THE AUSTERITY PROGRAM’S JUSTIN FOLEY ON THE FORMAT WARS – WHERE SONY, LARS ULRICH AND THE RIAA DO BATTLE AGAINST THE FACELESS INTERNET AND REALLY, REALLY LOSE.
I was in sunny Los Angeles a few weeks ago. There, nestled among the palm-lined streets, gleeful roller-skating commuters and destroyed real estate market, is a dank little office building where a personal injury lawyer shares space with a bunch of bearded fellows in their 20s. This is our record label (the beards, not the lawyers). So let’s say you were to go inside this cave of workplace: past the boxes and boxes of a particular 10-inch that someone had waaay over estimated the demand for; past the energetic bull terrier sniffing crotches of employees, owners, visitors and interns alike without discrimination; past even my 3 year old son, patiently watching Wonder Pets on a portable DVD player beneath the looming poster of impending rape happily portrayed in The Evil Dead. There, on a water-stained fourth-hand couch, you would have found me sitting as I talked one of the chaps who runs the whole affair. Let’s listen.
Me: “So. We’re going to put this EP out next year.”
Label: “Yes. How come the CD you gave me of the final mixdown doesn’t include the song titles on it? That only takes about 8 seconds to do.”
Me: “Oh. Sorry about that.”
Label (sighing): “Whatever. We’re used to it by now.”
Me: (and I’m paraphrasing here) “You know, it’s been about 3 years since we last put out a full release with you guys –“
Label: “What you have given us here today is not a full release; it’s four songs, Justin.”
Me: “AND – excuse you for interrupting – and the world seems to have changed since then. Should we plan on putting this out on vinyl? Does a full CD treatment even rate any more? I’m guessing there will be some sort of digital download or something, right? What should we plan to release this as?”
Label: “Ah yes. The format question.”
Ah yes. The format question.
As noted in Eyal’s post a few months back, the CD – just five years ago the industry standard for how music must be released – is perhaps little more than a loss-leader these days. Small independent bands like ours should maybe just see it as something to get people to buy hoodies at a show. The assumption is (and I recall seeing a poll or two on some site that supported this) (how’s that for Internet info sourcing for you?) that once a release becomes available in digital format, most of the people who want it will get it without paying for it – downloading it via bit torrent, mediafire or some blog link. Sure, this caused a fair amount of hand wringing and lawsuits a few years back, but information wants to be free, right? The world as it is. What are you gonna do about it?
Still, I do think there’s value in a band not just freely giving away the digital files on a website. That’s the question I’d like to pose:
As a music fan, what do you want out of a music release?
By way of example: The other day, I was in a store and bought the new Baroness CD. It included a plastic slipcover (which I don’t care about), a booklet that included the artwork (pretty great) and lyrics (which I don’t really care about) and liner notes (which I always read four or five times), a bonus live CD (which I don’t really care about) and the music CD (which has a pretty great drum sound, in case no one has mentioned it). Relapse/the band is trying to sweeten the deal by giving me more than I could have downloaded for free. In doing so, they’ve provided me with some stuff I like and other stuff that’s wasted effort. (But I appreciate the effort, Relapse/the band.)
Off the bat: let’s agree to put ethics aside for this discussion. I absolutely don’t care if anyone thinks it’s right or wrong to download music for free, create planetary waste through psysical packaging or even polluting the world in general by releasing music that’s better left unmade. I’m just curious about your greedy desires and expectations, be they right or wrong.
I’ve been mulling this over as I think about what we’re going to have available for our next record. I’ve got three somewhat contradictory things about getting music that are important to me:
- I want to be able to hear whatever song I want whenever I want. Having a digital file on a portable music player comes close to accomplish this. MySpace will often quickly deliver four or five songs of a band I’m curious about. YouTube usually provides a quick version of any song that’s reasonably popular (for when I want to hear the breakdown on Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does it Better” – something I would NEVER buy.)
- I want a high quality recording that I will be able to listen to forever. This is where vinyl is preferred. It allows the artist to stretch out by showcasing the quality of the recording and providing a broader visual/physical pallette for artwork and information. I am absolutely confident that I will be able to happily listen to my vinyl copy of The IVth Crusade when I am 85; the music I have stored on my hard drive… well, probably not.
- I want to ensure that the musicians (and others) are rewarded for their effort. Still keeping the ethics of it off the table – I know that a band (and recording studio and label and manufacturer and distributor and store that is rewarded ($$$) for delivering me something that I value will be incentivized to continue to do so in the future. If someone takes the effort and money to create more than a ‘recorded in a bedroom on a laptop with the microphone embedded in their Logitec webcam’ version of some songs they wrote and it’s worth it, I want them to keep doing that.
How about you? Do you ever download something and then go buy it? Do you get a thrill out of the whole package of a piece of music? Do you have an erotic love for that plastic security strip over the tops of CDs that leaves behind a gummy residue on the jewel case no matter how many goddam times you try to avoid it? If so, or not, why? What format would you want your favorite record to be in?
As for us, we’ve settled on fpur different formats for the release. Three are easy and the other is pretty esoteric. If you can guess all four in the comments, I’ll send you a copy of the last 7 inch we did and a t-shirt.
Participate in the format wars by visiting The Austerity Program on MySpace.