Peter Saxon asks: Why?
There was much to unpack from the MRC Data and Billboard music report released last week.
The key takeaway is that radio still maintains a strong share of listening, even as the big music streamers continue to grow in popularity, particularly among the younger demographics.
As I’ve argued for yonks though, it’s not simply a question of radio being replaced by music streaming services so much as streaming is replacing owned music. As this U.S. chart from Statista shows, album sales in both physical and download form, have declined about 80 percent over the past decade. Which explains much of the gains made by streaming and why radio has been only marginally affected by it.
Yet, within that vast segment of recorded music sales, one tiny niche has bucked the trend. Thought dead and buried, one of the first analogue products digitised into obsolescence 40 years ago with the advent of the compact disc (CD), vinyl LPs are making a comeback, climbing from 2.5 million to 41.7 million, making vinyl the big analogue winner of the streaming age. You will find more infographics at Statista
How could this be so?
What possesses a seemingly rational human being to walk in to one of the few surviving record stores and fork out between $40 to $80 for one (1) album when for just $12.99 per month you can put a library of 75 million+ songs at your fingertips? What’s more, Tidal, Apple Music and Amazon all offer CD quality, as a minimum, as well as Hi-Res and Dolby Atmos. Market leader, Spotify too, will soon launch its own Hi-Res service that provides audio resolutions way higher than any CD can produce.
Not only that, the streaming services allow you to create your own playlists or use clever AI to choose new music for you according to your tastes. Simply turn off ‘shuffle’ mode if you want to play an album from beginning to end without having to get up and physically turn the record over.
So why would you want to be stuck with a dinosaur format that only plays one half of one album at a time, and won’t allow you to play just your favourite tracks without you having to get up out of your armchair and manually moving the tone arm, ever so careful not to scratch the surface? It’s madness.
One more thing. Streaming, like radio, CDs, iPods and mobile phones are portable. Turntables aren’t.
“Ahh, but analogue LP’s sound better. Warmer, somehow,” they say.
I’ve kept one of the Technics (Panasonic) SL-1200 turntables from the old Radiowise studios and plugged it into my system, put on Aretha Franklin’s Respect and You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman and compared it to the same songs digitally remastered in 24-bit, 192 kHz. There’s no comparison in clarity, depth, detail and warmth. No “signal to noise” or “rumble” to speak of and not a scratch to be heard.
The further you go in time through the back-catalogue of greats like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday with those fabulous big bands, the more their digital re-masters shine on a good system. I can also tell you tell you that The Beatles and Elvis re-masters will blow your mind.
As for anything that was originally recorded in a digital format from the mid 1980’s on, like Ed Sheeran or Lady GaGa, why on earth would you then press it onto vinyl rather than preserve it in the pristine digital domain? It makes no sense.
As I often do, prior to publishing, I ran the above rant past my long-suffering wife, Pauline, who, as many readers would know, owns Secret Women’s Business, a lingerie shop in Crows Nest and has published a book about it.
“Why would anyone in their right mind prefer the expense and inconvenience of vinyl records compared to CDs?” I asked no one in particular. It was more a rhetorical question – the kind that Pauline loves to answer because I never expect she will.
And, as usual she answers my rhetorical question with one of her own. To which I know better than to reply because I’ll be snookered either way.
“Why do women wear corsets?” she asks.
At this stage, whatever I answer, her response will invariably be: “You know nothing about women, do you.” Indeed, it is perhaps, the one subject in the world to which I will plead, ‘guilty, as charged.’ At least I can’t be accused of being a know all. So, I sheepishly answer, “Dunno, love of my life.”
So, she explains: “Why do women wear corsets – especially in this heat? Because there’s a group of women who love dressing like they’ve stepped out of Paris in the 1950’s wearing a Christian Dior ‘New Look’ dress with a narrow waist and a full skirt. The only way to achieve that is to wear a hot and constricting corset but women do it anyway – just because they like the look. Go figure!”
Although Pauline readily concedes that she knows as much about audio reproduction as I know about women’s foundation garments, she seems to have discovered a valid link between the two. To quote a famous line from The Castle, “It’s about the vibe.” A certain je ne sais quoi– a feeling for which one will sacrifice comfort, convenience and logic.
If it’s true Hi-Res quality and “warmth” you’re after, then I strongly suggest that whatever you were prepared to spend on a turntable, you spend on a decent quality Digital Analogue Converter (DAC) instead. Connect the DAC between the device you’re using for streaming Hi-Res music and your amplifier and you’re good to go. Even a good mid-priced pair of headphones, like my AKG 702’s, plugged straight into your laptop will sound great.
Now, if you think I’m giving music steaming a free kick at the expense of radio – not so. Radio has always shared listening time with owned music and likely always will. It’s not eating our lunch as some pundits would have us believe.
In much the same way that Netflix has revolutionised the way we watch television, streaming has re-invented the way we listen to music along with the entire business model for its production and distribution. Yet, both Radio and TV continue to thrive – partly because the streamers themselves are moving away from the advertising model towards user paid subscriptions. But mostly because radio and TV have had to evolve. In slightly different ways both are about immediacy, live personalities, and any content that has a perishable outcome such as sports scores, and news.
As for the skew towards young people preferring to listen to more music from the streamers than radio – there’s nothing revolutionary about that.
In my 50 years in this business, and the 14 years I’ve personally experienced as a member of the 10 – 24-year-old age group, I can personally attest that younger audiences have always spent more time listening to their own music than radio. Admittedly, the split is more apparent now than ever, which is inevitable because radio (with some notable exceptions) has long been retreating from the “more music” style formats of the 60’s and 70’s while streaming now “owns” the owned music sector with a format far more advanced than ever before.
Nonetheless the youth of today will eventually do what they’ve always done: grow up and out of their music habits to become what they swore they’d never become, which is like their parents. Inevitably, one day, with kids of their own and a mortgage, they’ll be more interested in everything that affects their family and livelihood than keeping up with the latest songs.