What you see and what you get / Are two totally different things

This week I’ve uploaded (or to be exact, asked to have uploaded) a 2009 remas­ter of the, if I say so myself, clas­sic 1982 Scream­ing Meemees album, If This Is Par­adise, I’ll Take The Bag. We’ve added a few extra tracks, the sin­gles and one-off bits that helped define one of the biggest New Zealand bands of the 1980s, includ­ing See Me Go, the first NZ sin­gle to go to num­ber one.Screaming Meemees

It’s avail­able on Ampli­fi­er, and short­ly on iTunes and eMu­sic. And maybe in a phys­i­cal for­mat at some stage, but that’s increas­ing­ly unlike­ly.

There is a bit of a his­to­ry of the band and my involve­ment with them here.

When I first looked at remas­ter­ing this album some three years back (and talked to a cou­ple of band mem­bers about doing it, with a very pos­i­tive response) I con­sid­ered that this album would come out in some sort of rather attrac­tive CD pack­age, with a sec­ondary role for the dig­i­tal release on iTunes, Ampli­fi­er and eMu­sic. Even, I, a rea­son­ably, I hope, informed observ­er of the record­ing indus­try nat­u­ral­ly assumed a phys­i­cal for­mat would be the pri­ma­ry for­mat.

How things change. Today, the CD for­mat is real­ly only mar­gin­al­ly required on a pack­age like this – ask any­one who’s done one a reis­sue of recent, even the beau­ti­ful and high­ly desir­able ones like the New Order or Buz­zcocks re-mas­ters if they sold any appre­cia­ble quan­ti­ty (and the reis­sue mar­ket is the one niche where CDs might still have legs) and the answer will like­ly be pre­dictably depress­ing. You are more like­ly to see a return from a rev­er­ent­ly pack­aged and pressed vinyl edi­tion in 2009 than a CD.

In the US this week EMI announced that the new Rob­bie Williams album will only be avail­able in dig­i­tal for­mats. There will be no phys­i­cal for­mat release at all, which, even if Rob­bie is not the star in the US he is every­where else, is quite a thing. No phys­i­cal. No require­ment.

Indeed the forth­com­ing Bea­t­les remas­ters are wide­ly being spo­ken of as the format’s last gasp, it’s last major release, in the US at least, and even if that’s over­stat­ing things a lit­tle, the fact that it’s increas­ing­ly hard to even buy a CD in many big Amer­i­can cities means that it’s rel­e­vance to the mar­ket­place is shrink­ing at a faster rate than even the hard-for­mat opti­mists pre­dict­ed.

It’s almost over, or at least you can see over the hori­zon to a land beyond it, and with it goes the album and thus the last ves­tiges of any hope the major record com­pa­nies have of sur­viv­ing as they are. With­out the dol­lar val­ue of the album, the record com­pa­nies are, to put it polite­ly, rather fucked.

Which brings us to the CMX, the new wun­der-for­mat that the record com­pa­nies have spent god knows how much mon­ey invent­ing over the recent years. Not only is this sup­posed to be the sav­iour of the for­mat the record labels, or at least the big ones with their bloat­ed infra­struc­tures and rather hun­gry share­hold­ers, need to sur­vive, it’s also, and one must assume rather arro­gant­ly (who, the majors? arro­gant?) and unwise­ly, tak­ing on of the few growth areas the record­ing indus­try has left for it’s record­ed mas­ters, the dig­i­tal store owned by Apple, which we all know as iTunes, as Apple have their own pro­pri­etary for­mat in the wings and are unlike­ly to roll over in response to what is clear­ly a pow­er re-grab from the big four.

Yep, every­body is try­ing to rein­vent the album.

And you can’t help feel­ing that’s like try­ing to give CPR to a stuffed Dodo. It’s anoth­er don’t you bloody well get it moment? Like Nap­ster, like the law­suits, like the rise of iTunes.

Well clear­ly no, they still don’t.

They album rather rapid­ly died this decade, pri­mar­i­ly because that’s the way the buy­ing pub­lic wants it. They want tracks, they want songs, they want the dig­i­tal equiv­a­lent of the old 45rpm sin­gle, but instead of being told that ‘this is the sin­gle’ they like the abil­i­ty to choose which per­son­al sin­gle they want. Which is why, despite the much-tout­ed gloom, which real­ly just trans­lates to ‘our dol­lar sales are down’, unit sales of tracks and, yes, CD albums. i.e. The sale of one unit, as desired by the cus­tomer, are up last year dri­ven by most­ly non-album sales.

And the UK music indus­try was up 4.7% in 2008. Which is prob­a­bly a more impor­tant, and vast­ly more cred­i­ble, fig­ure than the bil­lions of lost sales tout­ed by indus­try bod­ies year in and year out.

So back to the CMX. Boy does this feel last ditch and des­per­ate, almost like a sui­cide note from a bro­ken and large­ly unfix­able busi­ness mod­el whose only answer is to try and quick­ly rein­vent the past. Bang­ing a bit of art­work and a whole album in a sin­gle file is real­ly not going to fix any­thing, nor, I think is it going to prove exceed­ing­ly attrac­tive to a gen­er­a­tion who is now accus­tomed to get­ting their add-ons to the music they are lis­ten­ing too from a web­site, or via their wired held-held device as they may choose, with­out hav­ing to lis­ten to the extra­ne­ous tracks they real­ly don’t want.

Of course peo­ple of my gen­er­a­tion, myself includ­ed, still crave long play­ers, and bemoan the loss of the enjoy­ment of delv­ing into an album to find that lost gem, but I feel our time is almost passed. And now you find those gems on blogs, on a myr­i­ad of sites or from word of mouth. Which is where I most­ly get my music from now and I very rarely want or need to play an album despite the need of the record com­pa­nies for us all to do so.

Tom Yorke agrees.

In the mean­time, The Scream­ing Meemees sound rather won­der­ful again right now. Any track you want, or the whole album…

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