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2018 AXPONA Show Report: Music, Part 3

2018 AXPONA Show Report: Music, Part 3

Josh Bizar has seen tremendous growth in the audiophile industry since 1999, when he started working for Music Direct, the online retailer of high-end audio, audiophile music (Mobile Fidelity), and accessories. At this year’s AXPONA Josh, who’s now Vice President at Music Direct, represented the company as a speaker on the Vinyl Industry Update panel. During that discussion, industry experts confirmed that vinyl sales continue to spike, and Mobile Fidelity has definitely played a key role in that resurgence. But it’s not only about the records; during our interview Josh also offered high praise for Mobile Fidelity’s Super Audio CDs, whose sound he described as “revelatory,” and it would be a mistake to overlook that and other digital formats that have staunch support in the audiophile community.

Let’s talk about your history with Mobile Fidelity and Music Direct. What was your first position, and how have your roles changed?
I came on board as a salesperson at Music Direct in 1999, about the time we acquired Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL). I answered calls from customers and helped them build their systems and music collections. Now, almost 20 years later, I am Vice President and work on marketing, team building, and new business development. My role with MFSL is assisting Michael Grantham, who has been licensing titles for MFSL for decades. It remains one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job. I do a lot of begging for titles.

How has the audiophile world changed since you began?
The most dramatic change absolutely relates to the rise of analog and vinyl. It’s stunning to see how many people continue to embrace the format. In my opinion, the growth is owed to two primary reasons. First, it has a lot to do with the singlemindedness of playing an LP. Spinning vinyl is a more engrossing way to engage with the language of music—one of the most emotionally satisfying of all the sonic arts. Second, it’s about displaying a shelf (or more) of LPs. A record collection says a lot about a person—far more than a hard drive full of songs could ever say.

Who’s buying Mobile Fidelity LPs and SACDs?
Mobile Fidelity has customers from all different demographics and age groups. There are the music lovers who are looking for the definitive copies of our releases. We also have the collectors who need to have at least one copy of everything we release. Then there are the audiophiles who value the extreme care that goes into every title. We know how lucky we are to have such a diverse client base, so our engineers work tirelessly to ensure their happiness.

What is the most recent Mobile Fidelity release?
We are currently curating a new box set of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge over Troubled Water via the One-Step process. MFSL One-Step releases constitute the ultimate expression of the analog art. The manufacturing process is painstaking, but the quality represents the current sonic pinnacle. Of course, we are always working to make better recordings, and forthcoming technological advances might make this a reality. (Readers, stay tuned.)

While discussing sales during the 2017 Christmas season, you said Music Direct sold more turntables, cartridges, and more vinyl than in any prior holiday season. What were some of the more popular Mobile Fidelity titles then?
We sold out of all 6000 numbered copies of Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly. And 45rpm vinyl versions of Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan in mono, and two early Jefferson Airplane albums were also big sellers. But Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach’s Painted from Memory is my favorite recent release. MFSL’s 33rpm version is lovingly spread over four sides and cut from a meticulous analog mastertape. Music lovers lucky enough to get a copy likely know why it is my personal pick. The LP is sold out, but the Super Audio CD version remains available.

I’m happy that Mobile Fidelity has released some titles by artists who are less high profile—Priscilla Ahn, for instance. Any albums you would recommend from such artists?
We always strive to get the biggest artists, the finest titles, and the most iconic albums out to our customers. Yet sometimes we work on lesser-known projects we feel represent the best of what our engineering team can accomplish. If you wouldn’t mind indulging me for a moment, I would like to mention a few facts about our digital titles. With the current vinyl resurgence, it is not surprising to read press reports discussing our analog releases. But our work on Super Audio CD is revelatory. I can tell you with complete assurance that our efforts in the digital domain comprise a group of the finest examples of DSD transfers. Nobody matches our hi-res accomplishments.

Would you care to discuss projects that are in the pipeline?
More Dylan, any jazz… a few more Dylan, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans titles—as well as some great Simon and Garfunkel records—might be coming. We remain really focused on producing more new One-Step box sets. That said, until things get approved at the label level, I hope you won’t mind if I leave you in suspense.

I think the audiophile world could continue to become more visible and more common, and that could have a very beneficial impact on the music industry overall. Your thoughts? 
At Music Direct, we have seen tremendous growth over the past decade. But I’m afraid those of us immersed in audiophile culture may be a bit blinded by industry realities. In my personal life, I do not know many people who even know high-end audio components exist. It’s a shame to see an industry with teams of vibrant, talented, and driven people whose dreams of providing better listening experiences to the masses fail to get noticed. Plus, our disengagement with female listeners is an absolute embarrassment. But the future is hopeful. Music is a universal language, and one that can communicate in deeply profound ways. As people increasingly begin to realize how much they are missing, the current practice of playing music through a Bluetooth speaker the size of a coffee mug will not last.


Jeff Wilson

By Jeff Wilson

This will take some explaining, but I can connect the dots between pawing through LPs at a headshop called Elysian Fields in Des Moines, Iowa, as a seventh grader, and becoming the Music Editor for The Absolute Sound. At that starting point—around 1970/71—Elysian Fields had more LPs than any other store in Des Moines. Staring at all the colorful covers was both tantalizing and frustrating. I had no idea who most of the artists were, because radio played only a fraction of what was current. To figure out what was going on, I realized that I needed to build a record collection—and as anyone who’s visited me since high school can testify, I succeeded. Record collecting was still in my blood when, starting in the late 1980s, the Cincinnati Public Library book sale suddenly had an Elysian Fields quantity of LPs from people who’d switched to CDs. That’s where I met fellow record hawk Mark Lehman, who preceded me as music editor of TAS. Mark introduced me to Jonathan Valin, whose 1993 detective novel The Music Lovers depicts the battles between record hawks at library sales. That the private eye in the book, Harry Stoner, would stumble upon a corpse or two while unraveling the mystery behind the disappearance of some rare Living Stereo platters made perfect sense to me. After all, record collecting is serious business. Mark knew my journalistic experience included concert reviews for The Cincinnati Enquirer and several long, sprawling feature articles in the online version of Crawdaddy. When he became TAS music editor in 2008, he contacted me about writing for the magazine. I came on board shortly after the latest set of obituaries had been written for vinyl—and, as fate had it, right when the LP started to make yet another unexpected comeback. Suddenly, I found myself scrambling to document all the record companies pressing vinyl. Small outfits were popping up world-wide, and many were audiophile-oriented, plus already existing record companies began embracing the format again. Trying to keep track of everything made me feel, again, like that overwhelmed seventh grader in Elysian Fields, and as Music Editor I’ve found that keeping my finger on the pulse of the music world also requires considerable detective work. I’ve never had a favorite genre, but when it comes time to sit down and do some quality listening, for me nothing beats a well-recorded small-group jazz recording on vinyl. If a stereo can give me warmth and intimacy, tonal accuracy, clear imaging, crisp-sounding cymbals, and deep, woody-sounding bass, then I’m a happy camper.

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