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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

Music marketing, or: how to buy the same song 15 times – THIS IS NOT A TEST #47 (transcript)

Published November 14, 2015

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Man, I’m glad I’m not a doctor. Imagine spending most of your life learning the skills and technology and science that you need to save people’s lives, then when you do save someone’s life, half the time they look right past you and thank GOD for healing them. Not doctors and nurses and technicians and medical science, GOD. I understand people’s need for gods, but how about throwing some credit to what actually keeps you alive. Science and technology. If your arm gets chopped off in some big piece of farm equipment and you wrap the stump in a towel and go home and sit in a chair and pray and eventually heal, then by all means, praise GOD, or chance or luck or the chaos that is the universe. But don’t rely on hospitals and doctors to fix you and then thank GOD. GOD had nothing to do with it. Maybe GOD stuck your arm in that machine in the first place because you disappointed him.

“Oh, but mjp, GOD made the doctors! And GOD made the science! It’s all his creation!” That’s the thing about GOD, isn’t it. You can’t have a rational discussion about a mythical being that is vindictive, cruel and evil, yet somehow also loving, kind and all-forgiving in the same breath. “Oh, GOD took away my job and my home and left me on the filthy downtown sidewalk hungry and cold because HE LOVES ME, he was testing me.” Okay. GOD will never give me more than I can bear. Sure. Keep thinking that, then when the world or the system you live in takes everything away from you, you can stay focused on the magic genie. Chase away reality and blame yourself. Blame GOD. Then of course, praise him too, don’t forget that, because he’s a jealous son of a bitch, and if you don’t stay on your knees and take the punishment he’ll just punish you some more. For laughs, apparently. What a fix your GOD puts you in. What an untenable and unwinnable position. And not so coincidentally, what a perfect recipe for exploitation and repression. I wish I’d thought of it. But the Pope and L. Ron Hubbard got there first, so they get all the money. God bless ’em.

Well that’s a light and breezy intro for you. My last intro, where I talked about the elevator vandal and the random pisser, someone told me they didn’t care for that. Then later that day, someone told me that was the best part, so there’s no accounting for taste. I imagine everyone listening is going to think half of what I say might be valid and the other half is bullshit, but that’s a ratio I’ll take any day. Fifty-fifty. I’ll take that because I know it’s almost all bullshit. All of our opinions are bullshit. Unless we’re in charge of making laws or launching aircraft carriers. Then our opinions matter a whole lot. Okay. Settle down now. Let’s get to the meat of this monkey, shall we? Let’s get down to business, brass tacks and what have you, quit screwing around and wasting time. Time is precious. It’s ticking away here, and I respect that, I really do. So here we go.

This week I got my hands on the re-release of The Beatles 1 record, which is not something I’d usually buy, but they’ve added all of the Beatles videos to it, so now it’s gone from being a CD of greatest hits to a three disc set with two discs of video. So I thought, what the hell, I’d like to see all of those films again – or some for the first time – and they went to all the trouble to restore them, so why not. But man, the Beatles have to hold the record as the only band in the history of modern pop music to re-release the same 200 songs about 200 different times in 200 different formats. I can remember in the 70s KISS re-released their first three albums in a set, and they weren’t exactly oldies or anything, and I thought, damn, these guys will try to sell anything. Then, of course, I bought the set. But the Beatles of today make KISS look like amateurs. I say The Beatles of today, because when they were actually a band making records, they didn’t even put the singles on the albums, because they didn’t want to make people pay for the same song twice. Which is really funny considering how many times they’ve asked you to pay for the same songs in the 45 or 50 years since. I don’t know that it was just The Beatles that did that though. Maybe it was all of the British pop bands. Anyway, it was a British thing for sure, because American bands had no qualms about putting the singles on the album or taking the singles from an album. Or making a bunch of singles into an album. No qualms about that over here.

But of course every band that becomes popular enough will re-release records, and even some bands who never became popular get re-releases. You see a lot of that these days. And between all the different formats and packages it becomes a bit comical and you can need a spreadsheet to keep track of it. Literally. There’s a guy on the Internet who created a spreadsheet to organize all of the early Wailers tracks that have been released in three or four different packages by different companies over the past 15 or 20 years. And I downloaded it, because you need it to make sense of all that stuff. Or I do, anyway. I need order, damn it. And of course, all of these re-releases are done to make money, not for altruistic or artistic reasons. Trust me, The Monkees don’t care if you ever hear five alternate mixes of “Daydream believer.”

But I don’t know if that’s true for all of them. Some of the ridiculous Bob Dylan stuff that’s been released in his bootleg series – I think ego has to be behind some of that. Like Bob thinks you really do need to hear 20 versions of “Like a rolling stone.” And you can get just that on the latest in his bootleg series. I think it’s volume 12. There may be more Dylan tracks released in the bootleg series than on his regular albums. Someone ought to count those. I’m sure someone already has. Anyway, I know bootleggers always pissed Dylan off, so maybe he sees some of these releases as justice of some kind. And admittedly there was absolutely no commercial reason to release all of the original mono mixes of the Beatles or Dylan albums – or every scrap of tape from the Stooges Funhouse recording sessions – none of those are going to sell a million copies and make anyone rich. So maybe those were partly motivated by artistic thinking. But most of this stuff is just an attempt to take advantage of a new format to sell you the same old songs. Again.

When recorded music became popular it was all on shellac 78s, played on those giant old Victrolas. Vinyl LPs came along and replaced those, but it was still needle on disc technology, and it stayed that way for a long time. The first new formats were tape-based: cassettes, reel to reel and 8-tracks, but in those days you usually bought one or the other. You didn’t buy an LP, a reel to reel tape and an 8-track. They were made to serve different audiences who used different technologies. There was some overlap there, for sure. Some audiophiles who bought reel to reel tapes probably owned the LPs they were buying, but they probably thought the tapes would give them a better “musical experience.” You see, people were looking for something better than the LP even then. Some people. Those weren’t even really “fans” though, they were audiophiles, and audiophiles aren’t fans of bands, they are fans of audio gear. But I’d hazard a guess that most people who bought cassettes and 8-tracks back in the day did not also buy the same LPs.

All of that changed in the 80s of course, with the rise of the CD. I say the rise because CDs really nailed up vinyl LPs in a coffin and sent them to the graveyard. Someone forgot to bury that coffin though, and LPs are unfortunately rising from the dead, but in the 80s and 90s the CD was king, and that was when people started wondering if it wasn’t all just a ploy by big companies to get everyone to re-buy all of the records that they’d already bought. But technology doesn’t really work like that. It gets created by curious types, and then we have to decide what to do with it. Whether CDs were an improvement over previous formats is something that people will probably debate forever, but CDs came, they saw and they conquered. Only cassettes survived the arrival of CDs, and they mainly survived as a way for people to manipulate what they heard, a way for them to make their own play lists and take them wherever they wanted to take them. And even for a short time, as a viable, sellable format for a new release.

But the quality of cassettes really varied wildly, and a lot of them sounded like shit, in case you don’t remember, especially if you left them in a hot car or the tape got wound up inside your dirty player. So they sounded pretty bad, as did 8-tracks and really, as every single format for duplicating and distributing music can. They may each have strong points, but they each have weak points too. So the technological or sonic superiority of one over the other is often not even really a factor. Especially since most people who buy music don’t care about the quality of the sound, they never have and they never will. Have you ever listened to an old 78 record? Or a poorly pressed vinyl LP or single? Quality has never been a problem or a concern, really, until CDs came along. And even then, most people didn’t care about the sound. They bought CDs because their new stereo or car had a CD player, and because the LPs shelves at the record store were empty.

I thought – and still think – that CDs were progress, so it didn’t seem like a money grab to me. And if something is an improvement over all of the existing technology, well, you really can’t ignore that, can you. But what about when a new technology is not an improvement on existing technology? Like it hasn’t been for 30 years now. Can you say selling MP3s on iTunes is a money grab when you can buy – or already own – CDs of everything that’s available there? Or is that just a format choice, like 8-tracks were, in which case we can’t necessarily call making a song available on CD and as a digital download a money-grab either. Really, I don’t think any new format is a cynical attempt to separate you from your money, not as long as the existing format is still valid and supported.

Where we really get into territory that you could see as a cynical money-grab is when things are re-released in their original format, but supposedly somehow “improved,” insinuating that your existing copy is now a piece of crap that you should be embarrassed to own. And that’s where the remastering craze comes into play. Without going into a lot of technical details, remastering is basically taking the original tapes of an album and preparing them for duplication in a different way than they were originally prepared. I’ve talked about some of the earliest CDs and how they were rushed to market or done without any real effort to try to accommodate the new technology, and some of them are really awful sounding. But that only went on for a couple of years, then everyone was mastering the CD releases in what we all assumed was the proper way, and putting out the best product that could be put out. And, incidentally, charging you twice what they charged for the vinyl LPs. The record companies said that high price was necessary because they spent so much money on the machinery necessary to make CDs. But they paid for that machinery in a couple of years, and of course the price of CDs never went down at all. Not that that was exactly a shock or anything.

To be fair though, in some cases the remastered CDs do sound better than earlier releases. But how many people are really going to be able to appreciate those differences? All of the Wailers Island albums were remastered at one point in the 90s, and they were much better sounding than the first generation of CD releases. But they weren’t touted as remasters, and you would have never known it was a remaster unless you knew to look for someone’s name on the back of the package. They were just released and sat next to the old versions on the shelf, or wherever CDs sit now waiting to be sold. That’s the way a lot of remasters were done, and there was no attempt to get you to buy them to replace your existing discs.

But then somewhere along the line the record companies found that there was a market for “re-mastered” releases, the same old albums, but supposedly sounding better than you’d ever heard them. Search Amazon for your favorite artist and put “remastered” after their name in the search and you’ll see what I mean. Take those Wailers albums for example, when you look at what happened there you can clearly see that the remastering thing has gone from being an attempt to make a better product to nothing but empty marketing and an attempt to make Rita and the Marley family even more rich than they already are. So what happened? Well, all of the Wailers albums were remastered for that second release that I mentioned, in the 90s, and they sounded great. They were expertly done and brought you as close to the source as you could get. They were perfect. But then five years later they were all re-mastered again, and sold as remasters, sometimes with some single B sides or other tracks included. Then a few of the albums were remastered again, and released as two disc “Special editions.” And finally now as a box set of all the Island albums, which of course you can buy on CD and vinyl.

Completely unnecessary remasters, but marketed in a way to get you to think your existing copies should probably be replaced, because now there was something better. Or a song that you may not have heard before. But the cruel fact is the third wave of Wailers albums, the first ones marketed as “remasters,” did not sound as good as the first remasters. So they took something perfect and made it less than perfect and then packaged it up to sell to you. Again. I don’t think you can look at that as anything but a money-grab. And like I mentioned, it didn’t stop there with the Wailers or with a hundred other bands and musicians. Like the Beatles. There are three or four or five versions of almost every Beatles album available right now on CD. And probably 20 different version of each album on vinyl LPs. Even more versions of some titles. Every time they re-release them they go on and on about how NOW they got it right. NOW they sound like they were supposed to sound in the first place. But why should I believe you when you said the same thing six years ago? And 15 years before that? How many tries do you need to get it right?

When you start offering the same music on the same formats, but in different configurations of even slightly different versions, as The Beatles are so fond of doing, you’re inevitably going to get people saying that you’re just trying to squeeze more money out of those old recordings, and old fans. And they’re not wrong. How much stuff is it reasonable to produce when that stuff doesn’t advance the music or the technology, but just regurgitates things that are already out there, wrapping them up in new packages to sell to “collectors”? Apple takes advantage of people who love the Beatles over and over again, because they know they are willing to buy things multiple times. They also know that most of them are older and have money to spend on these things. How else can you explain selling the stereo box set on CDs and also on a “collectible” USB drive shaped like an Apple? No one is going to buy that plastic Apple as their only version of that set, so it’s just something made especially to peel some more money away from anyone who buys it.

And how about re-releasing albums that were originally released on vinyl as vinyl albums again? And presumably selling a lot of them to people who already have the earlier version of the album on vinyl. A lot of people will assume that a modern vinyl pressing should somehow be superior to a vinyl pressing done at the time the album was released, and the record company will suggest as much, or say outright that it’s better. But it absolutely is not. Vinyl LPs made today are pressed on the same machines they were pressed on 40 years ago, using the same primitive technology. Sound-wise, there is no difference between a clean 1968 copy of the White Album and one made a week ago. None, zero. And you can walk in to any used record store in the world and buy an old copy for $5, when a new one will set you back five or six times that. Or more. Of course used vinyl has different levels of use and abuse, but the fundamental thing, the sound in those grooves, is still the same.

Releasing albums on old, inferior technologies like that is either cynical or insane. Or maybe it’s just savvy marketing. All of those kids who worship at the altar of vinyl LPs as a fetish object are a market ripe for a revival of formats, right? Never mind that most of the original LPs are already out there. And it doesn’t stop at vinyl, either. I just read last week that someone is re-releasing four Blink 182 albums – on cassettes. Yes, Blink 182. And yes, cassettes. Because apparently if you’re trying to be hipper than all of your friends, and all of your friends are playing vinyl LPs, what are you supposed to do? Well, go to cassettes! How many people could there be on the face of the earth who are saying, “Thank god, I’ve been waiting for those Blink 182 cassettes all my life!” Trick question, the answer is zero. What’s doubly funny about those specific things is every one of the albums they are putting out on cassette was originally also released on cassette, as well as CD. So again, selling you something that already exists in the very same shitty format. Well, except these new cassette releases also come with three different variations of the labeling. Same album, just different labels. Not different covers, just the labels on the tape itself. Why do that? So that you can COLLECT THEM ALL!

I fully expect to see someone re-release 8-tracks one day. Remastered for 8-track! You think that’s a joke, but if I’d told you a month ago that someone was going to put out new Blink 182 cassettes you’d have thought that was a joke too. You know, I don’t know if you know this, you Blink 182 cassette buyers, but if you record the CD onto a blank tape, you’ve got a cassette of the album. I’m sorry, I just can’t accept that there are people out there who are going to buy a cassette of an album that is available on CD. And vinyl too now, apparently. Someone tell me that those tapes are going to sit in a warehouse somewhere unsold. Please. I don’t know why it matters to me, but it does. Do this one thing for me and I’ll owe you a favor. Thank you.

Yeah, this has been going on forever anyway. In the mid-70s, right around the time punk rock sprung up, a company called Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Records started selling high-priced LPs of “classic” albums. They always said ORIGINAL MASTER RECORDING across the top, so you knew that they were special. But the funny thing is, I never ever saw one of those records in a record store. I’d see them at the stereo store, up on the wall with some high price tag on them, and I used to think, man, I bet those sound great! You know, because they were expensive and had “fidelity” in the name. They still put out records, by the way. A single LP will set you back $25 to $75. That $75 is for Dylan’s “Blonde on blonde,” which they pressed on 3 180 gram 12″ discs that play at 45 rpm. Now – have you heard “Blonde on blonde”? Never mind. What we’ve got going here though are three separate snake oil elements in one release, so it’s pretty impressive.

First of all, that “original master recording” claim is utter bullshit, because they consider two track master copies – that the record companies would send around the world for pressing plants outside of America – they consider those “original master recordings.” Which they are, technically, but what they are inferring when they make that claim is that they somehow went back to the source tapes and used those to make a new master, which they usually do not. There’s a guy out there who compares the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab LPs to regular LPs you could have bought in any store back in the day, and it’s pretty funny, because a lot of the time the old LPs sound noticeably better than the expensive new “original master recording” from Mobile Fidelity. So that’s lie number one. Lie number two is how much greater your favorite old album will sound on a 45 rpm pressing. It may sound better than an LP, but neither sounds as good as the CD. So, okay, it’s a fib. let’s say, not a lie. The benefit of 45 rpm will not be noticeable on most stereos in any case.

Finally, 180 gram vinyl. What is that? Well, an LP weighs a certain amount, I don’t know what that number is or was typically, but it was less than 180 grams. So one day someone said, “Hey, what if we press this old Van Morrison LP on a really thick piece of plastic and it will be heavy and we can tell people it sounds better…” and everyone around that guy laughed, and then they kissed him, because he was a marketing genius. A 180 gram record does not sound different than a normal record. At all. The added weight does nothing for your turntable or tone arm or needle, it’s just extra weight. Which may be a good thing during shipping, or whatever, that extra weight could prevent some warpage I guess, maybe, but it does nothing to the sound. A groove is a groove is a groove, whether you cut the groove in thin vinyl, thick vinyl, Formica or a smooth slice of a walnut tree. The groove would be cut equally deep in each of those, because that’s how record grooves are cut.

So three strikes for my friends at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Records. And I wasn’t even going to mention them. Now look what I’ve done. This was supposed to be about the Beatles, and it was only barely about them. I don’t even know if I made a point in all this, but I like talking about stuff like this, so maybe it doesn’t matter. I’ll give you a point now so your time hasn’t been wasted. You ready? When you want to buy a new record, buy the CD if it’s available. Then don’t ever buy that album again, in any other format. You can make a cassette from your CD, you can rip your own MP3s, you can bring it to Thanksgiving dinner at your parents house, and they’ll be able to play it. You’ve got all the bases covered. The new version that’s inevitably going to come out in five years will likely not sound better. If the new version has songs on it that weren’t on the first version, rest assured that those songs were probably left off in the first place for a good reason. Most of all, be happy with the music, be content to own only one copy, spend the money you saved by not buying the 10th anniversary picture disc laser remastered 300 gram pressing on a nice pair of mittens or skinny jeans. Not on records. It’s enough already.

Hey, I’m taking THIS IS NOT A TEST off of Stitcher this week, so if you were a Stitcher listener, sorry, but the sound quality was terrible. Though I guess if you were a Stitcher listener you won’t even hear this, so no need to apologize. Anyway, the problem is, Stitcher downloads podcast files and then re-encodes and streams them, and I had always trusted that they would do that in a competent way. But then I listened to it for the first time the other day, and I almost fell down off my shoes. It was so bad. It sounded like I was coming to you from Serbia on a ham radio frequency. Believe it or not, a lot of here in podcastville go to the trouble of making sure that what we give to you sounds good, or at least decent and acceptable. So when a “service” takes that carefully produced file and runs it through a shit machine, there’s just something wrong with that.

I ran the problem by some other podcasters and they all said, “Yeah, Stitcher sucks balls, but I wouldn’t leave there. Someone might want to listen there, and what if they can’t find you?” Now, I want everyone to listen, but I really don’t want them to listen and think, “Well this guy doesn’t give a shit.” And I don’t know how anyone could listen to those tortured Stitcher files and think otherwise. So, Stitcher – NO SOUP FOR YOU! Come to the website to listen anyway, it’s groovy and adorable. Or go to iTunes, they don’t fuck it up. Or Soundcloud or Tunein…in other words, everyone knows how to do this except Stitcher. So sayonara, Stitcher. Don’t let the door hit you where the good lord split you. And sayonara to you my dear friend. Until we meet again.