The recorded music industry has seen a steep decline in profits over the last 20 years, and we all know why. It’s not that people stopped listening to music—no, but they found a way to stop paying for it. Sales figures are less than half of what they were in 1999, and for musicians and record labels the scenario is much worse, as streaming is, for both, an inefficient way to make a dollar. As Peter Frampton pointed out in a tweet, for 55 million streams of “Baby, I Love Your Way,” he received $1700. Stunned by this sucker punch, the recorded music industry had to find a way to respond. Yes, most labels and artists have allowed their music to go on streaming services, but if, at the flick of a switch, they could switch back to physical media, we all know they would.
The financial crash-dive of the music industry has been well-documented, but lately a counter-narrative has emerged that needs to be acknowledged, especially because it points a path forward. Some parts of the music industry have experienced significant growth, and it’s worth looking at what those areas are and to also ask why they’re expanding. It seems that, instead of putting their tail between their legs and skimping on quality, many record companies, and this includes both large and small labels, have strongly emphasized quality and craftsmanship, and this strategy is working. We tend to think of craftsmanship in visual terms, and that plays a part in this development, but the change is more about sound than sight, as good sound matters more than ever to a growing sector of the music audience.
One area of significant growth has been in the audiophile world.
I started writing for the music section of The Absolute Sound nine years ago. At that point it was a less interesting world for audiophiles and other music fans when it came to recorded music, and this article will look at some of the recent developments. I’ll also look at a section of the music industry that has parallels with the audiophile world—the deluxe editions that are more popular and extravagant now than ever. As with audiophile releases, high-quality deluxe editions place an emphasis on craftsmanship, which tells us that there are still people out there for whom music has real value. To people working in the music industry I would say, “Those listeners are out there; now find a way to connect to them.”
Audiophile Formats: Vinyl
Perhaps the clearest example that a solid core of music fans embrace quality is the vinyl renaissance. Two thousand and seventeen marked the 12th straight year sales increased for vinyl. Suddenly teens and twenty-somethings care about where a record was pressed and which reissues sound best, and there is more of this kind of talk than ever. I don’t see this as a flash in the pan or a superficial trend. Instead I believe that a culture has been created that will grow as young people who love good sound find ways to become part of the music industry.
When it comes to vinyl, audiophile recordings have an outsized and growing presence. Increasingly LPs are manufactured as artisan creations as opposed to mere commodities. Part of the credit here goes to veteran audiophile labels that stepped away from wax after the world deemed it passé and then successfully returned to it. Also, there are new labels that share a painstaking devotion to quality vinyl, including Intervention (launched in 2015), Gearbox (2009), Newvelle (2014), Chasing the Dragon (2012), Yarlung (2005), Analog Spark (2015), Craft Recordings (2017), and Run Out Groove (2017). Recent developments include a return to direct-to-disc recordings by such labels as Chasing the Dragon, Berliner Meister Schallplatten, and Berlin Philharmoniker Records. With numerous companies bending over backwards to produce great-sounding recordings, it makes sense that some labels—here I think of Third Man, Gearbox, and Acony—have chosen to refurbish old record-pressing equipment or even, quite recently, to build new presses to make their own records. Plus there are attempts to one-up the best vinyl of the past. For example, Quality Record Pressing puts the heating and cooling cycle in the press under microprocessor control, something that wasn’t possible until the vinyl renaissance. A spirit of restlessness—not just mirroring the past but attempting to either improve on old formats or create new ones—exists these days, and it contrasts with the not-too-distant period when the beleaguered music industry asked itself, “What the hell just happened?”
Sales of compact discs in general have been plummeting, but we should remember that, in audiophile circles, silver discs still have a loyal audience. Labels selling SACDs include Analogue Productions, Intervention, Mobile Fidelity, Venus, Stockfisch, Audio Fidelity, First Impression Music, Deutsche Grammophon, foné, and Reference Recordings. New arrivals Analog Spark and Intervention have also been including SACDs in their catalogs. In addition, JVC XRCDs still have a niche audience. MQA encoding can be applied to CDs, and that format is taking off in Japan in a big way, where 80% of music sales are of physical media.
Because of all the attention given to vinyl, a recent press release from the Tacet label will come as a surprise to some people, but we should take note: “Compared with other formats, CDs are by far the bestsellers at Tacet. Even the LP boom years of 2012–2014 didn’t alter that. Currently, our high-quality multichannel recordings in Tacet Real Surround Sound are gaining in popularity. Sales in this format had already exceeded those of LPs by 2015.” I won’t deny that there’s distressing news about compact discs overall; on the other hand, certain types of silver discs have their loyal fans in the audiophile worlds, and it would be a mistake to overlook that.
If a good chunk of audiophile recordings serve a niche market, quite possibly nothing is nichier than the reel-to-reel tape. So why have R2R tapes once again claimed our attention? Because many listeners believe they provide the most realistic sound available. Our own Jonathan Valin has certainly been impressed. “I have never heard rock and roll reproduced more powerfully and realistically in my home or at a show in my entire life,” he wrote after hearing a mastertape dub of Sergeant Pepper’s. Labels selling reel-to-reel tapes include Chasing the Dragon, Groove Note, foné, Master Tape Sound Lab, Opus3, STS Digital, Analogue Productions, Zavalinka, UltraAnalogue Recordings, and The Tape Project. International Phonograph, Inc. has over 30 titles for sale; mostly jazz, that date back as far as 1969. In Issue 289 Andre Jennings discusses some Yarlung titles available on reel-to-reel tape.
Where quadraphonic recordings died a quick death, their distant and somewhat mutated offspring, surround sound, got a foothold in the music industry due to home-theater applications and finds loyal fans in different genres. Surround-sound mixes from the last couple years include reissues by such rock bands as Styx, Led Zeppelin, the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Stone Temple Pilots, Santana, and The Band. Perhaps the first name we associate with multichannel is the prog-rock wunderkind Steven Wilson, whose latest surround-sound reissues include classic albums by Roxy Music, Rush, Marillion, and Jethro Tull. Recently recorded surround-sound rock releases include new live albums by Tedeschi Trucks Band and Yes. Leonard Bernstein’s Beethoven symphonies on the Deutsche Grammophon label and releases on Reference Recordings, SFS Media, Tacet, and Yarlung are among the new classical surround-sound releases.
At first audiophiles disdained downloads due to poor sound quality, but a few enterprising souls thought, hey, the sound doesn’t have to be compressed. Now many audiophiles have embraced high-resolution downloads, and some have even chosen it as their primary format for listening to music. By now they have a plethora of choices. The Chicago Audio Society (chicagoaudio.org) lists 34 sources for high-resolution sound. Some of the more well-known names in this field include Reference Recordings, Acoustic Sounds, Bowers & Wilkins, Society of Sound, Linn Records, HDtracks, primephonic, eclassical, and SuperHiRez. Also, Qobuz has just entered the U.S. market; it offers two million tracks in 96kHz/24-bit for download.
Deluxe and High-Quality Editions: Deluxe Editions as Reissues
Although some albums of newly recorded music feature elaborate packaging for vinyl and/or compact discs, the deluxe-edition market focuses primarily on reissues or previously unreleased recordings of historical significance. Deluxe editions have never been more abundant or more ambitious. A recent and extreme example of reissue fever would be the most over-the-top edition of the new Guns N’ Roses box set Appetite for Destruction: Locked N’ Loaded Edition, whose contents include four CDs, one Blu-ray, seven 12-inch LPs, seven 7-inch records, a hardcover book, and “assorted ephemera.” The cost of this edition is $999, and considering the prices fans paid for the last GNR tour, that edition should be a success. Hugely popular super-deluxe editions include the huge David Bowie box sets Rhino released three years in a row, all of which sold out quickly.
The classical world has seen its share of deluxe editions lately. A recent example is Sony’s new release of George Szell’s complete Columbia album collection, which houses 106 CDs. One assumes classical labels love these huge reissue packages, as they’re finding new ways to repackage (and profit from) old recordings—good for them, and good for us. If you consider the cost per CD, these editions are simultaneously a bargain and a quality product. Arthur Lintgen has reviewed several of these giant sets for the magazine, and he’s consistently been impressed by the performances as well as the sonics.
Deluxe Editions of Previously Unreleased Recordings
When Rhino released the 14-CD edition of the Yes box set Live from Seventy-Two in 2015, it proved just how obsessive music fans can be, as the set contained recordings of seven complete concerts from the same tour, with little variance in the set list. Rhino knew that some diehard fans want to hear every note, so they could decide what the peak moments were. Previously unreleased live sets have been a big Record Store Day draw, and that’s particularly true for historic Grateful Dead and Phish concerts.
Somehow previously unreleased recordings of concerts by jazz legends keep getting discovered. Probably the most well-known label focusing on such performances is Resonance Records. Launched in 2008, this LA-based outfit combines a passion for music and in-depth detective work with top-shelf standards of excellence. Major jazz artists featured on Resonance (founded in 2009) have included Grant Green, Bill Evans, and Wes Montgomery. Along with releasing new titles of jazz and other genres, Gearbox has put out live recordings of concerts by Dexter Gordon, Tubby Hayes, Yusef Lateef, and others. Dot Time Records, whose first album appeared in 2015, has released first-time-ever live recordings by Louis Armstrong, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, and Ella Fitzgerald as part of its “Legend Series.” Launched in 2012, Elemental has unearthed live dates by Red Garland, Art Pepper, Dexter Gordon, and Woody Shaw. All of the labels mentioned here correctly assume true music lovers will pay for quality.
Deluxe Editions of Previously Unreleased Studio Recordings
Deluxe editions also focus on previously unreleased studio recordings. Recent high-profile examples include Thelonious Monk Les Liaisons Dangereuses, John Coltrane’s Both Directions at Once, and Tom Petty’s An American Treasure. On some of its 2-LP sets, a new Warner imprint, Run Out Groove, devotes the first disc to a remastered LP and the second to previously unissued or rare tracks connected with the sessions for the original LP. As with newly discovered live recordings, previously unreleased studio projects by different labels consistently boast stylish artwork and well-researched liner notes, while drawing on the top talents in the recording industry to ensure the release sounds as good as possible.
The popularity of handsomely packaged deluxe editions points to a seeming paradox of the music industry. As one section of the music business becomes invisible due to computer audio, another section has become extra-visible, with the packaging becoming increasingly exorbitant. In a strange spinoff, LP design has become so important to a sector of the art world that some limited edition albums or album covers by contemporary artists—projects for which music takes a back seat to the visual creation—sell out before their release date even though they cost hundreds of dollars…and later sell at auction for thousands.
Keep Doing What You’re Doing
In some circles records have become a boutique item, and there’s a heightened sense of collectability and rarity, with more buyers chasing after numbered and limited editions. Quality and limited availability up the cost of new releases, and, not too surprisingly, there’s been some pushback about the cost of limited edition and highly sought-after records. Yet I would urge record labels to keep doing what they’re doing—in fact, do more of it—and I hope that other labels keep popping up. Call me naïve, but that’s exactly what I expect to happen. The young people who’ve been bitten by the bug, forming block-long lines during Record Store Day and piling into record shows, will keep finding new ways to connect their passion for music with high-quality, well-crafted music releases in a variety of formats. May the tribe continue to grow.