Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Have eBay Flippers Ruined Record Store Day?

I see grumbling along these lines every year: "Record Store Day is supposed to be about getting people back into brick and mortar record stores, but everything just ends up on eBay for crazy prices. eBay flippers have ruined Record Store Day for everyone!"

It's a fair point, and one that has gotten a lot of attention this year especially after Stereogum listed "The 10 Most Expensive Record Store Day '14 Flips On Ebay," and Paul Weller, disgusted by eBay profiteering, announced he would no longer participate in Record Store Day in the future. Stories like these might lead you to conclude that everybody that waits in line on Record Store Day is doing so merely to flip what they buy on eBay for big profits. But is that really what's happening?

First off let me state that if you waited in line on Record Store Day and missed out on a release you really wanted, only to see it going for high prices on eBay, that's really annoying. I'm sorry that happened to you. But if you take a step back and look at it statistically, I think you'll see that eBay sales, while numerous and sometimes profitable, only account for a small percentage of Record Store Day action.

Let's take one release as a case study. It's one I was very happy to score a copy of, and seems to have generated a lot of post Record Store Day eBay sales: Devo Live At Max's Kansas City, November 15, 1977.

So far, by my count, 119 copies of this release have sold on eBay for prices ranging from a high of $107.50 to a low of $32 (I bought mine at retail for $20). In addition, there appear to be 28 copies currently listed for sale on eBay. That's a total of 147 copies sold or listed on eBay so far. That's a lot, but considering the release was limited to 2,000 copies it still only accounts for about 7.4% of the total. The vast majority of the other 1,853 copies have likely made it into the praying hands of happy Devo fans or are still sitting in brick and mortar retailers waiting for happy spud boys and girls to discover them. Of course it's likely that more copies will find their way onto eBay in the future, but I doubt it will ever amount to more than say 15% of the total pressed.

By contrast, a less in demand title like Grant Hart's Every Everything LP+DVD set has generated a mere 15 sales on eBay so far, but I was no less excited to score a copy of it on Record Store Day. There are currently another 11 copies for sale on eBay (some with a "buy it now" price below what I paid in store last Saturday). Despite the fact that only 1,500 copies of this title were pressed, eBay sales account for less than 2% of the total at the moment.

It would take a far more patient person than myself to do a rigorous statistical analysis of what percentage of Record Store Day releases end up being flipped on eBay. I'm fairly confident however that the actual number would be fairly small, likely below 10%.

I realize this is cold comfort to you if you missed out on the one Record Store Day 2014 release you really wanted. If you find yourself in this situation, I would urge you to be patient. Every year immediately after Record Store Day certain items go for big money on eBay, and every year those prices come back down to earth within a week or two. Before bidding on eBay, I would recommend calling some record stores listed in the Record Store Day registry and ask if they still have copies of what you want in stock. You would be surprised how much Record Store Day inventory (even the more in demand titles) doesn't sell on Record Store Day. Bigger stores like Bull Moose and Amoeba list their unsold stock online the day after Record Store Day for retail price (plus shipping of course). If you do end up going the eBay route, I strongly recommend waiting a week or so when there is a very good chance you'll find what you want for only a moderate markup.

I've helped out at my local independent retailer--In Your Ear Records in Warren, RI--the past few years, and I've seen first hand that they do an enormous amount of business on Record Store Day--far more than normal. Most of people who come into the store seem only marginally interested in the limited edition Record Store Day releases, and are happy to browse and soak up the fun ambiance of the day as local DJs spin tunes and local artists play their music. Many of these customers come to the counter with large stacks of new and used records and/or CDs. Hopefully some of them will come back on other days of the year.

The folks who run Record Store Day have penalties in place for record stores that flip on eBay (they can lose ordering privileges), and most record stores limit the number of copies of Record Store Day merchandise individual customers can buy. Beyond that, there is very little that can be done about eBay flipping. All other solutions amount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The bottom line is that Record Store Day really has been good for record stores (if it weren't, you would see more stores refuse to participate) and eBay flipping is little more than a minor sideshow (albeit an annoying one). And if you're desperate for the R.E.M. Unplugged box set, remember it's going to be released digitally eventually anyway.

Record Store Day 2014: DJ Set

Here's the first hour of the set I DJ'd at In Your Ear Records for Record Store Day. Unfortunately, if you wanted to hear the part where I played the Fat Boys you had to have been there. Let that be a lesson to you.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Could Pono Really (Really) Make Digital Music Sound Better?

In my last post about PonoMusic I expressed skepticism about whether their music files would actually sound significantly better, and criticized them for what I consider misleading advertising as it pertains to "high-resolution" digital recordings. I also promised to keep an open mind, and today I want to entertain the possibility that PonoMusic might end up being a good thing for sound quality despite my skepticism.

So far all of Pono's marketing as it pertains to the sound quality of the music they will be selling has focused on the sampling rate and bit depth of digital recordings. Again from their FAQ:

No.  We want to be very clear that PonoMusic is not a new audio file format or standard.  It is an end-to-end ecosystem for music lovers to get access to and enjoy their favorite music in the highest resolution possible for that song or album.  The music in the store is sold and downloaded in industry standard audio file formats.  

The PonoMusic Store uses FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) audio format as its standard, for compatibility, although the PonoPlayer can play most popular high-resolution music formats from other sources.  PonoMusic has a quality spectrum, ranging from really good to really great, depending on the quality of the available master recordings: 
•    CD lossless quality recordings: 1411 kbps (44.1 kHz/16 bit) FLAC files
•    High-resolution recordings: 2304 kbps (48 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files
•    Higher-resolution recordings: 4608 kbps (96 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files
•    Ultra-high resolution recordings: 9216 kbps (192 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files
In short, what this is telling us is that Pono will not be offering any kind of breakthrough in digital music technology. 192 kHZ/24bit PCM digital audio has been available in some form or another to consumers at least since the introduction of DVD-Audio nearly 15 years ago. There are already other digital music retailers that offer high-resolution digital music files for download. Likewise, the FLAC format is something of an industry standard for lossless compressed audio (although someone might want to alert Apple to that fact).

This is actually a good thing. The last thing we need at this juncture is a new digital format that isn't compatible with other players or current stereo equipment. Pono has not reinvented the wheel here, and there is no reason why they should. The music from their store will likely work with the equipment you already have (if you are an iTunes user you'll need to convert those FLAC files to something like AIFF or Apple Lossless files, but that is a topic for another day). In addition, their player will play the digital files you already own, as they have promised support for most varieties of PCM based audio files, including the kind Apple currently sells. In my view these are both sensible choices.

So if PonoMusic will not be offering anything new under the sun, why do I hold out hope that their product might actually lead to better sounding music for consumers? The answer, ironically, lies with the precedent set by Apple with their "Mastered for iTunes" program. Mastered for iTunes is a set of tools and best practice standards that Apple has made available to labels to create better sounding iTunes music files. I encourage you to read PDF Apple has made available on mastering music for iTunes, as it contains a set of common sense guidelines without excessive marketing hype. It suggests to me that Apple has a very good understanding of what some of the real problems with current digital music are: namely, excessive use of dynamic range compression and digital clipping. It has been my experience that the care that goes into making music sound its best at the mastering stage matters more (much more) than the eventual sample rate and bit depth delivered to the consumer.

It has long been my view that the mastering process is the critical phase in music production that really needs to be addressed and improved. By and large it is at the mastering stage where sound quality is really getting messed up these days. I applaud Apple for taking steps to address this problem.

If Pono were to issue a similar set of guidelines to labels on best practices for mastering audio for PonoMusic, I think there is a real possibility it could result in better sounding digital music releases. Were Pono to leverage its influence to urge labels to ease back on dynamic range compression, avoid digital clipping, and not apply excessive frequency equalization, it would result in audibly better sounding music and differences that really could easily be heard even at CD level (44.1kHZ/16bit) resolution. Perhaps they could create some catchy name like "PonoApproved" for digital albums that meet their sound quality standards.

Now, to be clear, I don't have any special reason to think this will happen, and given Pono's exclusive focus to date on sampling rates and bit depth as the drivers for better sound quality, I am not particularly encouraged. But some precedent for this kind of thing does exist. Also, if PonoMusic is successful, it could push other digital music retailers like iTunes to offer higher quality, lossless, downloads as an option for consumers. All these things would be very welcome developments, and I'm happy to wait and see how things shake out before issuing any final judgement on Pono. I remain skeptical, but I wish Neil Young and Pono luck in their stated goal of making digital music sound better. If they are serious about it they must take steps to demand better sounding masters from record labels, and if they succeed in doing so we all stand to benefit.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Record Store Day 2014: The Zombies

Varèse Sarabande will reissue two LPs by one of my favorite British Invasion bands, The Zombies, this Record Store Day. The first, I Love You, is a compilation LP that was originally issued only in Europe and Japan and earns its first U.S. release this Record Store Day. Most interestingly, it will be issued in mono. Personally, I tend to prefer mono mixes from this era as stereo mixing was still largely a hit or miss affair for pop music in those days. The second release is a stereo reissue of their final LP, Odessey And Oracle. I rarely see copies of this much beloved title on vinyl, so this is sure to be a popular choice. 

Varèse Sarabande has a good reputation with its Record Store Day vinyl, and if the quoted prices I'm seeing at sites like Bull Moose Music are accurate, these also look to be relatively affordable. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Record Store Day 2014: Mudhoney - On Top!

This is one Record Store Day release that I can guarantee you I am going to get by any means necessary, up to (and possibly including) felony offenses. Back in July Mudhoney played live on top of the Seattle's famed Space Needle to celebrate legendary indie-label Sub-Pop's 25th anniversary. KEXP recorded it, and now Sub-Pop is making the audio available via a limited edition LP.

You may have questions about this release: "Was the LP cut from an analog source? Did the mastering engineer maintain a 100% pure analog signal throughout the cutting process? Is the LP pressed on 180 gram virgin vinyl?" Fortunately, I have an answer for all those questions and more: "Shut up! This is Mudhoney. Live. On the Space Needle. Buy it!"

Mudhoney live on the Space Needle photo by Morgen Schuler.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Record Store Day 2014: OFF! - Learn To Obey

Another fantastic looking release for Record Store Day 2014, hardcore punk rock supergroup OFF! teams up with artist Shepard Fairey for a limited edition 7"single, "Learn To Obey." More than just a case of an artist providing cover art for a release, the artwork and music are said to be "thematically intertwined influenced by one another."

Record Store Day 2014: Grant Hart - Every Everything

Here's another Record Store Day release that caught my eye, it's a DVD/LP package that includes the documentary Every Everything: The Music, Life & Times of Grant Hart, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Gorman Bechard, along with a solo career spanning compilation LP entitled Some Something that includes several rare and unreleased tracks.
Vinyl and DVD packaged together exclusively for RSD. The DVD is a brand new, bold documentary of Hüsker Dü's Grant Hart soberly analyzing the 1980s while rummaging around in its soul. It all comes out with rare archival and new footage, told by an articulate, alienated and ill-tempered chronicler. The vinyl includes a collection of Grant's finest, with several rare and unreleased tracks. 
TRACK LISTING: Now That You Know Me, Roller Rink, Wheels, California Zephyr, Ballad #19, Charles Hollis Jones, Khalid, Little Nemo, Nobody Rides For Free.
Despite his sporadic (but brilliant) solo output, Hart remains a singularly fascinating and important figure in the rock music world. Bechard received excellent notices for his previous film Color Me Obsessed, a documentary about the Replacements that notably lacked any interviews with (or even footage of) the band. By contrast, it sounds like Every Everything gets up close and personal with its subject (perhaps too close for comfort sometimes). It nevertheless sounds fascinating, and I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Additionally, Rhino will reissue Hüsker Dü's major label debut, Candy Apple Grey, on grey vinyl. I'm not sure I need to replace my 80s vintage vinyl of this title, but it's essential listening for anyone interested in the way what is known as "alternative rock" sprung from the 80s hardcore punk rock movement. For that matter, it's essential to anyone who enjoys loud, melodic music made by a group of brilliant, iconoclastic and influential artists.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Record Store Day 2014: The Everly Brothers

Record Store Day is just under a month away and I wanted to share what I think look like some of the more interesting upcoming releases. Two of the first things that struck my eye were these Everly Brothers reissues, 1958's Songs Our Daddy Taught Us from Varese Sarabande, and 1968's Roots from Rhino. 

These are two thematically similar records in which brothers Phil and Don explore their influences, recorded ten years apart at opposite ends of their career together (Roots was in fact the final Everly Brothers album). These albums were "roots" music long before anybody else understood we needed such a thing. These albums are a timely reminder of how great, and simultaneously forward and backward looking, the Everly's could be.

I don't know if the two labels coordinated these releases, but they are perfect counterparts to one another, and an excellent place to start an Everly Brothers collection after moving on from greatest hits collections. Both Rhino and Varese Sarabande have excellent reputations when it comes to pressing vinyl, so these are both heartily recommended. 

The full list of Record Store Day releases is available here.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Will PonoMusic Really Sound That Much Better?

I pulled this image from PonoMusic's (Neil Young's long gestating digital music service) kickstarter page. It appears to compare the difference in sound quality between various digital music options, from lossy compressed downloads and streaming music to 192kHz/24bit PCM digital files.

It sure looks like the files Pono's music store will offer are going to sound a lot better than what we're used to. Young describes the difference between ordinary digital files and hi-rez digital files as "surprising and dramatic," he claims they will restore the "soul" to digital music files. From Pono's FAQ:

Yes. We are confident that you will hear the difference. We're even more confident you will feel it. Everyone who’s ever heard PonoMusic will tell you that the difference is surprising and dramatic. Especially when they listen to music that they know well – their favorite music. They're amazed by how much better the music sounds – and astonished at how much detail they didn’t realize was missing compared to the original. They tell us that not only do they hear the difference; they feel it in their body, in their soul. 
Unfortunately, the above chart is more than a little misleading. There's no tidy way to show subjective differences in sound quality (i.e. what we actually hear as a music listener). What this chart actually shows is closer to the difference in file size between various digital music options.

There is really no argument that 192kHz/24bit music files will take up more space on your hard drive, and thus have more information in them, than CD quality (44.1kHz/16bit) files. It is likewise true that the CD quality files, even when losslessly compressed, will take up more space than MP3 or other lossy compressed files. If what you want is music files that are really large, the 192kHz/24bit FLAC files that Pono will be selling are definitely a good option.

Whether these files actually sound better than CD resolution files, or even higher bit rate encoded MP3s, is a subject of much more debate. Some listeners swear by so called "hi-rez" digital music, others say they can't hear a difference. Others go further and claim that it is not possible for humans to hear a difference between properly encoded CD quality digital and hi-rez digital, and say they have the science to back them up (I am not going to touch that one).

I never want to be in a position of telling people what they can or cannot hear, but I was curious if I could hear a difference between hi-rez digital files and CD quality files. The problem is that it is sometimes difficult to do an apples to apples comparison. Comparing a CD against a hi-rez digital file that was mastered differently does not tell us anything definitive about the virtues of higher sampling rates and greater bit depth.

In order to do a fair comparison, I downloaded the "Audiophile 96kHz/24bit" AIFF version of Stevie Wonder's Innervisions from HDTracks (this corresponds to the resolution of the middle yellow block on the chart above). This is music that I love and know very well, having listened to it in various music formats since the 1970s. I then made a CD resolution copy of my favorite track from the album, "Living For The City," using a high quality resampling program. I dropped both the "hi-rez" and CD quality files into a program called "ABXer" that allows you to do blind ABX comparisons between different music files. To make a long story short, despite my best efforts, I was unable to hear a difference between the two file resolutions. My final results were 5 correct identifications and 5 misidentifications, exactly the results one would expect if the test subject was guessing (which I was).

Despite being a dedicated music lover and someone who cares deeply about the quality of recorded sound (if not an "audiophile"), I don't think Pono is for me. Either my equipment (see details in comments) or my ears are not good enough to hear the difference. I'm not personally sold on the benefits of high-resolution music files for music listeners. I'm willing to keep an open mind about that, what I'm not willing to do is re-buy a lot of music I already own on the basis of misleading charts, nebulous promises about improved sound quality, and marketing hype.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Milky Edwards & the Chamberlings - Soul Love

I want to believe. Really, I do. But these soul covers of tracks from David Bowie's The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, by a previously unknown outfit called Milky Edwards & the Chamberlings are just too perfect.

These three videos were uploaded to youtube about a year ago, and have gone more or less unnoticed until now (David Bowie's official facebook page posted an item about this today):

So I don't believe this is authentic, but that doesn't mean I don't love it. Anybody want to venture a guess as to who is behind this? I'm looking in the general direction of Gabriel Roth and the Daptone Records crew, as they are about the only folks I can think of capable of pulling off such authentic sounding and looking 70s soul music.

Whoever did it, I hope they get around to recording the rest of the album and actually release it.