time warp.

I forgot something.  I started to write this entry a week or two ago, but it looks like I never uploaded it.  It’s a piece of the story that helps explain some things that happen later.

In this entry I mentioned that I had considered finding a vinyl press and making my own records, like Kokopop was doing.  I learned pretty quickly that it wasn’t an easy thing to do – it was expensive, took a lot of space, and required real skills that I just didn’t have.

In late 1995 I received a Musician’s Friend catalog that had, in the “recording equipment” section, some CD duplication equipment.  From what I could tell, it seemed like you could buy a machine that would make ten duplicate copies of a CD in something like four times the speed of real time.

Doing some quick math, I realized this meant that I could make 10 full-length CDs in about 20 minutes.

Theoretically, I could manufacture my own CDs.  I had no idea what a blank CD cost in 1995, but it had to be cheaper than what I was paying to manufacture them at the pressing plant.  And if I could cut down my manufacturing costs, I could put that money into marketing – which had been my goal.

I started thinking about the possibility of turning home-made CDs into the kind of DIY thing that I saw with 7″ records – home-made packaging, neato color schemes, special inserts, hand-numbered copies.  Harriet Records had put out a Wimp Factor 14 CD called Ankle Deep that was a beautiful CD, and came packaged in a small, brown envelope with hand-stamped (or screened, I don’t remember which) artwork and a booklet inside.  It was very cool.  And although bands really wanted to see their CDs in regular jewel boxes that fit on regular record store shelves, with regular printed booklets and regular shrink-wrap, I could also see a world where bands like cuppa joe might actually embrace the idea of a homemade CD.

I brought the catalog with me to Thanksgiving dinner with me at the end of 1995.  My brother-in-law is a techie guy, a computer engineer who designs hardware.  Over dinner I asked him about these duplication machines, and what he knew about them.

“The technology just isn’t reliable,” he said.  “They hang all the time, and you’ll wind up throwing a lot of them away.  If you’re thinking of this as a way to make your own CDs, I’d advise against it.  It’ll wind up costing you more than whatever you’re currently doing.”

I asked him what percentage of CDs actually worked, and he gave me an estimate.  I don’t remember what he said, but I quickly did the math and realized that if I invested the four figures into the technology, and only a certain percentage of the dupes worked, that the investment would never pay for itself.

“I think you should do it anyway,” Rich told me.  “How punk rock is that?  Making your own CDs.”

I considered it, and thought that Footstone or Blenderette might be receptive to the idea.

But then I considered what might happen if I made CDs that played on one player but not another, or that played in a computer but not a CD player.  I’d have to accept returns, and then I’d be shipping replacements out to people directly.  It seemed like it had the potential to be an administrative nightmare, with costs quickly escalating.

I remembered how I tried to save money by manufacturing the Elizabeth CDs in Canada, then shipping them and all the components down to the States.  I wound up spending ridiculous amounts of money to have them shrinkwrapped, and all my savings went out the window.

I remembered how I tried to save money by hand-screening the nurture CD covers, and what a debacle that was.  I remembered hundreds of wet booklets hang-drying on strings stretched across my living room, and Sandy and me crawling on our bellies just to get around the apartment.  I remembered how unhappy I felt the band was with the result, and how I spent all our savings printing ugly insert trays at Staples.

So I decided against it.  If CD technology ever advanced to the point where you could realistically make your own CDs in your house, with few errors and low cost, then I’d reconsider it.

It was about this time that Patrick at Carrot Top suggested to me that there might be a time when music files could be distributed on the internet, through the websites of record companies.  My cousin Tom, a marketing specialist who was at the forefront of the digital revolution, was very involved in the internet business around this time.

When Tom graduated college, he showed some initiative and started his own newspaper.  That’s right, he started a newspaper to serve the community in which he lived, and to disseminate information about local happenings, government, etc.  From there, he got a job in the ad business, and wound up working on a website for a governmental organization.  Since few people at his company knew anything about the internet at that time, Tom immersed himself in it, learned a ton, and quickly became an expert in an area where most people who were fluent with it – including me – embraced it for education and communication, but not as a commercial endeavor.

Tom and I began to reacquaint ourselves with each other around this time, and I sent him copies of Elizabeth as well as the seven-inches we’d released.  Although he hated Godspeed (I seem to remember “dying yak” being part of his description of the band), he liked some of the other stuff, and since he was also a musician, he became interested in what we were doing.

It was Tom that introduced me to the MP3.  Although in 1995, I don’t think he was even talking about MP3s – just about digital music.

He suggested that it might be a format that I wanted to look into for creating cheap, promotional music samples that I could actually email to people.  In late 1995, he suggested that the technology wasn’t too far off, and that we were actually limited not by the technology itself, but by what was available to consumers in terms of connectivity.  Even a 56K modem, pretty much the fastest thing you could get, would take forever to download an audio file.  And even if that barrier could be overcome, memory was an issue.  Audio files ate up about a megabyte a minute.  Even with super-big, 250 MB hard drives that were now standard with new computers, just a couple of albums would quickly take up all your memory.

Still, Tom spoke of a day where we’d store our music on our computers instead of on bookshelves, where cassettes and vinyl records were too bulky and cumbersome to own, and where consumers could buy music on the internet and download it directly to their computers.

I was an indie rock guy.  I referred to things like “analog warmth” and “hand-screened artwork.”  In late 1995, internet retail was a freaky concept that was difficult to navigate, filled with distrust (email you my credit card number? Are you kidding?!), and just unrealistic for what he was saying.

“The people who buy indie records want to hold it in their hands,” I explained to him.  “They interact with it.  There’s something tactile about buying music that could never be replaced by a computer.”

I was, and always will be, a dumbass.

~ by Al on October 15, 2009.

7 Responses to “time warp.”

  1. Not really, you weren’t. Look at the vinyl resurgence. People, like myself, still want the artifact.

  2. It’s an interesting argument.

    In 1996, I was probably more right than wrong. In 2009, I think it’s a legitimate question as to whether or not it’s worth it to sacrifice the tangible sales of hard goods to those who will ONLY buy the artifact, versus not having to shoulder the manufacturing costs.

    Let me ask. If you liked a band, and they came out with a download-only release, would you buy it?

  3. That depends on *how much* I liked them. Ben Weasel did and I only got it as part of a free songs promotion on Emusic.com The fidelity of MP3 at it’s best is still less than CD and I feel strange paying for something I cannot hold.
    I realize I am part of a dying breed. Shoot, once my band’s debut CD goes out of print I am considering making it digital only, simply because I’d like to have it available.
    MP3s I feel are a tool, not an end product.

  4. It’s funny, because when we were putting out records in the 90s, indie rock people were perfectly happy to buy poorly-recorded, low-fi, four-track stuff all crammed onto a seven-inch. Hell, there were even labels that were putting out cassettes (Shrimper, Simple Machines, even ROIR).

    But now there are people who insist on CDs and are not happy with the fidelity of the MP3.

    The thing is, the MP3 and the means of distribution truly level the playing field for the indie labels, because it virtually eliminates manufacturing costs. Distribution becomes immediate, and omnipresent. Those are the two key advantages. Where in 1994 I had to pay a buck and change to make a CD that I’d sell to my distributors for $5 on consignment, then wait 90 days and hope that it got placed into a few stores, today I could pay NOTHING to manufacture the music, and distribute that music instantly to every online retailer out there.

    A consumer would have to go into a record store and hope to find our records, or take the time to put a check in the mail and buy it by mailorder directly from us for $12 PPD, and they’d have to wait a couple weeks to actually receive it. Now, they can go onto emusic at 2AM based on a review they read on a blog, actually listen to samples of the record, download it, and have it on their iPods inside of a half hour, all for ten bucks.

    THe other thing that’s possible today that wasn’t realistic in the past is the ability to manufacture CDs based on demand. I could set up a preorder for a title, take Paypal payments, and once I had orders for 100 copies, press them and ship them, complete with artwork and shrink wrap. I could NEVER do that before – I was lucky to have a manufacturer that would let me produce 500 CDs in 1994, most had a minimum quantity of a thousand. But even then, I’d press the 500 and have no idea where they were going to go. They’d sit in my inventory and eat up my budget for YEARS. Today, they can be sold out before I even press them.

    I like today better than yesterday, ultimately. If I were going to start a label today, I’d rely on digital downloads as my primary method of distribution, recognizing that the tradeoff was well worth it.

  5. Oh yeah, I realize the game is 100% different now. Mp3 has made good bands more accessible, but it’s also made shitty bands all the more accessible. There’s no filter.

    Cassettes are and have always been awful. When Ralph was plugging Shmeckle City I was like “Aw man, a cassette!?!?!” which is why, like a dope, I do not own it. 🙂

    A poorly recorded 7″ still likely has more dynamic range than a poorly recorded MP3. CDs can be a mixed bag (look at the recent debate about the “Loudness War” for example) but again, I’m just saying I want a physical product.

    When my band releases our next album sometime next year or thereabouts we’ll of course make it available on itunes and all that (we’d be morons not too!) but we’ll make CDs too. kunaki.com REALLY levels the playing field, allowing us to make CDs (actually silver bottomed CD-Rs) with full color art and color tray cards and shrink wrap for about $2 a pop shipped to your door. $5 CDs at shows seems to help move some product and I’m OK with a $3 profit per unit.

    The repress of our last CDEP and our “odds n sods” collection were done like this, and I know tons of bands that have done it as well, and I think we’re mostly happy with the results.

    I’m actually considering a “Free and up” pay what you want pricing structure for the MP3s on the next record.

    Hell, I’m actually considering that for selling them at shows as well…

  6. What’s your feeling about these releases that come with a blank CD, liner notes, and a code number for a free download so you can burn the CD?

    I think cassettes, 7″s, and home CD burners also opened the door for lots of crappy bands. As easy as it is for any bad band to make an MP3, it was just that easy for a bad band to make a 7″. That’s how our 7″s wound up getting lost in the shuffle, I think.

    As a music fan, I will take a glut of bad music to sift through if it means I have immediate access to millions of songs right from the comfort of my own home. The fact that I can sit at my computer and discover a band like Fanfarlo, as I did a couple of weeks ago, after midnight on a Wednesday, is SO MUCH BETTER than the way it used to be – because for every “Zen Arcade” or “Tim” that I bought in the 80s, I bought several bad hardcore records that I kicked myself over buying.

    I don’t think we’re going to agree on this one, but I can understand your point of view. There will always be something special about sitting in a room, spinning records or reading liner notes that you don’t get with a digital download.

  7. SUPER SOAKERS AT DAWN, SIR!!!! but lets wait till summer because I don’t want to get sick.

    Anyhoo, the blank CD idea is a gimmick, to me. How is it cheaper to manufacture liner notes and include a blank with no art on it? And really, how much cheaper can it be? I mean if you’re talking vinyl then OK, you ‘re still getting a physical product.

    Oh hell’s bells, Al. MYSPACE has brought me a shit-ton of new bands. Like I was saying, the MP3s are tools, the album (or CD) is the product.

    I’m actually writing extended liner notes now for our odds n sods CD that will be on the MySpace page because they wouldn’t fit on the insert.

    Mind you, we have sold about a grand total of about 350 cds over the course of 4 releases so what the hell do I know? 🙂

    I just sold all my really shitty CDs. The metal ones sold real well on Ebay! Who knew you could get $50+ for The Ultra Violence by Death Angel?

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