Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Future of Vinyl and the Indie Record Store

Last week, I attended the Americana Music Conference, which is a relatively new (8 years) event that is a little like a small and focused SXSW. It was fantastic! The Americana Music Association presents an awards show (6th annual), 3 days of conference activities, and 4 days of music showcases at some of Nashville's best venues. A great time had by all.

Other than the music (Avett Brothers, Uncle Earl, Ron Sexsmith, and Tift Merritt were among my fav's), the best part of the conference was a small panel on the future of the brick-and-mortar record store. Panelists included Bob Goldstone of Thirty Tigers records, Jim Donio of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers, Jim Fahy of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, Doyle Davis from Grimey's New and Preloved Music, and the panel was moderated by Sylvia Giannitrapani from Ryko.

Grimey's is no doubt one of the finest record stores out there and it was a thrill to have Doyle on the panel. Jim Fahy, with a great deal of experience with indie stores across the country, was equally enlightening.

Basically, these two (with the rest collaborating) painted a picture quite different than what we repeatedly hear reported on the news. The recording industry is not imploding. The indie stores are continuing to see an increase in sales, anywhere from 30-70%. Doyle also said that his sales of vinyl are also on the rise.

I have thought for some time that sluggish record sales might be attributable more to the big pop stars, whose audience is the otherwise undefinable "masses." This group is made up of average consumers with bland musical palates and tastes controlled more by the Top 40 than their own senses. These are not serious music fans; arguably, they are not music fans at all. And now that they can get the handful popular songs free without committing to an album or even a purchase, they do so.

Those who appreciate music and appreciate artists are the ones still buying recorded music, which is why I think the trend in digital music is counter-intuitive. If your core audience really loves music and loves the listening experience, why serve up inferior-sounding digital files? The convenience and simplicity of the MP3 format appeals only to the supremely uninclined consumer, the very ones who are most likely to run towards a free download if ever one is available.

Frankly, if the masses stop buying music made by commercial pop stars, good riddance to both. As long as there is a sufficient market to sustain indie artists, and I think there always will, these artists will continue to thrive. The inability to make money on major artists might encourage the majors to divest themselves of their recorded music holdings and cease (or slow) the creation of over-produced and under-evocative albums. There will certainly be a reduction in the number of units sold but a portion of the slack will be taken up by the indies. A departure of the big box retailers from selling music will force consumers on the edge of being engaged to try out their local record store, and if their store is anything like Grimey's in Nashville (or Ear X-tacy in Louisville), they will be a convert forever.

For the initiated (recent converts or long-time die-hards), vinyl represents the highest quality listening experience. (See this recent Wired article, which I found in trying to do some additional research on the market size for vinyl). Many records now come with a free MP3 download coupon (the most recent releases from Bright Eyes and Spoon that I bought included them). However, even for those that don't, it is not at all difficult to hook up a turntable to a computer these days and "rip" the tracks to digital files. For instance, I have RCA inputs on my sound card so I just plug it up, play and record off the sound card. A buddy uses a turntable with a USB cable. Yes, it is a somewhat complicated process to record, encode, equalize, and cut the sides into tracks. However, the power to encode into the highest quality digital formats and the best sample rates beats the tar out of any downloaded MP3; converting to Apple Lossless means I can then play them on my iPod with no loss in quality from the original digital file.

Given that music fans now have options to make their music "portable" (the free accompanying download or ripping it themselves from vinyl), I have no doubt that (a) the CD will ultimately die or at least go away in significant form, and (b) vinyl is poised to make a significant comeback.

Now, I'm going to take it a step further. Analog playback technology will experience a boom over the next 5-7 years. Better record players; more advanced technology for playback and home theater integration; better recorded mediums (5.1 or 7.1 on vinyl?); longer playing "sides" or perhaps a regression to the original Edison "tube" record.

You heard it here first, boys and girls. The handwriting is on the wall. Analog playback, as ironic as it may seem, is the future of recorded music industry.