Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Money for nothing?

Long before iPhones, iPods and iTunes, in fact long before Apple was anything more than an esoteric computer company making niche products for creative types who drove Saab convertibles, the Compact Disc was a thing of wonder and marvel.

And its marvel was no better exemplified than by Brothers In Arms, Dire Straits' 30 million-selling behemoth.

For, I suspect, many people of a certain age, it was the first time they'd ever heard a CD, and probably the first time they'd ever held in their hands anything "digital", apart from an LED watch that turned them into TV's Six Million Dollar Man.

Today, 27 years after its launch, Brothers In Arms still represents the very newness of the format. With its slick 80s production, Mark Knopfler’s crisp Stratocaster licks, and the acerbic lines of Money For Nothing, the satirical riff on the then-new MTV (including Sting-supplied backing vocals), the album epitomised a musical era made as much behind the mixing desk as in the studio itself.

It's contribution to the success of the CD has a lot to do with the fact it was used by almost every hi-fi dealer to promote the CD's audio quality. In turn, it became a symbol of mid-80s affluence - young middle classes with their CD mini system or, for a few, players in their brand new 3-series.

So with this image of shoulder-padded yuppydom in mind, it may come as a surprise to learn that by the time Brothers In Arms came out, the Compact Disc had already been on the market for three years.

In fact, yesterday marked the 30th anniversary of the very first commercially available CD going on sale - Billy Joel's 52nd Street.

Originally released in 1978 on vinyl, and containing te hits My Life and Big Shot, the CD version was on October 1, 1982 to kick-start the format as a viable music carrier.

It was, along with others launched in the next three years, only a half-step towards the CD's pristine reputation for clinical - some might say antiseptically soul-less - audio quality. For unlike Brothers In Arms, which earned its spurs as an audiophile reference,  52nd Street had been merely transferred from original analogue tapes. The Dire Straits record, on the other hand, was one of the first albums to be recorded using digital technology.

Another surprise for some is that the CD dates back even earlier than 1982: Philips began developing the technology as far back as 1974, applying its historical expertise in the application of light to its equal skills in recording media (having introduced the Compact Cassette 20 years before).

With Sony joining Philips in the later stages of development with a crucial piece of technology, error correction, the Dutch company had a powerful ally that would see them through future launches in so-called optical disc technologies like DVD and more recently Blu-ray Disc, forming a relationship with the content world that allowed these so-called 'optical disc' formats to flourish.

30 years on, however, and the CD is already in its death throes. Having heralded the digital consumer electronics revolution - what has, in many ways, led to you and I owning all those 'i'-devices - it has also precipitated its own demise.

CD sales have continued to plummet as digital downloads have taken over. Moreover, record shops themselves have continued to shrink and evaporate, with the likes of bricks-and-mortar retailers like HMV, Tower Records and Virgin giving way to the mail order giants. According to the UK record industry trade body, the BPI, album sales in Britain alone fell by 13.8% in the first half of 2012.

While that might not be a surprise for physical formats like the CD, it is surprising that over this summer the UK album chart recorded an all-time low for all album sales, both CDs and downloads, with Rihanna selling less than 10,000 copies of Talk That Talk. It's hard to imagine that eclipsing Brothers In Arms, or Dark Side Of The Moon, Thriller or Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, which remained on the Billboard 100 well into their second decade after release.

Worldwide, the CD (and, bizarrely, vinyl) continues to dominate record sales - accounting for almost two-thirds of all music sold worldwide – but the question is for how long? 

On-demand services like Spotify are taking over, with consumer tastes eschewing the notion of sitting down and listening to an album end-to-end (with pub debates breaking out about opening and closing tracks and the running order in between) in favour of a pick’n’mix approach, watching individual tracks on YouTube for free, or pre-compiled playlists on streaming sites.

Record industry watchers have also noticed a tailing off of releases from the world’s more bankable acts. Events like the London Olympics and Live 8 may have provided a boon to marquee acts like The Who, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd and Coldplay, but the sales spikes they caused pale into insignificance to the cash register action created by Live Aid.

Staged just two months after Brothers In Arms was released, the strict, 20-minute set policy imposed by Bob Geldof and his “global jukebox” was just enough to showcase the likes of Queen, U2, David Bowie, Sting and Phil Collins, who all found themselves back up the charts in the weeks afterwards. This was a golden era for the record industry, even if the quality of the times – over-produced slabs of jingle-jangly chorused guitars and the ubiquitous chime of the Yamaha DX7 keyboard – didn’t match the boffo business the albums were doing.

The issue now is that with bankable bands and artists disappearing (from that list above, only U2 and Sting are still recording) through retirement or expiry, it is unlikely that an album will ever sell in the quantities that the CD helped fuel.

When Philips, Sony and a consortium of numerous film and television companies introduced the Blu-ray Disc format in 2006, people were already calling it a format too many. The Internet was here and high quality downloads fast becoming the media format of the future. It was only a matter of time before high-definition movies and music delivered down a line or through the air would be here. And now they are.

Which means that old heads like yours truly, with their anachronistic attachment to sleeve notes, cover art, Saturday afternoons spent browsing in record shops, and living room furniture built around the accommodation of a media library, are being flung, somewhat reluctantly, into the tender mercy of zeroes and ones flying through the ether.
Now that ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Let me tell you them guys ain't dumb

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