's been all over the news recently about guitarist Joe Satriani suing the band Coldplay for plagiarism. Satch claims that their hit song "Vida La Vida" is a direct rip of his "If I Could Fly", a rather obscure song from his 1987 Surfing With The Alien album.

If it was some kid in a garage band in Ohio suing, then perhaps Coldplay would have a leg to stand on, but Satch has been around for a long time and is a revered artist, at least in guitar circles, so the argument about not ever hearing the song doesn't hold much water. And this damaging clip from Youtube lays it out pretty well for a jury to decide. 

Until then, you be the judge.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Remix Hotel - Mixing Tips For Mastering

Here's a screen from my presentation on mastering at Remix Hotel last night.  It's from later in the program, after a discussion on exactly what mastering is, a bit of history and how the pros do it.

If you intend to master your songs, you should mix with that in mind.  Following these steps will make the mastering engineer's job easier (even if that's you) and ultimately give you a better end product.

1)  Don't Over-EQ.  It's better to have a dull master mix than one that's either too bright or too bass heavy since it's usually easier to brighten things up or add bottom than it is to remove too much of any frequency.  Plus, mastering EQs may sound better than what you have available during mixing.  If you have to use too much EQ during mastering, maybe you should consider remixing.

2) Don't Over-compress.  If you squash your mix too hard, you won't leave anything to work with during mastering.

3)  Watch Your Fades.  A lot of mixes have some real ragged fades because the mixer didn't listen at a loud enough level down at the end of the fade.  A good mastering engineer (even if that means you) will have to fix a fade that isn't smooth later.

4)  Do Alternate Mixes.  This can turn into a long discussion, since alternate mixes have gotten out of hand these days (with some labels asking for vocal up 1dB, down 1dB, solo up 1 and down 1, background vocals up 1 and down 1, and on and on), but we'll keep it to something simple here.  It's best to do at least one alternative mix just in case there's a glitch on your master.  And a TV Track (a mix without a lead vocal or instrument) is always ideal for seamlessly removing swear words for a clean mix.

5)  Check Your Phase.  Make sure that your track plays well in mono by checking your mix in mono.  If your lead vocal suddenly drops out, you have a phase problem and you should go back to your mix and fix it.  Mono is still an important format to consider in that you'll never know when someone will inadvertently change your nice stereo mix to a single mono channel.

6)  Document Everything!  It's really easy to forget things like which file is the correct mix and what changes you've made or need (especially after some time has passed) so the best thing is to always have  hard and soft copy documentation available.

Next post, more from Remix Hotel.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Remix Hotel Hollywood

I'll be speaking tonite at the Remix Hotel at SAE in Hollywood, courtesy of IK Multimedia.  The presentation is on the mysterious art of mastering.  This will include a history of mastering, how the pros do it and when you should use one, and how to do it yourself while avoiding the many pitfalls.  Basically it's a super condensed version of many of the items found in my book, The Audio Mastering Handbook.

I'll be posting a few few screens from the presentation starting tomorrow.

Mastering is certainly a black art to many in the music business - musicians, engineers and suits alike.  There are some really powerful tools now available (like T-Racks 3) that can make your music sound great if you know what you're doing, or really wreck the sound if you use them haphazardly.  In the next few posts I'll try to lift the perceived veil of secrecy around just what mastering is and how you can get the most out of the process.

For more info on Remix Hotel go here.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Chinese Democracy A Stiff?

Guns N' Roses Chinese Democracy has sold 261,000 CDs in it's first week after release, way below expectations. Much of this is being blamed on their exclusive deal with Best Buy, as compared with AC/DC's Black Ice 784,000 in first week sales at Wal-Mart.

While the Chinese Democracy floor display was hidden by larger DVD, iPod and electronics displays at Best Buy, Black Ice had it's own island at Wal-Mart that you couldn't miss. Wal-Mart also had the advantage of increased traffic due to the economy, while Best Buy traffic decreased because most of its merchandise is discretionary (not much money around for that big screen TV these days). Plus, if Best Buy has the exclusive, why isn't the CD even featured on their web site? You have to drill down before you find it.

It'll be interesting to see how the numbers shake out after the holiday season. That being said, Axl would've been better off supporting the remaining brick and mortar record stores instead of selling out to a box house for a big score. Guns could've kept some street cred while giving the industry a real shot in the arm. Looks like an opportunity lost.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Upcoming Gear Shakeout

It's right around the corner and it's coming on strong - the musical instrument/recording gear shakeout.  There are so many me-too products, so many duplications, so many cheap knock-offs, while the retail outlets that sell them are falling ever more quickly by the wayside.

What's a duplicated product?  If manufacturer A has a big hit with a product (say a USB computer interface), manufacturer B, C, D, E, F, G, H, J and I release a similar version of the product.  What's worse, it may all be coming from the same plant in China, so it's basically the same thing anyway.  The problem is, manufacturer A did all the hard work - the market research, R&D and building the market through advertising and marketing, so the other manufacturers just dilute the market for everyone.

There used to be a good reason for duplicated products.  Only a few large dealers could get the franchise for certain lines (like Fender, Gibson, Digidesign, etc.), so all the other dealers would look for an alternative product to sell (like Peavey).  With fewer dealers around these days, most gear manufacturers will sell to anyone with a heartbeat and enough cash to buy a display model and some backup inventory.

But there's about to be a pushback from large and small dealers alike.  Thanks to the economy, the market can only take a product with one or two competing products maximum.  The other 15 will soon be relegated to blow-out sales or never see the light of day.

So get ready for some cheap deals, just make sure the warranty is backed up!

Monday, December 1, 2008

4 Reasons For a CD Release, Even If Sales Are Down

Neilsen Soundscan reports that "Quarter 4 2008 is shaping up to be the worst decline in the history of the CD."  If you're signed to a major label, be very afraid.  Their business model is from days past and this news means your royalty statement is going to hurt a lot.

But for everyone else, the CD still lives.  While CD sales from the majors continues to fall, it's still a viable format for music, at least on an indie level.  Why?

1.  A CD is still a calling card.  It's really difficult to get a review, especially in print media, without a CD.  

2.  A CD makes you viable.  Downloads are great but, at least for the foreseeable future, you don't have what's considered a "real" release until there's some physical copy.  It could be a vinyl record (there's still a market, believe it or not) or it could be a CD, but only when there's something for people to hold in their hands will you be taken seriously.

3.  Some audiences prefer a round, shiny disc (I mean a CD).  It's true, and it's not just an age thing either.  The audience for some types of music (metal for instance) just prefer the CD and could care less about the download.  Some elements of the audience couldn't be bothered with downloading.

4.  A CD is a collectible.  Some members of your audience may buy the download and buy the CD as well.  It's a keepsake (if you're really into the artist) especially for the true fan.  If you're really hip, you'll give them the MP3's along with CD.

So it pays to have a CD as a part of your marketing strategy.  You'll reach an audience that may be out of reach otherwise.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Digital Milestone For Atlantic Records?

Atlantic Records issued a press release today stating that 51% of its revenue now comes from digital products.  This is a bit deceiving in that it leads you to believe that the revenue is just from downloads, but digital products is made up of ringtones and licensing to satellite radio and games, among other things.

The fact of the matter is that the idea that digital downloads is going to offset the diminished CD sales is sadly mistaken.  Revenues continue to fall and will probably continue to do so until a new mindset overtakes the industry, either in the existing labels or with new players entirely.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

3 Ways To Improve CD Sales

As if life for any record label wasn't already bad, shrinking shelf space due to the shutdown of some 155 Circuit City stores and a weak-in-the-pocketbook consumer has caused CD sales to decrease ever further.

Sales were down in September by 20.4% and October by 19.4%, making a dismal year a deeper, darker hole than even the most pessimistic prognosticator imagined.

Is this all due to the economy?  Is it the music?  Is it that a new generation of buyers prefers digital? Probably all three.  But CDs are still being bought (and even desired instead of digital by some audiences), they're just a lot harder to find as some areas of the country are no longer even serviced by an old fashioned brick and mortar store.

And with consumers now hip to the fact that they can just buy the songs they like and not pay for what they consider filler, record labels now have to invent a new strategy if they hope to keep the sales from slipping ever deeper into the abyss. 

Here are some concepts that touch on everything but distribution (more on that in another post).

1)  Take more chances on the music.  Better music = more sales.  Go back to developing artists the old fashioned way and let them find their audience and their audience find them.  It takes time but it's worth it.  Besides it's better to build an audience then be a one-hit-wonder.  Just because an act doesn't have a single or doesn't look good on TV doesn't mean their music might not touch a group of people.

2)  Market hard to the fan.  A true fan wants everything from the artist and they want it now.  Talk to them.  Reach out the them.  And let them reach out to you.  Listen to them!  

3)  More releases.  In this day and age, there's no reason to wait a year or more between releases.  You finish a song, you put it out right away, you keep your audience fresh and stay in touch with them.  When you have enough songs, then put them together on a formal release.

These are just a few broad concepts that should be easy to implement, but it takes some forward thinking by the labels to realize this is a new age that requires a new way of doing  business.

Friday, November 21, 2008

5 Reasons Why Concerts Sound So Bad

The majority of concerts really sound bad these days and not because of the venue acoustics.  It's the mix.  

I believe that an entire generation of soundmen grew up learning the wrong way - that the kick drum and snare are the most important part of a mix.  While that may be true in some small way when mixing a record (it's really important but not the most important), it's an entirely different thing mixing live sound, where the vocal should be king.

Common sense says that the softest thing on the stage (the vocals) should get the most amplification and attention.  After all, that's really what people pay to hear (and who they come to see), not the kick drum.  And the overuse of subwoofers just makes a boomy venue all the more boomy.

So here are five reasons why concerts don't sound as good as they could:

1.  The vocal isn't featured.  The vocalist is usually the main reason why we're there.  Mix it so we can hear and understand it.

2.  Over-reliance on subwoofers.  In real life the only time you hear 20-30Hz is during a thunderstorm, earthquake or other natural phenomena.  Sure you want to make the music sound bigger than life by adding in all that bottom end, but it shouldn't be at the expense of intelligibility.  

3.  Too much kick.  A function of the above two items, many soundmen seem to have a myopic vision of the kick drum, spending way more time trying to get a sound at the expense of everything else on the stage.  Believe me, most drummers at the concert level are using drums that sound great already.  It doesn't take that much effort to make them sound good.

4.  Low intelligibility.  Again a function of the above items, many concert soundmen seem happy if you can just hear the vocal.  We want to understand every word.  Let's spend some time on that instead of the kick.

5.  Bad mixing habits.  It seems like many soundmen never listened to the CD of the band they're mixing.  Sure it's different mixing live.  Sure you have some wacky venues to contend with. But 1, 2, 3, and 4 on this list leads to #5.  Now's the time to break the cycle.

I'm sure this list won't change the mind of a current concert soundman.  But if just one kid starting out decides that it might not be the best thing to emulate that guy, we'll all be the better for it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

5 Reasons For Bad Concert Videos

I hate concert videos.  Not all of them, just the majority.  It's not the music or the artist, it's mostly the directing.  It seems like a whole generation of directors learned the wrong way just like live soundmen did (more on this in the next post).

Many times there's a concert I'd love to watch on VH1 or PBS that I can't get past the first minute or two because it's cut too fast and flat.  That might work for music videos (I'm not sure it does) but it sure doesn't for a concert.  I want to be engaged, I want to be pulled in and I want to really see the performance in a way I never could before.

So here are my 5 reasons why concert videos are so bad.

1. The cuts are way too fast.  Give me a moment or two to get a feeling for the artist.  If you cut on every beat I never get pulled into the performance.  There's no rule that says you can't keep a shot on the artist for 5, 10 or even 30 seconds.  I promise, if the artist and the music is great, it's not going to be boring!

2.  There's never enough of the supporting players.  Let me see the rest of the band.  And not just for a second either.  I want to know who the players are.  I want to see how much they're into the music.  And just maybe there might be a great mini-performance within a performance that's worth seeing.

3.  Too many audience shots.  Who cares about the audience?  Unless there's something really special about the audience, I don't have to see them in every song, and not more than once or twice at that.  This constant cutting back to generic audience shots just makes me loose interest.  Sure they like the band.  That's why they're there. You don't have to keep reminding us.

4.  Too many long shots from the audience.  Once I get the feeling of how large the venue is and how many people are there, I don't need to see it again.  Giving me that same shot over and over just disconnects me from the performance.

5.  The shots make the performer look smaller than life.  Please, learn how to frame a shot.  I'd like to see the performance from a perspective I can't normally get, but I don't need to count the singer's nose hairs.  Too many times the shooter frames the shot flat.  A concert is bigger than life so let's shoot it that way.

Too many times a director thinks that the project is his.  It's not.  It's the artists.  Let's give the fans more of them and less of you.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Let The Public Mix It?

This from today's Hypbot:
"Master stems from eleven tracks off of Canadian hip hop artist K‐OS’ Spring 2009 release "YES!" have been made available to Indaba Music’s community of 100,000 musicians. On February 3rd submissions will close and K‐OS will select his favorite mixes from each track’s submissions to win both $1,000 and a spot on Universal’s companion release."
Although the idea of a contest is new, Trent Reznor and Todd Rundgren (way back in 1993) have provided individual tracks or stems (groups of tracks) of their songs for consumer remixing before. It's very easy for an artist to hold a mix as too precious and a work of art, but usually the consumer doesn't have the means to present a song in its best light if given the chance. It'll be interesting to hear the results on February 3rd.

Monday, November 17, 2008

EMI Gets It

Although it's too early to tell, it looks like EMI might finally be seeing the light. According to a recent Billboard interview with EMI's worldwide president of digital, Douglas Merrill:
"What you'll see is less of a focus on sales of individual tracks or the conceptual equivalent of little round shiny disks and more about helping artists learn things about their fan group that they can't directly see.......... The value of a label going forward is to be the platform to connect artists and fans and teach each more about the other."
The fan of the artist really wants to know everything about that artist and wants the artist to keep directly in touch with him or her. Trent Reznor has been at the forefront of artist/fan communication but until this latest EMI release, all the major labels and only a few indies even considered this to be a useful tool in promoting an artist's career.

Bravo, EMI. Now let's see you put it into action.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Hypercompression Revisited

As mentioned in the last post about the sound of Metallica's new record thanks to over-compression (hypercompression as some mastering engineer's call it), it's important to know how and why the process started.

The loudness wars have been going on since pop radio began in the 50's. If a record sounded louder than the one that just played over the airwaves, many listeners would perceive it as "better", so the labels were always trying to make their records louder as a result. Since the music delivery method at the time was a vinyl record, there was a built-in physical limitation to just how loud you could ultimately make it. Make it too loud and the stylus would rattle right out of the grooves and the consumer would ask for his money back, so hypercompression never became an issue during this period.

This physical limitation to level essentially went away with the introduction of the CD in the 1982, but the level war broke out again in an unforeseen way. There used to be a weekly compilation of singles from all the major labels that was sent to radio program directors in the 80's. When a label heard one of their songs that sounded quieter next to another on the compilation, they would freak out and demand that the mastering engineer on the next record pump up the level so it was at least equal to the loudest track on the CD. As a result, a loudness war broke out to an even greater degree than it was with radio.

Just to see how we've come to this commonplace hypercompressed era, take a look at some graphic excerpts from my book "The Mastering Engineer's Handbook" that illustrate this perfectly.

Here are waveforms from a typical hit record from 1985, 1995 and 2005. Notice that the '85 waveform is not too loud and there's plenty of peaks and valleys indicating a fair amount of dynamics. The '95 waveform is a lot louder but still has some dynamics to it. The 2005 version is starting to look like a square wave, with hardly any dynamics. And as we approach 2009, it's even worse and looks just like a solid block. It's become quite an art to make something like this sound even remotely good.

Be cautious when pumping up the level on your songs as it comes with a price. You may make it louder but studies by broadcasters have shown that the listener generally hates the hypercompressed sound and won't listen for long!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Hypercompressed Metallica

There's a furor happening over the sound of Metallica's new album that just might have a chance to change a trend that's been inadvertently hurting the music business for the last 20 years.  Death Magnetic is so compressed that fans have started a petition to have the album remixed.

The over-compression ("hypercompression" as mastering engineers call it) probably wouldn't have been an issue except for the fact that the version in Guitar Hero sounded so much better, albeit 10dB lower in level. With a less compressed and much more pleasing version to compare to the official release, fans feel ripped off since the CD sounds so bad in in a side by side comparison.

Hypercompression is a self-defeating trend.  In an effort to sound louder than the competition, the idea is to compress the program more.  Unfortunately soon or later you reach the point of diminishing returns and the listener turns it off.  This was determined in the radio industry study almost 20 years ago, but labels, producers and sometimes even mastering engineers didn't get the memo (most mastering guys, at least the good ones, are against it.)

In the next post we'll look into the origins of hypercomression complete with examples.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Want To Improve The Music Industry? Lower The Drinking Age

Recently there's been a national discussion for lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, and several states, including Florida, Wisconsin, Vermont and Missouri, are actively studying the prospect.  The chief argument is that if you can fight for your country and you can vote for president if you're 18, you should be able to drink a beer legally too.  But lowering the drinking age would be a boon to the music industry and, I dare-say, even provide the engine for turning it around.

A little history.  We went through this same issue once before when the drinking age was a variety of ages from 18 to 21 across the states, but the war in Viet Nam brought about the "If I can fight for my country, I should be able to drink" argument that we're seeing again today.  By 1972 most states agreed that voting = legal alcohol and lowered the drinking age to 18, which opened the floodgates to accommodate a whole new set of thirsty patrons, and the way to get them in the door was to provide live entertainment.

Clubs sprang up everywhere and live music thrived.  If you were a half-decent band, you could easily find somewhere to play almost every night of the week and get paid for it too (none of this "pay-to-play" crap existed).

This was great for the music business because it gave neophyte musicians a place to get it together both musically and performance-wise.  Just like The Beatles did in Hamburg in 1962, you could play 5 sets a night 5 nights a week to really get your chops together.  Do that for a year or two and you were ready to take the next step towards doing your own thing, if that's what you wanted to do.

Unfortunately, it was also easy to fall into the trap of just playing clubs forever because the money was so good, but those with ambition took their club days for what they were and moved on up.  They had learned what they needed to by constantly playing in front of crowds.

This musical support infrastructure is largely gone these days.  A band that is considered to be playing a lot today is lucky if they play once a week.  That means it will take a group a lot longer to not only get to the point where they're comfortable in front of crowds, but to get musically and vocally tight as well.  The longer it takes a band to make progress, the more likely they will break up or change their direction, which means that perhaps the next great trend in music has shriveled on the vine.

Since the drinking age was raised to 21 in 1982, the excitement and diversity in music has steadily decreased.  It's bland, it's homogenized, and we've really not seen a new trend that's caught on big since Rap (which hit the mainstream 25 years ago). I attribute this mostly to the large scale closing of the club scene due to the higher drinking age (the tougher DUI laws too). Higher drinking age and more arrests = fewer club patrons.  Fewer club patrons = goodbye clubs.

Let's face it - musicians need the constant feedback and attention that only an audience can bring.  The more you play live, the better you get at it, which leads to more experimenting, which means the more likely you are to find your own voice.

I hope the drinking age is lowered soon.  Music (and the music industry) desperately needs a shot in the arm.

1. If you can fight and die for your country, you should be able to drink at 18.

2. If you are trusted to vote at 18, you should be able to have a drink at 18.

3. 18 year olds are already drinking anyway.  Just go to any college campus and see for yourself.

4. A lower drinking age means more clubs, which means more work for musicians.

5. More work for musicians means better entertainers, better musicians, more interesting music, and ultimately a stronger music industry.

Monday, November 10, 2008

You Can Tell A Hit From A Single Track

Keeping up with the theme of my last post, some years ago I was privileged to get a chance to play with the multitrack of Fleetwood Mac's gigantic 70's hit Dreams.  Unlike Long Train Runnin' (as mentioned in the last post) and most other hits from that era, the tracks were pristine, with clearly a lot of time, thought and effort put into them.

Like most hits, the tracks just mixed themselves because the arrangement and sounds were so complimentary, but what stood out to me most was the groove.  Every single track just felt so good.

I remember soloing the hi-hat track (which was surprisingly isolated) and marveling how just the hat alone sounded like a hit.  No other instruments, no bleed from other tracks, just pure hi-hat with a groove that had hit written all over it.  I don't know that's ever happened to me before or since, at least in regards to a hi-hat track.

Which also plays into the theme of my last post.  Today we strive for recording and musical perfection at the expense of the groove, but if a track doesn't feel good, nothing else matters.  

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Long Train Runnin'

I went to a demo of the new SSL Matrix the other day and they were using the tracks from the old Doobie Bros. hit Long Train Runnin' as demo material.  

I've always been a big fan of the Doobies, especially of their vocals, so I was intrigued about how they were layered and asked to have them soloed.  Much to my surprise, the vocals weren't layered, doubled or even treated except for printed reverb - just pure 3 part harmony (two parts above the lead vocal).  What I especially loved was how imperfect they were, with the highest voice straining to hit the notes, coughing and throat clearing in between phrases, and even a little talking on the track.

How refreshing!  Nowadays we make everything perfect because we can, more often then not to the detriment of the music.  Way back when the technology wasn't nearly as advanced as the lowliest DAW in the typical bedroom, perfection didn't matter, but feel and groove did.  There were lots of mistakes left on tape, both musical and technical, but they added to the character of the music.  Today we get rid of the character as a matter of good production policy, yet the songs from that era endure and our modern more perfect ones don't.

The lesson here is that no matter what, a hit is still "in the grooves" (to use an old term relating to vinyl records).  A hit song with imperfections is still a hit, while no matter how perfect a mediocre track might be, a hit it's not.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Goodbye Digidesign?

The word on the street is that Digidesign is going to be folded into Avid over the next few quarters.  Protools or any of the Digi products won't go away, just the Digidesign name.

Why would Avid do this to the now iconic company?  Stock price, of course.  Avid's stock was in the dumper long before our current economic woes.  By folding Digi into Avid and cutting the labor costs by having just one R&D department, one sales department, one accounting department, etc., Avid immediately makes a positive, if short term impression on their bottom line.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out for Protools users though.  What will happen to service?  What will happen to product development?  Will new products be primarily focused towards video?  Will they forget about those of us making music?

I remember when Sony's 3348 digital tape machine absolutely ruled the studio world.  If you didn't have one of these $150k machines, your studio had no chance of servicing serious music clients.  Then it seemed like overnight they were gone - relegated to the scrap heap of unwanted gear too expensive for the dumpster, but no longer needed on a session. Actually it was a period of six months when the 3348 world faded into the new Protools world, but it seemed a lot quicker at the time.  

I always thought that this could happen to Protools - used everywhere until it was gone in a blink of an eye.  Although I don't this scenario happening soon as I see no viable alternative on the horizon, folding Digi into Avid just might be the crack in the door that lets a competitor or new technology through.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Words Of Wisdom

One of the smartest guys in the music business I know is Bob Ohlsson.

Bob was never an influential music executive for a big label.  In fact, he wasn't an executive at all. Bob was an engineer for Motown during their best, most productive years in Detroit and while he was there, he watched Berry Gordy build a world-class company and studied how the history of the entertainment business repeated itself.  From this came a worldly view of the business of music that always provides a "D'uh" moment whenever I read one of his posts. Bob sees the music biz (really the entire entertainment biz) on a global scale unlike anyone I've ever met.

Here's an excerpt from a recent post on the Mastering list regarding the state of live music that really hit home.

"The minute anybody has begun trying to treat entertainment as some kind of a generic commodity historically-speaking, they have always been headed for a financial train wreck.
Corporate investors really want to believe in movie mogul mythology because it appeals to their quest for power. The press loves to believe they know what people want and support the same myth endlessly as something to blame the failure of their pet projects on. Artists who fail to connect with a large enough audience to quit their day jobs also love to use "the evil industry" as their excuse. Obviously label execs love for people to believe they have great power and I think one of our biggest current problems are sorcerers apprentices at the labels who actually believe this pretention."
After some interesting private discussions at the recent AES show, I believe that we're going to see some of the great record makers of our time exit the business soon just for the reason that Bob outlined. For them, the record making process has become no fun and you have to have fun on some level to make great music.

It all comes back to a little saying that I have - "Art is something that you do for yourself; a craft is something you do for someone else."  The business of making music has turned far too much into a craft in recent years.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

AES Trends

While AES 2008 was essentially the same as all recent AES's in that the audio products shown were evolutionary rather than revolutionary, there was one trend that caught my eye.

Several companies were displaying dual capsule mics where each capsule had it's own output (multi-pattern mics use two diaphragms but mix the result into a single output).  This enables you to manually change the pattern either while recording or when you're mixing.

I don't know how practical dual out mics will actually be since we've been getting along just fine all these years without this ability, but it's nice that mic manufactures are thinking outside the box.


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