I stand by the plot as far today’s announcement that Pioneer is remaking the Technics 1200. This is a straight-up remake, bearing no real direct relevance to the rest of Pioneer’s offerings other than name. But as with the KORG MS-20 or the Moog Keith Emerson Modular, just reissuing something from the past already adds a subplot.
First, it’s worth reconsidering what Panasonic, makers of the Technics turntable, said when they exited the market:
We are sure that retailers and consumers will understand that our product range has to reflect the accelerating transformation of the entire audio market from analogue to digital.
In addition, the number of component suppliers serving the analogue market has dwindled in recent years and we brought forward the decision to leave the market rather than risk being unable to fulfil future orders because of a lack of parts.
The “lack of parts” question is still a mystery. It’s possible that Pioneer is making this turntable in limited quantities. It’s also possible (and I’d guess more likely) that they simply chose parts that are easier to source, or that this issue was overstated in that announcement.
But the “transformation” is simply wrong – and perhaps the absence of any mention of digital vinyl here is telling. In fact, let me emphasize this:
While digital has grown, it has turned out to be something other than replacing one thing with another.
The motivation for my snark this morning, though, is that this also means you might want to improve, not only remake.
The obvious difference between Pioneer and Technics is cosmetic: black instead of silver, blue light instead of red, (welcome) removable cables missing on the early revisions of the 1200/1210. But the real difference is about 4 lbs (1.8kg).
You’ll notice that in the specs, and the reason is to do with manufacturing. Look again at the details Pioneer shared on manufacturing:
There’s an insulated tone arm – the effort apparently to reduce a “howling” effect you can sometimes get on the 1200s.
There’s also a heavier die (that’s the “heavy-mass zinc” mention), plus 9 mm of vibration-damping material in the base. The plan here: make the turntables more resistant to vibrations.
The 1200s aren’t perfect turntables, and because a great many people are using digital vinyl, they’re being asked to do more than ever before. Reducing resonance and vibrations could help digital vinyl systems to perform better. DJ Tech Tools complained today about not getting digital outputs (and DJTT had predicted this kind of feature when the turntable was first released, whereas I was one of many predicting a clone). But the control vinyl itself is an analog system, subject to sound quality and shakes. Fixing that could make this a better turntable for those systems.
Also, on the output, they mention “gold-plated machine-cut parts for low impedance” on the RCA (cinch/phono) output jacks – and there’s no ground cable, interestingly. That bit seems to be about making this easier to connect in a variety of situations without sound quality issues.
These couple of kilograms of changes might not actually help. And it’s possible they’ve made the sound quality or reliability worse. We just won’t know until we see the real thing. But I think this will merit further testing by devout turntablists.
And the Pioneer unit is the latest in an overwhelming wave of evidence that says that analogy technology – even down to the parts to make stuff – is far from obsolete. So the rest of Panasonic’s business may well have transformed from digital to analog. But in music, the picture isn’t quite so linear.
Thank you to the wonderful DJ Esther Duijn for pointing out that these changes will in fact matter to someone. I have to admit, I know loads of people using Technics but not other OEM turntables, so I’m curious to hear from that crowd, too.
Also worth some investigative journalism: Pioneer and Matsushita – now simply going by its better-known former brand Panasonic – are both Japanese companies. They’re also both in the automative business, so at least as competitors, there’s a relationship. The question in this case is, how much of the tooling, knowhow, and engineers from the 1200 made their way to Pioneer. The Technics name was sold off, and it seems Panasonic never got interested in re-entering the business. But “Pioneer” is about the only brand name other than Technics that could live up to the 1200, at least in DJ recognition. It’ll be interesting to learn what actually happened here. I like to fantasize that some 1200 veteran worked on this … like a new revision of the original, as much as re-release.
If the album business model is collapsing, the frantic rush to everything else is at least interesting.
Hip hop as a genre, of course, came from a deconstruction and reconstruction of the album, from the early evolution of DJ techniques and sampling. So, the fact that Wu Tang is skipping the conventional release altogether is new, but it’s also connected to history.
Sure, plenty of artists have gone for remix contests and the like. What’s different in Wu Tang’s case is that this time, the debut track “So Many Detailz” from their Parent Advisory will head straight to Blend as raw session files.
Instead of downloading stems, Blend provides would-be remixers with Avid Pro Tools, Ableton Live, and Apple Logic Pro session formats, the exposed ingredients of the tracks.
Blend is a site and collaboration platform, backed by funding from NYC VC/startup seed Betaworks. (Tumblr, Airbnb, Groupon, and Twitter all saw Betaworks funding – this is one hot Silicon Alley property.) Blend uses Dropbox as the back end in order to manage multiple people manipulating session files in a variety of popular DAWs. Pro Tools, Live, and Logic are your three choices here, but FL Studio, Maschine, and GarageBand are supported, too, with more promised. We looked at GitHub earlier today for notation, but that tool was built for code (and text) first. Blend applies a similar approach to the more-complex DAW project format. As with GitHub, individual users “pull” projects and contribute them back again with changes – ideal for the solo workflow.
The site has so far been popular with nerdy electronic music producers – not so much hip hop. Think Moby and Prefuse73; Mad Zach even released an entire EP as a collaborative project.
But it seems Wu Tang is hopeful that this is a new direction – both for opening up hip hop to new audiences, and reshaping the industry.
Oliver Grant, aka Power, tells Blend that he hopes that their work will find new life: “you guys take it and spit it back on us,” he says. “We’re looking to be shocked, whether it’s EDM, or whatever version it is. It may be Switzerland, a guy who wouldn’t be on the hip hop sites, but he’s going to be on Blend, checking out what’s new.”
Here’s that track:
Harsh words for the industry from Grant find their way straight into the press release: “Fools got stuck, the industry got caught up with Napster and iTunes, fighting that shit. It’s like yo, ya dummy, y’all should’ve embraced them,” he says. “Cause that’s what they did eventually ending up doing, after they cried and all that bullshit. And then you would have been making dollars from day one.”
There’s an oft-repeated conventional wisdom about Apple that I think is just plain wrong, and it goes something like this:
The success of the iPhone and iPad means that Apple is now a consumer company, and doesn’t care about pros.
Now, let’s parse the above statement and say Apple sometimes makes decisions pro audiences don’t like. Well, that’s certainly true; it just happened to be true prior to the success of iOS.
It’s time to face this question again, partly because of the widely-noticed demise of Apple’s Aperture for pro photography workflows, but also because of significant and under-appreciated updates to all the other pro apps.
First, let’s acknowledge that we’re talking about three Apples: there’s Apple the computer and mobile hardware maker, Apple the OS vendor, and Apple the pro app developer. In each category, I would contrast it with its rivals in terms of the attitude toward pros and consumers.
This is not an endorsement of Apple above other computer makers. There are some fine PCs out there, and some are terrific values. There’s Windows-only software worth using – for music, including SONAR and FL Studio. The fabulously-innovative Sensomusic Usine combines modular sound powers with multi-touch you can use on high-performance laptop/tablet hybrids, something not available from Apple. (You can run Usine on Mac, too, but you can’t buy a MacBook with touch input yet, of course.) Some of you will run Windows on Apple hardware; some of you will pick PC hardware. And while many higher-end laptops fall into the same price brackets as Apple, PCs are particularly good when it comes to saving you money on desktop systems. (Ironically, the Mac Pro is now so “pro” in the sense of high-end hardware, it’s out of reach for those who don’t have big budgets.)
But it’s possible to say that you have a choice between Apple’s offerings and PC platforms (even, for some, those running Linux), rather than to say that Apple is just for consumers. It just doesn’t fit the facts.
I think it’s time to dispel the myths that somehow there’s a “new,” anti-pro Apple.
Pro Apps. First, about those updates.
Yes, Apple’s Aperture was discontinued. Sometimes, killing a product is the right thing to do. Software makers sometimes enter a market and discover later that they haven’t differentiated themselves enough from the competition to make an ongoing investment. It seems that’s what’s happened here. Aperture had some great ideas in it, but photographers already migrated to Adobe’s Lightroom long ago, and with good reason – Aperture has badly lagged Lightroom in virtually every stage of the workflow. (Now, that means you’re stuck coughing up $10 or more a month to Adobe, but you’ll have to complain to Adobe about that, not Apple.)
Happily, back in the world of music production – and even, to an extent, video production – we have more than one vendor. Heck, it’s clear that music making will forever be entirely fragmented, which happily leads to loads of competition and differentiation.
But as Apple is killing Aperture in favor of the consumer-focused Photos in Yosemite, it’s clear they continue to update the video and music production apps and view them distinctly from consumer apps. In each case, you still have other options (Avid’s software, Premiere for video, and the too-many-to-count options in DAWs), so even if Apple were to abandon all its Pro Apps, the Mac would remain a compelling platform. But given the interaction of OS, hardware, and app, it’s comforting to know Apple still has some skin in the game.
Apple has changed their approach to Pro Apps, with a steady stream of updates that deliver through the App Store. That includes several updates a year, so that users get fixes and enhancements more quickly. It’s an update cadence that would be nice to see from other vendors, too. Obviously, you want to require as few fixes as possible to larger releases that come out, but users also now expect responsiveness to changes they do want.
Logic Pro X 10.0.7 was therefore the seventh update in less than a year. Apple has allowed up to 24 processing threads, which means Logic can take advantage of 12-core Mac Pro models. Apple wasn’t able to provide benchmark data, but it appears at the very least that this should for the first time give musicians a reason to evaluate the Mac Pro. (If anyone has the projects large enough to need something like that, please get in touch.)
10.0.7 also resolves support for instruments and plug-ins with step sequencers built in even in Low Latency Mode. You can use MIDI volume and pan to control a plug-in if you like, and not only a channel strip. You can (finally) Marquee-select automation data to copy it. And in a sign that it is important Apple supports both video and music application development, they’ve improved XML file exchange between Logic and Final Cut.
Apple also clearly views the “consumer-to-pro” migration path as important on Logic, even if the same path no longer exists for photographers. Earlier this year, they even created a page to promote the idea: Moving from GarageBand to Logic Pro X
On the video side, Apple has finally fixed the biggest remaining annoyance in Final Cut Pro X – the inability to put libraries where you like. That includes optimized, proxy, and rendered media – and now you can delete that same media from inside Final Cut. So, it’s finally possible to keep your project storage neat and tidy, and keep from burning through those fast-but-small SSDs you’ve got internally on laptops.
4K is here, too. Apple ProRes 4444 XQ support is available across Compressor, Motion, and Final Cut, there’s new improved camera and hardware support, and you can even upload 4K video to Vimeo.
Now, of course, music in particular is an ecosystem. Logic users use plug-ins from Native Instruments and Waves and Universal Audio. And Mac users use software other than Logic and Final Cut. But it’s hard not to think that it’s a good thing that Apple’s OS team, in supporting developers of pro apps, have to support Apple as one of those developers. The quality of non-Apple software for the Mac is exceptional; it’s clearly not necessary to have your pro developer be “close to the hardware.” But the reverse seems to be more significant: it’s likely healthy for all involved that Apple themselves are supporting serious creative applications, and that some of those come from inside the same building.
(A reasonable objection to this line of thinking: Apple has aggressively priced their software low, because their revenue model is tied to hardware. And even without that issue, of course, Apple is forcing developers for their platform to compete with apps they themselves make – even on the iPad. There’s an absence of information here, though, because we lack broken-out sales data on Apple’s pro apps, we don’t know exactly the financial impact on the market, and much of the evidence here is anecdotal. But I know it’s not entirely something makers of Logic’s competitors are happy about.)
Speaking of the OS:
OS: Oddly, there’s a similar repeating cycle on operating systems. Meanwhile, Apple has support at the OS level for things like inter-app audio and bluetooth MIDI on both desktop and mobile, which Windows and other mobile platforms don’t. And here we’ve reached another major OS milestone that naysayers feared would break the stuff we use. It doesn’t.
iOS 8 includes improved audio plumbing, while building on the existing foundation that supports pro audio development. (One lone casualty of recent mobile OS changes is JACK, the cross-platform inter-app platform. But as this platform was never widely adopted on Apple mobiles, and with various other options for the most common use cases it addresses, that’s hardly a deal breaker.)
OS X Yosemite, while on the surface is mostly about other features (like mobile integration), still includes enhancements to underlying frameworks and otherwise can be filed firmly under “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Updates are still sometimes rocky for music production, but the old advice holds: don’t be an early adopter. Let the folks making your music software and hardware do the beta testing, unless you relish that responsibility yourself.
Hardware. We’ve heard the “sky is falling” argument as far as Apple’s hardware. But on the mobile side, Apple is now making high-spec, fast machines. The iPad Air, for instance, is a real workhorse for audio, capable of running loads of apps at once and with processing power music developers are just beginning to exploit. Apple’s laptops, while requiring you to reach a bit into your pockets, now make terrific use of the Thunderbolt bus in ways that empowers audio applications, and have spectacularly-crisp displays. And while storage is getting expensive internally, that’s partly because Apple is shipping no-compromise, high-end SSDs.
I’ve just bought a 13″ MacBook Pro, which I think is a sweet spot on value once you have a reasonable SSD, use some external storage to supplement it, and get at least 8G of RAM.
Upgradeability is a concern, though I think it makes sense to spec the machine you want the first time. It’s more reasonable to mark off points on repairability; it’s a shame that you now have to swap out the logic board for so many repairs. (Apple assures us they’re being ecologically sensitive with those discarded parts, though I’ll leave that discussion for another forum; as far as the impact on you, AppleCare is now more important than it was before.)
Again, it’s worth comparing if you are OS-agnostic, but anyone complaining about these choices might just be downright spoiled. If a PC works out to be a better value for you in the hardware you need and the software you use, go for it. (It’s a different game if you need high-end GPUs, but that’s a niche – and not particularly relevant to musicians.)
But given that there are strong PC and Mac choices, is it really worth any angst over this issue?
The Desktop is strong, for now. If any company veered toward merging consumer and pro concerns, it was Microsoft. But the recent unveiling of the Surface Pro tilts Microsoft back to pro users – enhanced, laptop-style performance, desktop, Intel-based OS. And on the Apple side, pro Apps and OS X clearly differentiate the desktop user in a way that supports creative work. The fact that their mobiles are earning more desktop-class processing power and the likes, well, that’s hardly bad news.
I think it’s time to spend this energy elsewhere. The computer as we know it is for the most part better than ever.
If anything, we need to stop worrying about backwards motion and start thinking forward. Desktop creative software is still stuck in 90s-era metaphors. Most of it doesn’t deal with touch input or gestures – even trackpad gestures in many cases. It doesn’t deal with Internet connectivity in any meaningful way. It doesn’t scale properly to higher-resolution displays. It doesn’t deal with the widespread use of mobile devices in most cases – most desktop software lacks dedicated mobile control or round-trip mobile workflow options.
I think Apple, Microsoft, and other vendors have built reasonable platforms. Rather than worry whether they’re back-pedalling, it’s time to consider what could be done to do more with the foundation we’ve got.
There is an accelerating transformation of music listening; that much is clear. And if you change the way people listen, you will change the way people produce. So who and what wins in this brave new world? Let’s consider.
The month of May brought still more signs of tectonic shifts, with Apple buying Beats and Spotify showing no signs of slowing. The Apple acquisition of Beats can’t really be measured in dollars, because Apple has so much cash on-hand. (US$150 billion – and expect that dry powder to start getting loaded into cannons.) At least unlike Facebook or Google, Apple doesn’t just randomly burn that cash on speculative purchases – you know, like Oculus Rift or robots. So this is really about strategic value, given they’ve waited this long to touch their war chest.
Apple with Beats, of course, combines two leaders in a whole mess of categories; it’s obvious, but it’s worth saying again. Apple makes the most popular computers for producing music, the most popular mobile device for playing music, the most popular computer software for listening to music, and the most popular store for buying music downloads. Beats makes the most popular hardware accessory for listening to music, and while they don’t have the most popular streaming service, they’ve got perhaps the closest relationship to the music industry of any streaming service. (Remember, Apple’s last acquisition got them … NeXT, and Jobs. This time, they get Jimmy Iovine, a veteran of Interscope-Geffen-A&M, and loads of connections from both Dre and Iovine to the music scene in LA.) Beats are a huge player, whether you like them or not.
Then there’s Spotify. No one else doing streaming is currently playing in the same league – not even Apple – and streaming continues to grow as download sales continue to sink. (35% growth in streaming versus a 13% drop in sales, as in the USA? Yeah, like that.) Add to that the appearance of Spotify in very-usable form in DJ apps (in the form of Algoriddim’s djay), and – relevant to us music makers, anyway – there’s something big going on.
Here are, I think, the winners in that landscape:
The whole consumer widget. Consumer listening – hardware, software, and service all together. Streams for everyone. Streams for listeners and casual DJs. Pros for the stuff you don’t stream. Downloads, physical media, and production-friendly tools for more serious DJs, enthusiasts, and producers. Humans. The ongoing power of the human being.
In other words, music just got a lot more holistic and a lot more human than ever – even against the backdrop of music as a service as available as electricity or running water. You need everyone from good, quirky DJs to branding specialists and industrial designers, and everyone matters. So strap in.
Yeah, those. But there’s something to the ubiquity of this logo. Only Apple and Sony have done it before quite like this. Photo (CC-BY) pooliestudios.
Winner: the consumerization of music listening. Complain all you like about the quality of Beats headphones. They’ve captured the imagination of the public in a way no other brand can – not Shure, not Sennheiser, not any of your favorite brands. (Not that that’s stopped respected makers like Audio-Technica from doing brightly-colored cans for retail in the hope of getting in on the action. Look at DJ headphones, and your local music store now looks more like Best Buy than ever.)
There just isn’t a brand that says headphones to people – not other than Beats. Beats have done that, and convinced consumers to pay premium price for mobile listening, something that only Apple and Sony have done before. That’s no small accomplishment. Remember, most kids today have no idea who Dr. Dre is. This is the power of the brand Beats now – and Dre deserves some serious credit for fighting to make that happen.
The upshot in all of this is that brands matter; consumer impact matters. And you’ll notice one brand in each category: Apple. Beats. Spotify. This isn’t Coke versus Pepsi. It’s Coke, and then some small niche players (a nice bottle of organic Cabernet for the specialists, sold in small batches).
Winner: those Beats headphones. Sorry, but that also means you’re going to keep seeing those headphones. (Apple Store placement has probably helped that over the years, too.) And, hey, they’re actually not that bad. A CDM reader who works for Beats quietly handed me a white pair of Beats Studio headphones at Musikmesse last year. To my surprise, they’re actually rather good in terms of sound, they’re insanely rugged (more so than my studio headphones), and reasonably comfy, if rather heavy; I’ve even traveled with them to give my ATH-M50s a rest. These aren’t the same Beats made by Monster, the company’s earlier partner, some of which were absolutely horrible. They’re fine.
Would I recommend them to someone? No. You can get a significantly better-sounding pair of headphones for literally half the price. But that comes back to the marketing issue. I’m betting a lot of people who buy Beats haven’t ever tried the other headphones. Be glad they’re listening to your music on these and not white earbuds.
Winner: Spotify – and streaming. Apple’s investment is a second vote of confidence in streaming – on top of iTunes Radio. Otherwise, they could have simply bought some headphone manufacturer and stuck their logo on it, and that’s not what they’re doing. And the numbers don’t lie: people are streaming more, downloading less. That trend should only accelerate as Internet access, both wired and wireless, gets faster.
Spotify wins even with Apple buying Beats, because it validates their market-leading position – which means they can get more capital if they need it, and their value has gone up in any future acquisition deal. Paradoxically, I think that means Apple buying Beats guarantees the future of Spotify – they’ve already got the mindshare, the listeners, the subscribers, the music collection, and now they’re valuable enough that it’s hard to imagine anything driving them out of business, at least for now. The only wildcard is if Apple finds some ingenious way to build a better streaming tool. But if Tim Cook is to believed, Beats has done that already – and it hasn’t made much of a dent in Spotify’s listeners.
With Spotify’s future secure, and with Apple investing in streaming, no amount of wishing on the part of artists or labels can make the streaming model go away. And that means –
Winner: Music as service. The success of streaming doesn’t have to mean the end of downloads, but it most likely will mean a change in how people buy those downloads. Downloads will still be the medium of choice for serious DJs, for audiophiles, for collectors. But all those markets are streaming these days, too, which means they’re likely to expect to be able to get those downloads via a service. That’s why Drip.fm, the startup from the folks behind Ghostly International, makes sense – and why they’re signing cool labels at such a speed. By providing a “wine of the month”-club model for your favorite artists and labels, they allow those aficionados hooked on music to pay a monthly fee for a steady stream of their favorite work. (Another clever idea: Hyperdub offers a member card that gets you guest list to events along with downloads.)
Winner: Downloads for “pro” DJs (for now). Serious DJing is likely to remain the one haven for downloaded files – for now. Licensing rules mean that no DJ app appears to be able to access music from a streaming service offline — yet. Slow access, especially in clubs (called “underground” for a reason), means you’d have to be nuts to rely on a streaming connection to DJ any serious gigs – yet. All these variables could change in the future, but you’ve got to gig this weekend, so that doesn’t matter.
That also means download sites (like Beatport) that cater directly to the DJ market and dance music fans are likely to thrive. See also: labels’ own stores. (Now’s the time to invest in making those things you’d want to actually use.) And Bandcamp looks great for the same reason, especially as artists discover labels are too oversaturated to take on more artists.
The importance of iTunes, however, might continue to shrink, unless Apple figures out smarter ways of driving download sales from streams. (iTunes Radio actually works beautifully in this regard, but the problem is no one uses iTunes Radio, and the radio itself is poor — too many repeated tracks. Maybe a Beats/iTunes mash-up will solve that; we’ll see.)
Winner: Internet-connected DJing. All of this said, streaming DJs are going to be a thing, too. If you’re playing a wedding, or a friend’s party, or a small bar, or any number of casual gigs that make up a huge part of the DJ market, streams start to make sense. The pressure is lower in those situations, it’s more likely you can check for a reliable Internet connection in advance, and the importance of requests is greater.
All that was missing was an app that made DJing with streams nearly as easy as playing from Spotify. Algoriddim’s djay is that app. I expect other DJ app developers like Native Instruments and their immensely popular Traktor on iPad to follow soon. It’s also clear that streams pair nicely with mobile DJing.
Minus Records jewelry. Okay… maybe. Something physical, though.
Winner: Tangible music. The more downloads shrink, the more vinyl and other physical releases will start to look appealing. And actually, with computers streaming music, it seems at least some DJs will win back dance floor respect by looking to vinyl. Maybe Pioneer really is going to make a turntable. Not everyone can go the vinyl route, so expect more other creative physical products – books and color photos, for instance, still retain value even with digital counterparts, because you flip through them and set them on coffee tables. Music has a different problem: arguing about analog versus digital aside, the reality is that everything eventually reaches a speaker.
Can you expect these to be a significant revenue source? Frankly, in a lot of cases, no. But you can expect a lot to try, and some artists and labels will find some winning formulas, especially if they have the right fans and the right designs behind those tangible goods.
Yes, this is happening. Products like “sounds” at Beatport, for producers, may eclipse track downloads – while the listeners go streaming.
Winner: Stems, samples, apps, content. With pros gravitating toward downloads as consumers go streaming, it also makes more sense than ever to sell a release to other producers. Beatport’s Sounds section is already growing fast – and could be what that business needs to protect itself against the growing incursion of streaming, even into DJ apps. The DJ market itself continues to grow. And these formats provide content that streams can’t; I don’t imagine Spotify or Beats successfully streaming individual stems any time soon, nor would any sane artist or label release them to them. Add in other delivery methods, from custom apps to Ableton sets or Traktor Remix Decks, and you have a spectrum of digital releases that aren’t threatened by streams.
Winner: Industry insiders. Bad news: the Internet didn’t quite work out the way we expected. It’s wound up with kingmakers, just as radio and record labels once had. So, sure, the cost of making music has gone down. But making music was always potentially free: go to a street corner and start singing. Distribution and marketing is what ultimately costs, and the reduction in studio time hasn’t changed that. Now, Spotify and Apple are in powerful positions. And they’ve turned back to that industry to get the biggest, most successful acts. Apple has so much as said in no uncertain terms that they bought Beats partly to get closer to the industry in LA.
Winner: Human selectors, human personality. Commonly called “curation,” I think “selection” and “personality” are better words. A funny thing has happened as computer algorithms for automatically selecting music have gotten better: people realize that the human beings were there for more than just picking the music. What humans can do is both select music and tell a story about it, in a way an algorithm really can’t. They also can provide a personality around those selections. Beats has invested heavily in this model, even as Spotify has put more into the algorithms. It hasn’t paid off yet, but it could – look how valuable radio still is. (See Evolver on the Beats curators, apart from the celebrity ones.)
Don’t get me wrong: I actually enjoy the algorithms. It’s like a more interesting take on “shuffle.” But the reason radio and hand-picked mixes and podcasts survive is because people don’t just want a playlist, they want a person to go with it. They listen to the radio because it keeps them company. And the more machine algorithms dominate music, the more they may long for that company as a point of differentiation and a way of enriching the experience.
So, the flipside of the staying power of insider industry culture is something more positive: the human DJ matters more than ever.
A must-read that sums up a lot of these trends. BBC’s Radio 1 today exemplifies the new breed. It’s radio, and it’s popular for the reasons radio has always been popular. It has human selectors. They are still kingmakers, still mass-media. They still work with power brokers, even if that landscape is transposed. We’re talking mass media – but mass media on the Internet, driven by statistics in followers on YouTube and the like.
Windows of opportunity. And that to me is the bottom line.
The early days of the Internet came with a lot of illusions. We imagined indie labels and artists would blossom. They did – but the long tail turned out to get so crowded, those same artists often got lost, and revenue streams shrank and were watered down rather than growing. We imagined big power players would go away. Wrong: the big kingmakers might shuffle about, but a few winners would become more powerful than ever. We thought technology would trend toward greater fidelity. It didn’t – not exactly. We imagined quality, in our own eyes, would always win out. That’s always naive.
But there are cracks through which the independent artist and label can survive. The explosion in production and DJing is one. For all that people complain that DJing and making tracks has gotten too easy, that might create the very enthusiast audience that saves a lot of music. It just means that musicians are the ones consuming. Another is the fact that the more our musical world tends to machines producing intangible music that switches on like radio, the more people may seek out human beings and physical goods.
The one thing you can’t expect is for things to stay stable. It seems that if we want to play in this new musical world, we’d better be up for a challenge.
CDM welcomes your thoughts – and any guest posts on these topics.
Because Algoriddim adding Spotify to djay is earth-shaking. Sure, Pacemaker did this in February. But that app was thin on some critical features DJs need, and the Spotify integration was lackluster. This is different. djay is a mature, full-featured DJ app – maybe not a known name like Traktor or Serato, but widely popular and brimming with features, plus a UI that casual DJs find easy to use. It’s also one of two mobile apps (Traktor for iPad being the other) that people seem to actually DJ with.
So this is huge. Requesting a wifi connection at venues could be as common as asking for a mixer, cable, or turntable – especially given how much of the market is casual DJs to begin with.
And the thing likely to absolutely terrify artists, labels, and stores who sell downloads is the fact that the Spotify integration is seamless. Unlike Pacemaker, it plays instantly and analyzes quickly – then saves all that information on cues, tempo, and key locally. And the integration with search and libraries in Spotify does everything that client does – then adds more features for DJs.
Full playlist, library support. Basically, if it works in Spotify, it works in djay – searching, instant play, and all your playlists, meaning Spotify becomes a tool for organizing playlists (which for some DJs, I expect it already was).
Match and Automix Radio. This should ruffle some DJ feathers. Spotify’s predictive algorithms are good – really good, thanks to acquiring intelligent tech from The Echo Nest that sources everything from metadata to human reviews to work out how music is interconnected. I’ve actually found some nice music that way with the Spotify client. Now, you can use it to DJ, and algoriddim says even they were surprised by the results. You can either Match songs as you DJ, or use your DJ app as your music player (which is kind of fun, especially with an iPad at your side).
Social sharing. Another draw – if you’ve been putting off making mixes for self-promotion, now there’s no excuse.
That’s not all that’s new in djay. Algoriddim has a couple of features that make it a more-serious challenged to NI’s Traktor for iPad: there’s new controller integration for third-party hardware (and ideal for those wanting to mix and match), plus effects by the lovely SugarBytes. Those two features are almost enough to make me stop cringing at djay’s skeuomorphic user interface, which to me is its one remaining drawback.
But talk about disruptive.
The good: artists could see more streams of their music, which means if Spotify and labels can ever sort out licensing in a way that actually gets ample cash to artists, streaming revenue could be more realistic. And, frankly, that’s much easier than the often-broken methods for tracking plays in clubs now.
The bad: well, downloads could be a thing of the past. And that’s bad news on the producer/label side. Download sales have been far better for artists. And they tend to build relationships between fans and the music, including providing artists with far greater stats (especially on services like Bandcamp and SoundCloud).
My guess is, this will push artists to try to pursue other avenues:
1. Higher-quality downloads, for fidelity closer to the master than streams can provide (especially important in big clubs).
2. Specialized downloads, like for-sale Traktor Remix Decks, Ableton Live sessions, or other remix-friendly stems. (Samples are already big business at Beatport, and trends like this mean sites like that are likely to invest more heavily in those areas to protect their future.)
3. Vinyl. It’s available to a select few artists, but it’s now not just about cache – it’s about survival. A lot of serious releases from labels may start to head this direction.
– and apps of their own, though there the return on investment may not be great enough to justify the investment of time.
I also hope Spotify works to provide more listener statistics to its artists. For instance, I won’t care if I don’t make a cent off streams, if I could then track DJ plays by city and work out where I might want to tour.
The big question, I think, is when the other shoe drops: when do we see Spotify integration from Pioneer, Serato, or Native Instruments?
“Werkstatt” means “workshop” in German, so the kit function is obvious.
Looking at the picture, a whole lot is clear. The architecture is a single-oscillator monosynth, switchable between saw waves and PWM. Both the filter and oscillator mod can be set to either an independent LFO or the envelope. (I really like that interface, actually. Note the dedicated controls for each.) Attack / Decay / sustain switch controls the envelope (hmmm, always a tasteful choice). A bit like the Critter & Guitari Pocket Piano, there are small triggers buttons for pitch in case you don’t have a keyboard handy. And there are small knobs, resembling the KORG monotrons – looking at that and the screws, and this appears to be an ultra-compact instrument.
The most interesting feature is doubtless the analog patch bay along the right-hand side of the unit, implemented as a simple header strip. This should suggest semi-modular capabilities by patching with jumper wires. A prototype shot shows those jumpers in action and a 1/4″ jack plug for audio coming out the back.
The big question, apart from whether there’s also MIDI onboard or this is intended as a standalone unit, is whether Moog intends to offer this to a wider audience, or it’s just a special one-off experiment for Moogfest. It sure looks nice, so I imagine a lot of folks will have their fingers crossed for a bigger release. We’ll find out.
That German name is doubly interesting, though, as there’s been widespread speculation that Moog might get into Eurorack – the format developed in Germany by Dieter Doepfer and pioneered initially by European builders. At the very least, there’s some Germany envy going on. Fortunately, no envy is needed here; I’ll be representing CDM in Asheville, and will get a chance to sit down with Chief Engineer Cyril Lance, so I expect all will be revealed. I’m thrilled to get to look at this and have even more than usual subject matter for chatting with Cyril. Can’t wait.
AIRA, the lineup that now includes a bassline/sequencer, drum machine, synth, and vocal processor, has in just a few months changed the way a lot of people think about Roland. At Musikmesse in Frankfurt, it was clear that it represents a new direction for Roland, too. The AIRA lineup was displayed separately from the usual Roland booth on the main floor of hall 5 (devoted to pianos), upstairs in hall 5.1 alongside electronic and DJ products (“remix”). And there, crowds gathered to watch pounding dance performances.
Those first four AIRA units are just the beginning. Roland has created an entirely new team called the Roland Product Group (RPG), and it’s these folks who have built AIRA. They’re not just thinking outside the usual Roland box; they’re physically in a different place. The rest of Roland is located in Hamamatsu, Japan; RPG has their own, hip office near Tokyo’s legendary Akihabara electronics district.
But if Roland is thinking of the future, they also seem to think re-connecting to the past is part of that future – literally. In the neighboring booth for ALEX4, the Berlin-based distributor run by Andreas Schneider (of Schneidersladen fame), Roland execs could be seen squeezing in to catch the latest analog gear.
And Roland was making little secret of showing a new sync box to as many people as they could. The hardware, with various labels blacked out, spent some time synchronizing gear in the AIRA demos, and also made the rounds to interested parties. (In fact, I almost couldn’t talk to anyone at Messe without them telling me Roland had been showing it to them – probably in part because I was hanging around analog builders.)
It’s too soon to know whether the Sync Box will ever see the light of day. It’s an early prototype, sporting some trademark AIRA green paint on the panel, but otherwise far from a finished product. But in another break from Roland tradition, here Roland seemed eager to collect feedback, and see what was necessary to make this box compatible with other gear.
The idea is this: the Sync Box has connections for USB, DIN, control voltage (gate), and MIDI. The controls are then dead-simple: a control on the front panel selects which sync source you want, and then you either slave the rest of your gear to that source, or sync everything to a tap tempo / tempo control with display on the unit. (There are some additional controls to sort out different compatibility issues with various analog gear.)
The upshot: you could combine any gear you like (AIRA or otherwise) with vintage 808s, or a new analog drum machine, or a modular, or your computer, or a combination. And Roland seemed interested in new and old gear as part of the equation; such a device would mean that a Roland-branded product could literally connect their newest and oldest products.
We’ll see where this leads. But there are two revelations here. One is, the RPG inside Roland is able to do things that Roland hadn’t been able to do before. Even if the company wanted to make something like the Sync Box, it might not be as easy to green-light (ahem) the project, let alone show it publicly long before it was done. Two, whatever Roland decides to do, the biggest industry players are taking analog equipment very seriously, following a path trailblazed by independent makers that weren’t on anyone’s radar even a couple of years ago.
(I should add – I’m not revealing any privileged information here. The Sync Box, the RPG, and the shift in industry direction were the talk of the entire show, inside and outside the Roland displays.)
In the meantime, you don’t have to wait for an AIRA to do this kind of sync. Koma Elektronik’s RH301 does DIN and CV and MIDI sync already (missing only USB, though that’s easy to resolve with a USB-MIDI interface). And the RH301 does more than just sync those devices: you can also use various divisions of time, and drive envelopes and LFOs. It solves the “how do I sync everything” question, but also gives you some opportunities to get creative with time. I’m hearing some AIRA owners are already snapping these up.
Build too many stores too fast full of this, and you could wind up in debt. Guitar Center could face a new owner and restructuring. Photo (CC-BY) Judi Stevenson / Flickr: chascar.
While the biggest US name in pro audio made headlines last week with uncertain financial news, so, too, did the biggest US name in music retail.
Yes, we were so caught up watching Avid, makers of Pro Tools, Sibelius, and Media Composer, as they were dropped from NASDAQ and delayed earnings reports once again, we missed the latest on Guitar Center. The big box music giant may not be able to keep up with its debt. The Wall Street Journal [paywall] reports that the retailer’s largest creditor is in “advanced talks” with owner Bain Capital to take over the company. (That’s the same Bain Capital made famous by former Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, yes.)
One element in common: both companies saw aggressive growth plans curtailed at least partly by the economic crisis. Guitar Center ran into trouble shortly after acquisition by Bain in 2007, growing head-first into a slowing US retail economy. Eric Garland, a writer, consultant, and “future trend analyst,” has some harsh words for the music store on his blog on the “transformational economy”:
I said that the debt-laden big box model was not built for the long term. I stand by my assessment. The events are playing out to make my point for me … In the mean time, you should think about the future of local retail – the kind that doesn’t end up billions in debt. It may have quite a future.
That seems a fairly black-and-white view. The question is whether the chain’s debt problems owe to the big box model fundamentally, or to a growth plan unhinged from reality.
Here’s the situation. Guitar Center has amassed some US$1.6 billion in debt, “much of it stemming from Bain’s $2.1 billion leveraged buyout of the company in 2007,” according to the Wall Street Journal. The talks would convert that debt into ownership by the creditor.
Note the numbers there. A large portion of the debt in Guitar Center came from the original, highly-leveraged buyout. In other words, you may be able to draw more conclusions about Bain from what’s happened than you would about the music instruments industry or big box retail in general.
There could be serious implications for music manufacturers, anyway, particularly the titular guitar makers. The big box format means accumulating lots of inventory, and that inventory means revenue for makers. Guitar Center is such a market force that it could pass its own financial woes onto those makers, exacting leaner margins. Then again, it was presumably doing that already.
What worries me in terms of the industry is that smaller players have already been marginalized, and online sellers can’t offer the hands-on experience musical instruments in particular might demand.
Consultant and music producer Bobby Owsinski, writing in response to the above story on his own blog, makes some dire predictions:
Ares wants their money, so watch as they squeeze GC by making it leaner and meaner than ever, all at the expense of the customer. If you think doing business with them now is hard, just wait until this comes down. Fewer sales people that turn over even more frequently, less stock on hand, only the latest products and no deep inventory – that’s what you can expect. It’ll be the way it is now, only worse, if you can imagine.
And expect to see some of your favorite small manufactures either struggle or go out of business, as GC cuts its inventory and SKU’s even more. For all those companies depending upon GC for a good chunk of their business, times are about to get a lot tougher.
Owsinski echoes the same concerns we heard about Avid last week (including from at least some financial circles):
Once again, this is a small industry filled with creative people. It’s too small for a company to go public, roll up smaller companies, or grow to big box levels without the customer suffering.
He also predicts, however, that the bright spot may be the return of mom-and-pop stores. Whether that happens remains to be seen.
In fact, the irony of all of this is that Guitar Center kept adding retail even when their sales growth wasn’t keeping pace. (If that isn’t a recipe for debt, I don’t know what is.) Note the contradictions in a story for National Public Radio’s Marketplace back in 2012:
That story sounds some positive notes: demand for instruments is up alongside lessons. But it also observes that Guitar Center continued its march to expansion even as online retailers gobbled up a lot of the actual sales growth, and that other big box retailers had run into similar problems with debt.
If you want to look to who would be threatened by troubles at Guitar Center, a New York Times story from the same year posits one answer: Fender.
Analysts say Guitar Center is crucial to Fender, accounting for roughly a sixth of Fender’s sales — and the ties between the two run deep.
But if under Bain ownership Guitar Center has mostly managed to acquire junk debt, we’ll see if the creditor is able to restructure the business back to health. Bain absorbed Guitar Center in 2007, so the stock GTRC is now defunct, in case someone was trying to go on NASDAQ to trade in either GTRC or AVID.
As for how this impacts people making and consuming musical instruments, I think the scale of the implication really comes down to whether they’ve found other alternatives. Those whose fates are intertwined with Guitar Center may face tough times. But those who don’t may see this as non-news. If you’re a manufacturer, we’d be curious to know how much you rely on the big box chain – or its rivals.
Avid, makers of Pro Tools, Media Composer, Sibelius, and other products was on Tuesday suspended from being traded on the NASDAQ stock exchange because of a failure to issue timely financial statements. And the company by the admission of its own chief executive faces a changing industry.
However, our earlier report included inaccurate information from financial analysis site The Street. Their report included outdated financial data. Our reporting was not correct; we have since spoken to Avid.
The Street reporting (and thus ours, in building a report on it) was inaccurate and misleading in that financial data for Avid actually isn’t available. That’s the sole reason for the NASDAQ delisting. The company went into further detail on Wednesday in a pre-recorded webcast for investors, which you can watch on the site.
The main point is this: we don’t have any 2013 numbers for AVID. Avid has filed no earnings reports, including the 2013 Form 10-K American public companies must submit to the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission, the US financial regulatory body). In addition, Avid says the numbers that from 2012 are part of the restatement process. (There never was even a Q4 2012 statement.) It’s also worth noting that our bias is heavily on the audio/music side, not the video production market to which Avid caters. That is only one portion of Avid’s business, and we can’t adequately cover the rest.
The main point of the story, though, was people in music or keenly interested in the future of the company. We received an unprecedented amount of feedback from users, across the spectrum of music and audio makers. The message: those of you who do use Pro Tools care about it passionately, and many of you consider it an irreplaceable tool. Those of you who don’t use Pro Tools are passionate, too, about what is happening at Avid and what it means for the industry. We got the facts wrong, and it’s important we get them right, and that we follow this story as it develops. (The Street has since removed those statements from their story, and even went as far as removing their “SELL” rating for the stock. However, it is not our business to report inaccurate information, whatever the source, and I apologize.)
Here is our understanding, and the latest information.
Avid does have cash. This is the most important revelation. An Avid spokeperson tells CDM Avid at the end of 2013 had $48 million in cash and no debt. The company has reassured us they’re committed to music products like Pro Tools and Sibelius. The cash figure is important, as it means they can support that commitment with real investment.
Avid is recalculating their financials largely around the issue of upgrades. Avid is performing a “restatement” – a re-issuing of financial data – based on the way they account for software updates. Long-time Mac users will recall Apple talking about charging for software updates for accounting reasons. The logic is this: free software updates are considered liabilities, or “post-contract support.” This is not uncommon accounting practice, and certainly is in no way specific to Avid. In plain terms, if you give away a free update to your customers, it isn’t really free to you – it has material value, and it’s distinct from something like a warranty in that it adds new functionality. (If Whirlpool fixes your kitchen fridge, they don’t suddenly add an automatic ice crusher and Internet connection it never had.) Avid’s CFO also said in the statement Wednesday that the company may have over-accrued some restructuring costs.
When the work is done, Avid’s revenue will be the same, but the timing of that revenue will not; the recalculation involves “deferred revenue.”
The financials have been delayed again, until summer. Avid announced at the beginning of January that the restatement was taking longer than originally expected, and they publicly anticipated being delisted by NASDAQ. (NASDAQ had previously given them an extension in filing, which they missed.) As of this week, they are estimating summer. If they make that target, we’ll see updated financial numbers for past years and new quarterly reports, and Avid says they want to again be traded on NASDAQ.
Avid’s new strategy centers on media management. The investor video today isn’t necessarily recommended viewing; think long, slow, and corporate. But Avid’s CEO Louis Herndandez, Jr. did provide a peek into the new Avid strategy, “Avid Everywhere.” In the video, Hernandez says that the “value chain” has shifted beyond just creation, to monetizing and sharing content. The solution appears to be a combination of cloud solutions and new media management tools built into software like Pro Tools and Media Composer.
Based on the description and presentation slides, these would even give you the ability to finish a track in Pro Tools at home, then have a TV studio looking for music for a sports feature license it from you, all within an Avid-run marketplace. There are also new tools ranging from metadata, tagging, and search to cloud-based collaboration and exchange.
It’s far too early to judge this strategy, as it’s difficult to understand from a set of strategic slides. By April, we should be more able to do so. Avid tells CDM they won’t be able to comment on specifics until the first components of Avid Everywhere appear around the broadcasting trade show NAB. We’ll have an update then.
The S3L hardware – Avid’s latest play for a hit in the pro audio world. Product images courtesy Avid.
Avid’s official statement to CDM:
· Avid’s de-listing from NASDAQ and its subsequent listing on OTC is the result of delays in the reporting of financial information — it was not related to operating performance in any way; As we have previously reported, as a result of the restatement, previously issued financial statements are not accurate and should not be relied upon.
· We are continuing to work very hard to correct the accounting, which is related to nearly 5 million transaction lines spanning eight-and-a half years. We announced that we are targeting completion of the restatement by mid-2014.
· We continue to invest in product innovation. Since the beginning of the restatement process, we released Pro Tools 11, Media Composer 7, Sibelius 7.5, two new online shared storage offerings, a brand new mixing console – the S6, as well as a new live sound system – Avid S3L. During this process we remain squarely focused on the execution of our product innovation and growth strategies. Having ended 2013 with $48 million in cash and no debt, we believe we are well positioned to support these efforts.
· With a compelling Avid Everywhere vision established, the launch of the ACA, a significant number of new product innovation announcements planned for 2014, we believe we remain well positioned to support our customers’ ongoing success
Although I can’t comment about specifics, I’d like to reassure you that behind the scenes, we’re carrying on as usual developing Sibelius, Pro Tools, Media Composer and our other software and hardware solutions. We’re investing heavily in new technologies and expanding our development teams to transform our solutions. Over the next few months to a year, you’ll see big advances in our products and solutions.
For Sibelius, we’ll soon be releasing Sibelius 7.5, which marks a huge milestone for the team. After that, we’ll be looking into improvements to both Sibelius and the Scorch platform that are in line with the Avid Everywhere platform.
The Sibelius news is doubly relevant, as many engineers formerly working on that product were fired; some are now working for Steinberg on something new.
Version 7.5 will include new Timeline navigation, updated playback expression and notation interpretation, added collaboration and sharing, and integration with the iPad Scorch.
While it’s encouraging to hear product developments, it’s disappointing for the confidence in Avid that accounting delays still haven’t been resolved. These delays, irrespective of the validity of their cause, have some real repercussions. And Avid faces some serious challenges that are not directly due to the state of the industry, but to the state of the company’s own financial health.
They outline some of these problems in their own words, in the disclaimer statement that accompanies this week’s press release.
Those “risks and uncertainties” include:
…the effect on the Company’s sales, operations and financial performance resulting from: delays in Avid’s completion of its financial statements and the filing of its periodic reports; the delisting of its stock from the NASDAQ stock market and the Company’s ability to have its shares relisted on the NASDAQ stock market; the previously disclosed ongoing SEC and Department of Justice inquiries; pending litigation and possibility of further legal proceedings adverse to the Company resulting from the restatement or related matter; the costs associated with the restatement and the SEC and DOJ inquiries; the identified material weakness in Avid’s internal controls; recent changes in Avid’s management; recent changes in Avid’s external accountants; Avid’s ability to execute its strategic plan and meet customer needs…
This is usual legalese associated with any financial releases, but some of the details – such as the SEC and DOJ inquiries and litigation – are specific areas of concern. Avid needs to demonstrate both the organization of the business and their strategy for customers.
April and summer appear to be the timeframe when we’ll see if they can deliver.
Forbes’ Bobby Owsinski has a fairly black-and-white take. (Side note: he also notices something I noticed just reading things on Avid’s investor site – the stock, now over the counter, is seeing heavy trading and actually lifting in value.)
The Avid saga is just another example of a technology company in a small market that’s based around creative professionals. A company like this has no business being public in the first place as it’s growth will be capped by the market size sooner or later. A public company is more beholden to its stockholders than its customers, especially when things go bad, which is a bad recipe when it comes to the entertainment industry.
That may be, though it seems the time to make that judgment will be after we see how the next few months play out in Avid specifically. The headline is a bit over the top:
In fact, the NASDAQ delisting has absolutely zero immediate impact on the music and movie business. Long-term Avid health will certainly impact Avid customers, but so, too, will the direction the company takes and how the products – and competitive products – evolve.
Avid Investor Relations (including the video, which from reading the forums, eager readers have been watching in its entirety):
Pictured below is what happens when you try to use Pacemaker’s Spotify functionality on the iPad without an Internet connection. Tracks simply don’t play at all. Even though Spotify Premium users have offline access to their tracks when listening one at a time, you won’t be able to DJ that way any time soon.
Above, you’ll see that you can’t record mixes even with an Internet connection if you try to use a Spotify song.
But given how many small, boutique labels and independent artists rely on enthusiast DJs to care enough to download their records, it’s hard to see this as bad news. That enthusiast market has been a ray of hope for people who want music to have value – not even necessarily in a terribly-profitable monetary sense, but as a way of distinguishing the relationship you have to music you really care about.
And Pacemaker had to specifically license Spotify. Other DJ apps don’t yet support the functionality, and it’s unclear whether Spotify will open up to them, too if they do seek such a license.
Of course, for wedding and other party DJs wanting to quickly play requests, Pacemaker will still be a huge boon in venues that do have an Internet connection. And those are probably not tracks you really care about.
Oh, yeah – and as mobile Internet becomes more readily available, this app may still send chills down the spines of anyone working on recording music.
Pacemaker, with or without Spotify support, remains an elegant and beautifully-designed DJ app, and proof that there’s more than one way to provide DJ functionality. Just don’t expect this to be the last word in what happens to the download economy for DJs – more like the beginning of an even more vigorous debate. For more on the app itself, see our first hands-on: