Posted by: Phil | October 17, 2009

The LP Revival (*Cough*)

Listen, I’m glad there are still some bands out there that when they sign contracts with major labels, they make it known that they still want vinyl pressings of their album in some form. There is still a market large enough to support a sort of underground demand. Hell, the LP/EP industry of releasing vinyl grew by over 100% last year to a $56.7 million dollar industry according to the RIAA. But be aware, those of you rooting for this to somehow reach the mainstream, don’t get your hopes up.

iTunes digital venture into the vinyl world, "iTunes LP."

iTunes digital venture into the vinyl world, "iTunes LP."

Just in case you don’t sit on twitter all day during MacWorld, squirming around in your seat at the thought of potential Christmas presents coming in all white (or black) packages with the Beatles’ record company logo on it, the new version of iTunes comes with some new bells and whistles beyond bug fixes. Most importantly, seeing as I don’t own an iPhone or iPod touch, Apple’s released iTunes LP which is their answer to the small underground swell of the vinyl industry. Apparently, when you download a select choice of albums, you’ll be opened up to the new digital LP experience which includes interactive artwork, liner notes and lyric sheets. If you want more information on what iTunes LP really is, just check out their site with a little informative video. It’s an interesting display of empathy for an industry that Apple and iTunes itself helped to destroy. Unfortunately, with what they’ve laid out and with the way the industry is trending, it doesn’t seem to have that much of a chance for success.

The first problem with iTunes LP is the selection. Now, iTunes 9 was only released with the update at the end of last month, but as of today (October 17, 2009) there are only 16 items in the iTunes store (Only 14 are true albums) that make use of the new feature and several of them are revisits of old albums like Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan, The Doors by The Doors and So by Peter Gabriel. They need to reach out to the fans who are still buying vinyl releases from newer bands that still have a sort of almost religious following. I know that the Mars Volta did a limited 500 pressing release of Octahedron back in July which sold out pretty quickly. Also, the Fall of Troy did a limited pressing of their Phantom on the Horizon release back in April as a sort of “thank you” to the fans. These are the markets that are more suitable to this kind of release, not those who listen to Jay-Z and Mariah Carey (Two of the albums released by iTunes LP). Hopefully, those stories of Apple pricing the iTunes LP costs out of reach for smaller labels will subside or be corrected by Apple themselves.

Their second, and probably most glaring problem, is that they charge more for the “LP” version of the album than they do for the regular digital download. Now, physical Vinyl releases having been doing this for years obviously, often costing almost twice as much as the physical CD and even more than the digital release. However, the digital download market is an instant gratification crowd. If people are willing to pay for a digital download, it’s either because they want the album right now or because it’s cheaper than buying the CD and they still want to support the band. Now, the LP versions of those albums are not prohibitively priced, often sitting around $13-$20 which Pearl Jam’s Backspacer being the cheapest at $10, but the digital download market is one that cares more about price than it does about content. These are the same people who bought into the idea of 128 kbps AAC format as “lossless” until released their DRM-free 256 kbps mp3 store. And even with the growth of the download industry, it still struggle to find a way to make money, only pulling in about $10 an album on average while physical CDs still manage to bring in billions of dollars in revenue and managing over $14 per purchase while still declining overall. It’s going to be hard to pull in a market already used to paying less for less to pay for more content. Apple and other digital download companies have managed to condition their customers into thinking that only the album artwork (Sometimes, not even that until recently) and the tracks themselves are what matter. It’s a tough sell to convince your already obedient audience to pay more for something they will have to sit down to enjoy.

Finally, it isn’t physical. Now, this is something Apple really doesn’t have any control over due to the format, but it still remains a problem. One of the main reasons that the Vinyl industry continues to grow while the CD industry sinks into a hole of relevance oblivion is because of the content that comes with a physical LP. It’s a much larger package that offers real physical evidence of your purchase that you can pull off of your bookshelf at any time to remind yourself of its existence. It isn’t an interactive flash program that could crash depending on how good of a computer you have which will always remain Apple’s problem. The reason the digital download service industry works the way it does now is because of the immediacy and, unfortunately, the cheapening of the product that it induces. If you like one track, you can buy that one track for somewhere between $1-$2 and that puts the full album’s pricing into question. Just look at the download single’s numbers in the RIAA charts for last year. It’s far and away the largest industry with over 1 billion units shipped with the next closest being CD albums at under 400 million. Why would anyone should entrenched in the digital landscape of paying for downloads think to go for an industry that costs more and requires more attention in order to appreciate something that was worth $1 a song only a month ago? Their market thrives on the simple fact that their consumers are constantly moving and have an iPod or other mp3 player which doesn’t have the ability to handle something on the scope of iTunes LP and nor should it need to, as it just sits in their pocket as they jog on the treadmill.

Portugal. the Man's CD release for The Satanic Satanist. Perhaps a reference point for what CDs could be.

Portugal. the Man's CD release for The Satanic Satanist. Perhaps a reference point for what CDs could be.

I know that it’s a step in the right direction in terms of getting the consumer back to being involved in the process of buying an album, but it isn’t going to get any support beyond the type of support Enhanced CDs got back in the late 1990s. The idea will produce a relatively significant swell of consumers to try it out, but it will be phased out later for the next idea of artist-consumer interactivity (Just like DVDs did to Enhanced CDs and what USB sticks are trying to do to DVDs). To be honest, I think they music industry could still find a physical replacement to vinyl records. I still don’t understand why more bands taken advantage of more robust CD releases like what the Flaming Lips are doing with their new release, Embryonic or how Portugal. the Man released their last CD, The Satanic Satanist, with a pop-up book inspired cover. As of right now, CDs don’t really serve any purpose other than being a collection of the tracks you could download elsewhere and a way to listen to them in your car if you still don’t have a way to hook up your iPod to your stereo system. Maybe I’m wrong and iTunes LP will blossom into the ultimate replacement for physical vinyl releases just like digital downloads seem to be doing to CDs. I hope not though, as the realm of physicality in music still has not disappeared for a lot of people and we (that’s right, I’m a part of it) need to be spoken for by record companies.


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