analysis

This Movie Clip Sums Up the SFX-Beatport Vision of the Future of Dance Music

Synergy.

That’s the direction you can expect from Beatport and SFX Entertainment. And the speech above from the film In Good Company more or less fits. (The plot of that 2004 movie even includes an acquisition by a conglomerate.)

Basically, SFX may have solved the problem of how to make money in the streaming business – by making its money elsewhere. Or, it seems that’s the plan.

Here’s the problem: music streaming has razor-thin margins versus sales. The artists and labels eek out fairly small bits of change, generally. They can blame the streaming services, but with those services having to pay off server bills, development, support, and all the royalties for the music themselves, there’s not much left in the way of profit in their end, either.

Enter SFX Entertainment, the media conglomerate that bought out Beatport. As reported by sources at the Wall Street Journal, SFX’s Beatport will in 2015 launch a free, ad-support streaming service. The paid service as you know it – recently redesigned as Beatport Pro – will apparently live on with the Pro name. (You can also read the details at DJ Tech Tools, since the WSJ is behind a paywall.)

So, what does this have to do with synergy? Everything.

SFX describes their own business as the “end-to-end” experience of dance music.

Let’s review. First, there are SFX’s recent acquisitions, each going to Beatport:

There’s Listn, the music history / sharing service, which Beatport just acquired. Of all of the stuff in the SFX empire, this is the most interesting – it share what you’re listening to across service with your friends. Unfortunately, for those of you on the long tail of music, it gets sort of less interesting after the acquisition – because then the founders start talking about streaming exclusivity, and we’re back to big label deals again.

Hostess.fm tells you what DJs are playing at clubs, though – right now they’re pretty scattered, and podcasts/radio shows are mixed in with clubs.

But the bigger picture is really to do with SFX. You can watch it in a film with lots of fits pumping, DJs in front of massive festival crowds, and tanned raver ladies baring skin, and … hexagons. So many hexagons. (It looks a bit like the film you watched at the local cineplex in the 90s that told you to buy popcorn and Coke and turn off your pagers and rent the theater for your next corporate event.)

About SFX Entertainment

The tagline: SFX is “a global platform for Electronic Music Culture.” And by culture, we’re talking the ‘c’ word – content. Namely, content integration:

We view EMC as a global generational movement driven by a rapidly developing community of avid followers among the millennial generation. Our mission is to enable this movement by providing our fans with the best possible live experiences, music discovery, online content and connectivity with other fans and events.

If it seems like all of this comes from a corporate boardroom with its DNA derived from a combination of media giant like Clear Channel and Ticketmaster and financial giants like Goldman Sachs, that’s because … it did.

But that’s not so important as the combination of services:

1. The biggest festivals. Tomorrowland, Sensation, Awakenings, Electric Zoo, and so on. And the world’s biggest paint party, too.
2. Clubs, promoters, bookers. Not just Miami – big booking outfits are consolidated internationally, particularly in North and South America.
3. Agencies. Digital integration from the mobile app to the visuals onstage are handled by

Beatport is important, too. Instead of DJs being the customers, suddenly millions of casual listeners are. It’s the millions of people surfing Beatport just to hear the songs – and the millions more who don’t know Beatport but do attend SFX festivals.

But that’s critical. Because I think if you’re a label or artist who doesn’t appeal to that festival crowd, the question is whether your output is now marginal to Beatport’s business model.

Now, if someone from Beatport would like to argue otherwise, I’d be glad to hear it. But to me, even iTunes or Amazon or Spotify benefits more from the long tail because they aren’t also booking the artists whose downloads they’re selling, or trying to assemble music that appeals to particular advertisers.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s too soon too judge, really. We have to see which labels are included in streaming, and whether Beatport Pro is disrupted by the addition of streaming.

Also, it’s unfair, perhaps, to blame the shift to streaming on Beatport. Labels and producers in general, as I’ve written before, have cause for concern as far as the DJ market for downloads, now that streaming is already a feature of DJ apps (look at Spotify in Algoriddim djay).

But from a business perspective, the questions are these:

1. Will labels and artists outside the SFX festival economy remain important to Beatport, or will they be eclipsed? (Indeed, will the buyers and streamers on Beatport start to self-select based on that economy, if this SFX synergy becomes successful?)
2. Will people buying festival tickets at SFX events want to listen to streaming music with ads?
3. Will those people listening make a lucrative advertising market? (It didn’t work for Spotify, but SFX has an ace in the hole – a more targeted audience of young people brands will want, the folks at the festivals. And then they have an agency to sell to them…
4. Will any of those people buy downloads – of music or Beatport sample packs?

I’ll be the first to say: I don’t know.

But for people making less-mainstream music, there’s a clear divide evolving. Will a company like SFX approach the long tail – figuring out what experimental music is played at an underground club, or selling an indie label – or will they just go after the big numbers at the top? Because right now, as far as the direction of SFX and looking at their businesses, I’d bet on the latter.

Meanwhile, if you’re afraid that this means dance music isn’t “underground” any more, its CEO wants you to know, “If you or anyone can ever find an example of someone from SFX telling them how much to charge for a bottle of Cristal at LIV, I’ll give you my shares of SFX.”

Phew. Because you know the underground is safe so long the Cristal bottle service doesn’t have to answer to middle management. (How someone at SFX hasn’t edited this off Wikipedia, I’m not sure, but there it is!)

This guy – I don’t know your name. Are you psyched?

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For Apple, Music Making is For Everybody: New Holiday Ad

We face a challenge in the music technology community. Underlined by a century in which music creation was the privilege of a few, in the studio world, and mass music was about records and radio, people might claim music making is niche. It’s the domain of specialists, techies – a weird overlap of superstars and nerds.

But some of us believe that musical expression as as essential as singing, and the tools matter just as much.

You don’t see much music technology in Apple’s latest ad. I think it might be a new record or near-record for the absence of screen time for Apple’s products. But what you do see is unquestionably creation, not consumption. There are subtle hints to every aspect of musical practice – guitar songbooks, multitrack recording, sharing.

And the video, a follow-up to last year’s Creative Arts Emmy winner, goes beyond the technology. It’s about why we make music – reaching other people.

It’s meaningful that a multibillion-dollar company would see making music as a core part of its mission, as the essential value to some of the most successful consumer products in history. Recently, I noted via Twitter that Apple’s own Logic Pro climbs to the top of the paid charts on their App Store – notable not so much because it’s an Apple product as it’s a music product.

Apple’s holiday campaign links to a variety of music app, a nice Christmas present for the developers featured. They show GarageBand, of course, but also include Propellerhead’s innovative Take vocal app, a tool that remembers that, for many people, music is about singing or playing an instrument and not just editing beats on a timeline. There’s also a beautiful app called Chord! that presents scales and chords in a gorgeous, luxurious format. And there’s the fun Sing!Karaoke from Smule, the rare superstar breakout developer that found a way to take music technology prowess and bring it to a mass market.

Now, whether or not you own a single Apple product, there’s a lesson here, about how important music is to one of the world’s biggest companies – and, much more importantly, how to tell the story about what music is to the general public. It’s a reason for the season.

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People Will Come: There’s Already a Free Sample Editor for volca sample

Getting “open” still scares many music manufacturers. Maybe they should double-check those fears.

See, if you add simple jacks (MIDI, audio), if you add driver-less operation (via USB and the like), let alone if you design simple APIs or create open source interfaces, you open the door to people making things that work with your creation, for free. They have to want to be there – but we make music. We love music gadgets. If your gadget is worth using in the first place, it’s worth opening up to other things.

You know. “If you build it … people will come.” The one constant is baseb– um, music, sorry.

At least, the magic is working for KORG. Just days – seriously, days – after getting hold of an open API for the KORG volca sample, there’s a cross-platform sample loading tool for this inexpensive sound gizmo. The volca sample is barely even shipping yet, and someone has created a free utility that works with it for free.

That’s no minor development, either, because one thing that has held at least some readers back from buying a volca sample is that it requires a KORG iPhone/iPod touch utility for loading samples. KORG’s app is cute and clever, but maybe you don’t have an iPhone – or don’t want to be dependent on one.

The Caustic Editor runs on Android. It runs on Mac OS X. It runs on Linux and Windows.

On iOS, it performs tricks even the stock KORG app can’t – like functionality with Audiobus, meaning you can open up sound design possibilities with other iOS apps.

Otherwise, it’s able to do everything you would need to do with samples on the volca sample because KORG wrote a simple SDK that makes it so. (And, honestly, KORG didn’t do that much – they released a simple library for handling samples covering just the basics.)

WAV

The development cost on KORG’s part for open sourcing this library appears reasonably minor (especially with this payoff). Support costs are harder to predict. It’s possible users will grab this utility, ignore all the disclaimers, and call up KORG technical support when they have trouble instead of the developer. On the other hand, it’s also possible that this app will generate new sales – and all sales have some support cost associated with them.

Not everyone is KORG. There’s unique passion for the volca range, because they’re so desirable to begin with. But if you’re not in the business of making a desirable product, you have other problems, anyway.

So, speaking as a sometimes-manufacturer here, we have a choice. We can ask ourselves, What Would Kevin Costner Do?

And while I’m still waiting to get a volca sample to even review, if you’ve got one, or were waiting for a cross-platform utility with sample loading, your prayers have been answered. Here’s what Caustic Editor does:

List

- Record your own samples using your device’s built-in microphone.
– Load any uncompressed, mono or stereo WAV, at any sampling rate or bit depth.
– Apply any of 16 of Caustic’s effects and preview them in real-time, then stamp down and apply more.
– Process waveform audio with Fade In/Out, Normalize, Amplify, Reverse, etc.
– Use Caustic’s C-SFXR to generate retro video game sounds.
– Trim audio precisely, down to individual samples.
– View the frequency spectrum of your audio.

- iOS: Audiobus compatible (receiver)
– iOS: AudioShare compatible (import/export)
– iOS: AudioCopy/Paste compatible (import/export)
– iOS: iTunes file sharing support
– iOS: Open In… support for .wav files.

Volca Sample-specific features:
– Upload to any of the 100 sample slots and keep a database of your device’s state.
– Clear all samples
– Restore factory samples
– Monitor device memory

Caustic Editor for Volca Series “CEVS” [Download]

KORG volca sample [US Product Page]

Caustic is an excellent rack of instruments for both Android and iOS, also worth a look!

Previously: Meet KORG’s New Sample Sequencing volca – And its SDK for Sampling

Hat tip to the incredibly-fast Synthtopia for getting on this story first.

And yes, I’m making fun of myself with the Field of Dreams reference – but, come on, I get to point out when strategic open sourcing really does work.

Sync

XFer

The post People Will Come: There’s Already a Free Sample Editor for volca sample appeared first on Create Digital Music.

SoundCloud Partners with Warner; What Does That Mean?

bowie

Since the summer (or earlier), you’ve been hearing that online streaming service SoundCloud would partner with big content makers. But noticeably absent was any official announcement of a label.

Well, a huge chunk of that picture just came together. SoundCloud and Warner Music Group today announced that they had inked a new partnership. The WMG announcement is huge – the global music conglomerate is just shy of 42% of worldwide market share. They’re the major among majors, the biggest US label, and the biggest publisher.

Oddly, many in the press jumped the gun on this announcement, claiming Warner had made a deal with SoundCloud before it evidently actually happened. But this is that deal, and it has big implications.

And if you think you don’t listen to Warner Music Group releases, you either have extraordinarily obscure tastes, or you’re just wrong. Their labels range from Nonesuch to Atlantic to Rhino, apart from things with “Warner” in them. (Full list below.) It even includes the Bowie record above – I know; it was the top hit on Rhino’s site today.

There were actually two announcements today. We knew as of summer that SoundCloud planned a subscription service not only for people uploading music, but those who just want to listen ad-free as advertisements start to appear on the service. But we only know now when that will happen – in the “first half of 2015.” Now, SoundCloud not only confirmed that subscription to CDM at the time, but also told us that they were investigating the ability for paid upload subscribers (like you, probably) to avoid ads. No additional information is available on that yet, but I don’t think there’s yet reason for panic – there just aren’t a lot of ads on the service yet to want to avoid.

So, what does this mean?

On_SoundCloud

For Warner and its artists (who I’m certain include some CDM readers), the answer is money – at least in some quantity. On SoundCloud‘s Premiere level, currently available only to select partners, offers money via advertising revenue for those who want to ad advertisements to their stream. It should also offer revenue via subscription services. There are a lot of unknowns here. To be successful, SoundCloud must find advertisers wanting to pay, listeners willing to listen, and by next year, subscribers willing to pay not to hear the ads.

What the deal offers for the moment is content – potentially, a lot of it.

It’s up to Warner to choose what content is available out of its catalog. SoundCloud tells CDM that Warner gets to choose which tracks are available, in exchange for revenue on the ad-supported free service as well as next year’s planned subscription service.

soundcloudscreen

Here’s the significant twist: if you’re a Warner-recorded artist or Warner/Chappell-published music author, you will get license fees out of the deal. And what’s unclear is what will happen to, say, DJs uploading music or remix artists. From a control standpoint, you might not want that content uploaded. On the other hand, SoundCloud is licensed, so all those plays would mean revenue. So while SoundCloud isn’t commenting on the terms, and this lies in the hands of Warner (and in Warner’s hands if you happen to be a Warner artist), we’ll see if this means a shift from uploads being taken down or blocked to having them left there, instead.

But I think the most significant information is this: read the full list of who Warner represents:

Asylum, Atlantic, Big Beat, East West, Elektra, Fueled by Ramen, Nonesuch, Parlophone, Reprise, Rhino, Roadrunner, Rykodisc, Sire, Warner Bros., Warner Classics, Warner Music Nashville, and Word, as well as Warner/Chappell Music

That’s a lot of music. And that means SoundCloud is now in the big league for the first time since its launch. Whether they can win in the big league, that’s another story – whether they’re another Spotify, or just another wannabe.

Warner Music Group and SoundCloud Announce Groundbreaking Partnership [WMG announcement]

Previously:
SoundCloud Explains Their New Plans to Us – And How Ads Will Work

Meet Those SoundCloud Premier Partners, Advertisers – And Look Back 5 Years Ago

The post SoundCloud Partners with Warner; What Does That Mean? appeared first on Create Digital Music.

Massive Traktor Kontrol S8 Controller is Here – Now Who’s it For?

The Kontrol S8 is now standards bearer for Native Instruments’ DJ line. It’s such big news, you might hear about it outside the world of DJ tech followers. You’ve likely seen it already – this may be the most-leaked, most-teased DJ product in history. But now that it’s fully revealed, the S8 is almost certain to fan the flames of an ongoing debate:

Just what is digital DJing, anyway?

First, we can at least work out what the S8 is. It’s an audio mixer with control surfaces on both sides. It’s hardware made specifically to sell software (or the other way around, if you like). As NI’s Maschine Studio has done for producers, it uses big, color screens on the hardware to keep your eyes on that controller rather than on your laptop. It has a hardware layout tailored to the functionality of Traktor – deck controls, browsing, Remix Decks. And it builds in an audio interface and 4-channel hardware audio mixer for connecting external gear – CDJs, turntables, synthesizers, whatever. You wouldn’t use the mixer without the computer, but at least it acknowledges you might get audio signal to and from the outside world.

There are two design decisions likely to generate discussion. Firstly, the S8 is big – really big. It’s 58.5 cm — that’s nearly two feet. (It joins various other popular controllers, notably Pioneer’s flagship DDJs, in the same territory.) The 5kg/11lb weight isn’t so bad, but the physical hulk means you need dedicated space in a DJ booth to play it, and transportation is a challenge. (EDM = America = trucks?) Secondly, it drops jog wheels and per-deck tempo controls in favor of touch strips and a master tempo control.

s8_touch

To people who aren’t armchair DJ controller critics, that last bit may not sound like the stuff of forum flame wars. Those folks, who I will dub in ethnographic terms as “normal people,” just read “Well, that’s a big heavy thing with lots of lights. And now something is something or other something else I’m bored.” Or, no, actually, they’re looking at pictures of cats, so never mind.

To the computer DJ, the new controllers are blasphemy for a simple reason: they cement the idea that you might not be manually beat-matching tracks. (Oh, the humanity!) To be fair, this isn’t just an idea espoused by random people on forums; some very famous DJs have said the same thing. The idea is, the essence of DJing, as received from the legacy of playing on two turntables, is manually adjusting the position of a record platter and its playback speed to match two tracks.

In the worst case version of this world view, automatic tempo sync is simply the work of Satan, the end of music, and the beginning of the end times. In the best case, it’s an automatic transmission in a car: sucking the fun out of driving, and not entirely effective.

There are some problems with this orthodoxy, however. Reducing turntablism to beat matching is more than a little simplistic. As early as the 70s, DJ technique, flourishing in places like the Bronx, had already expanded to breaks, remixes, beat juggling. By the 80s, it added drum machines and even more-involved turntable technique – backspins, punch phrases, stuff you actually can’t do on those hulking plastic controllers. Great turntablists play vinyl like a musical instrument, not just a mechanism for mixing tracks.

Perhaps, then, beat matching is fundamental, but it didn’t take long for pioneers to move on to new things – Kool Herc, Frankie Knuckles, Grandmaster Flash. Whether it succeeds or not, the Remix Decks in Traktor and other controllerist machinations have far more to do with DJ history than using a plastic disc to manually cue does.

And about those plastic discs. A controller simply isn’t a turntable. They’ve gotten better – not so long ago, a German manufacturer called Native Instruments was telling me how they had come up with something to do with magnets that made their Traktor controller better. (Ahem.) But they still aren’t as good as turntables: they lack the physical feedback and resistance that a full-sized turntable provides. Oh, and on a turntable, apart from digital control records, you can also play music encoded on vinyl discs, which you’ll conveniently find as a major means of distributing music online and in your local record store. There’s that.

And that brings us to the fundamental disconnect between the controversy over these large, multi-deck controllers and the real world of DJing.

Let’s not pull any punches. Right now, the single most popular DJ equipment used by pro DJs when walking into a club – the flagship of the digital DJ, if you will – is a USB stick.

Somehow, in the reality I live in (but apparently not large swaths of The Internets), clubs tend to have a mixer, a couple of CDJs, and a couple of turntables. Most people use the CDJs, because relying on them means your gig doesn’t go pear-shaped and a USB stick will get you going. Some people use vinyl. Some people plug into the mixer with their laptop, and either use the records for control vinyl (with Traktor or Serato, typically), or plug in their laptop and use a controller.

That last part is important, though. If you are using a laptop, you suddenly have extremely restricted space. The displays on the S8 look terrific, in that turning your head to the side to squint at your MacBook is a mood killer. But its girth is a problem. Even some very highly-paid DJs tend to a) need to work in small spaces in some clubs or b) like to bring their own mixer. And we’re talking men and women pulling in consistent five-figure fees.

There’s some role for the touring DJ with something like the S8 – but it makes some assumptions. That is, there is surely some intersection between the people who get gigs on big tables and people who don’t already own a mixer they want to use. It’s just that that crossover seems not huge.

Despite that, lots of these huge controllers are indeed selling, from Pioneer, Numark, and others. That raises the question of where they’re all going. Frankly, music manufacturers don’t really need to worry so much about that question, until someone calls their tech support line or returns the product to the store. (Hint: you don’t want either of those things to happen.) That’s not me being cynical: speaking as a part-time manufacturer, this is really what makes your job fun. You don’t know what people will do with what you make. It can be pleasantly surprising. If you did know, there would be no challenge. Like a combination between misguided time traveler and snake oil salesman, you’re literally selling tools for people to use in the future. (Native Instruments’ marketing slogan isn’t far off.)

And into that market comes the S8.

s8_top

s8_front

s8_back

On the size issue, even when the S8 first leaked, people were already predicting in comments a sort of Half S8 – they want the controller without the mixer in between. That seems more a smarter choice to me for NI than a jog wheel add-on predicted in comments by the editor of The Verge. (Let go! No more damned jog wheels! Jog wheels are awesome – in video editing! And… oddly, as a pitch wheel on the Roland SYSTEM-1, but that’s another story.)

If the S8 doesn’t easily fit into a club booth, it can still have some place – and not just collecting dust on the shelf of an orthodonist who had extra cash and decided he wanted to try DJing. (Though, Dr. Talbot, I will happily come give you a lesson, and I do routinely get comments on my teeth – thanks!)

This is a very, very capable single piece of hardware. Yes, it retails for US$1,299, so if you already have a mixer, you probably aren’t buying one. On the other hand, if you are playing gigs where you can request some table space, or if you’re looking for a single piece of kit to outfit a new studio or home studio, it’s certainly worth a look – and will be worth a proper review.

It also coexists nicely with other gear, if your mixer and audio interface are wanting an upgrade. It’s got Cirrus Logic converters, high-spec audio performance, connections for line outputs and a mic and turntables and four stereo channels.

s8_freeze

s8_capture

And about that controller. Sorry, please, start the flame wars, but to the jog wheels, good riddance. In their place, you get extensive controls for everything Traktor does. Traktor’s problem has been that the deep power of its decks, loop and remix capabilities, and effects are often obscured by a complex desktop UI. Here, as with Maschine, you can “play” those options like an instrument. The touch-sensitive knobs give you control over everything from the browser to decks to effects. The big display shows your music collection on the hardware so you don’t have to feel like you’re looking at a spreadsheet on your computer.

And, most interestingly, you can use Freeze and live capture to sample audio from music. The pads aren’t velocity-sensitive – that’s where you know this is Traktor and not Maschine – but finally you get the kinds of easy loop/sample capabilities of Traktor on the iPad with real tactile controls.

And that’s where I think we have a hint as to what the S8 might be. It’s a remix machine. It’s, weirdly, DJ hardware that could appeal to producers who also DJ.

The optimistic side of me hopes the S8 finds some traction doing just that. For people billed playing live gigs, someone, somewhere could play an interesting set on it. (I think it’s unrealistic to expect that and turntables and CDJs, as seen in NI’s proposed use cases on their product site, but the controller aspect remains interesting.) And it could find some happy homes in studios.

Here’s DJ TechTools with their hands-on — deservedly, as proponents of this particular brand of controllerist-centric DJing.

I’ve had only a few minutes here and there with the hardware, but I was impressed. It looks beautiful; it feels expensive. Whether or not want to take it home, you can at least respect what it is. Now, personally, if NI could just give us this in a size closer to the Maschine mk2, or even Maschine Studio, I’d be interested … more interested, indeed, than I would ever say I’ve been in a DJ controller. It might even win over some producers who haven’t gotten very deep into Traktor as producers. In the meantime, it remains something big and luggable and pricey, and tied exclusively to Traktor software, and also powerful – a flagship, and sized to match.

But while the flame wars rage, the S8 also represents something else. The vision of DJing is finally breaking apart from faking turntables on hardware. And that, I think, can only be a good thing. The reality is, syncing two tracks may not be the most important thing DJs do any more. And maybe, looking at all DJs have been over the years, it never really was.

It’s just that anyone hoping to compete as a DJ product in clubs will have to go up against the juggernaut that is — wait for it –

Sticking a USB stick into a CDJ.

But, hey. Competition is always, always good.

s8angle

Traktor Kontrol S8

By the way, I think NI really nailed the production-centric workflow of the S8 in that launch film. If you liked the music, don’t miss this Bandcamp compilation – some terrific artists here who just happened to get into the NI promo, via a great Berlin-based collective called Through My Speakers.

http://throughmyspeakers.bandcamp.com

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Vinyl’s Resurgence Thanks to Indie Stores, DJs – And It’s Growing

For years, pundits have wondered what physical form would accompany the ephemeral nothingness of digital downloads. Maybe it would be USB sticks, or t-shirts, or big coffee table books, or strange sculptural totems, or USB sticks shaped like cassette tapes.

Funny story. What if it turned out just to be the vinyl record? What if vinyl, reborn, really is what today’s digital music scene looks like in tangible form?

The counter-narrative, domain of the naysaying cynic, is that the vinyl record is an ill-conceived throwback, a punchline to the joke of valueless music. Vinyl as hipster parody, as Portlandia sketch, is perhaps best embodied by Urban Outfitters claiming recently it was the number one outlet for vinyl sales. That’s the record, surely, at its worst – chain-store pastiche, novelty nostalgia. (Adding insult to injury, Hot Topic ranks #2 in brick and mortar.) And it would lump vinyl alongside Lomography cameras, those plastic photographer toys whose fortunes of late have turned south – lovely as their light leaks are, the business model seemed unable to sustain growth.

Not so, says Billboard Magazine. In a more detailed breakdown of sales, Urban Outfitters tops physical outlets, but only because the market is so fragmented. The sales leader in the USA when you add in online retail is Amazon – and maybe no coincidence that the biggest vinyl seller is also one of the biggest music download stores. Amazon looks even bigger globally.

But the biggest winner of all is the independent record store. Musicians and DJs, not Millennial mallrats, are the driver, which could see the biggest growth coming from music stores.

Urban Outfitters Doesn’t Sell the Most Vinyl

And this confirms what seemed obvious to many of us. Vinyl records are an extension of, not a reaction to, today’s musical landscape. The same long tail that has been betrayed by the iTunes store, by U2 exclusives (hello, Bono icon for “Artists”), by Google’s major label favoritism, by lame streaming revenues, is served nicely by your corner record shop or a search for rare vinyl releases.

That is, we knew vinyl was growing – but even though it may represent a sliver of the record market, even though that growth is relative to, well, starting from near-death, it’s the independence of the format that’s encouraging. It’s survival in that niche.

Infographic: The LP is Back! | Statista
You will find more statistics at Statista

Despite the trend in so many retail channels to consolidation, record stores also fiercely independent. As reported in Billboard

“Independent retailers are still the backbone of vinyl’s growth, and they are still selling tons of it,” says one major label distribution executive. “Indies are driving the format’s growth and everyone else is picking up on what they do.”

Though oddly even Whole Foods is getting in on this (um, organic tomatoes and LPs for dinner?), the Guitar Center push seems the most realistic:

“Our plan is to build on our vinyl strategy in 2015 to really capitalize on the resurgence of vinyl — this is definitely an area of music that consumers are telling us they’re more and more interested in,” says Guitar Center’s vp of corporate affairs Christopher Bennett, who says the chain is also seeing an uptick in vinyl turntables as well.”We’re going to be offering a host of different vinyl record players as well in 2015 for the traditional music audiophile, and also for music producers and DJs.”

This, of course, has big implications for the independent producer. It says that the growth of DJing may well prove necessary to the survival of recording. It values, for better or for worse, those releases that can produce physical pressings. (For better: this may help stop the race-to-the-bottom, valueless tyranny of choice produced by overabundance. For worse: you can buy your way in, and if you can’t afford a pressing, you could be left out.)

It also puts the importance of the online transformation in a different place. In this version of the story, social media and hyper-specialization drive people to their local record shop to thumb through vinyl, rather than making those sales happen online.

It’s impossible to say just how long vinyl’s second run will last, though – these are lagging indicators, not leading indicators, necessarily. What it does seem to suggest, though, is that the enthusiast is increasingly the person on the production side of the equation. Your most dedicated fans may shop the same music stores you do. The “anyone can produce, anyone can be a DJ” phenomenon may produce more music, but is also produces more – and more enthusiastic – music consumers.

It’s painfully easy to overstate the importance of vinyl, too. The best article on the dark side of vinyl’s so-called renaissance recently came from Thomas Cox, for Attack Magazine.

Cox outlines the problems with vinyl. First, the numbers are skewed:

…a large proportion of vinyl sales come from things like audiophile reissues of classic albums, Record Store Day novelties and collectors’ editions, dance music has its own issues to deal with.

– and then there are the over-hyped limited edition runs, which serve largely to artificially inflate prices and distract from the use of vinyl as an actual mechanism for music distribution. This might be reasonable were it not for overabundance of the same music in all these forms. As Cox puts it: “We’re inundated with old music being re-released to make money, while new music is sold to as few people as possible to make the hype machine spin.”

We Need to Talk About Vinyl [Attack]

It’s worth reading Cox’s whole article. But as he argues for a meaningful vinyl market over these “gimmicks,” the latest Billboard findings are encouraging. Part of his thesis is that the gimmicky “rare” market online pulls people away from resellers. But healthy reseller numbers seem to suggest that the more organic market, the one actually listening to music on vinyl, is still not only surviving but growing.

To state the blindingly obvious, there’s no one panacea for musicians trying to make a living. This is doubly ironic in light of the constant industry fascination with the high point of the CD, given those grandest sales went to only a select few, leaving the average musician as financially challenged as ever.

But having some dominant physical form is hugely promising. It means there’s some object that can represent what a record is. It makes the musical album endure as social object, as people gather around those record events – you’ll see this next week in Amsterdam at Amsterdam Dance Event, even as DJing is dominated by Traktor and Serato and iPad and CDJ. They’ll be crate digging shoulder to shoulder; they’ll be attending events in which a label remains meaningful. And even if the future turns out to be those sculptural totems, well, we’ll look back and say the MP3 and streaming didn’t kill the album or annihilate the label. And I think that’s probably going to be a good thing.

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This Prototype Imagines DJ Controllers with Touch, Today – No iPad in Sight

While everyone has been pouring over leaks of Native Instruments’ new Traktor controller, few took notice that one enterprising engineer has made his own touchscreen prototype – an entirely DIY effort, from the guy who first took controllers to the market.

Kontrol-Dj, the decade-long, one-man engineering shop for DJs, over the summer quietly showed a custom solution for adding touchable displays to existing DJ controllers. There’s capacitive multi-touch support – out of the box, working with Image-Line’s Dekcadance software.

And for now, this little video is about the only DJ rig not involving an iPad or Android tablet that uses touch in this way. One thing you don’t see in the NI film about the Kontrol S8 is anyone touching the screen. It seems neither new Numark nor NI controllers yet incorporate touch.

Luis Serrano should know something about the history of DJ controllers: he invented the world’s first commercial offering, the KDJ-500. (The key word here is “commercial” – everything else was a DIY, one-off affair.) You’ll notice some familiar features even in that original model: jog wheels are combined with mixer controls. The arrangement and build would be perfectly desirable today, some 11 years later, for DJing, live music, or live visuals. (You’ll occasionally see someone ask around for one.)

If you bought this box in 2003, congratulations: you were way, way ahead of the curve.

If you bought this box in 2003, congratulations: you were way, way ahead of the curve.

Luis is now lead software engineer on Deckadance, Image-Line’s somewhat underrated, under-the-radar DJ app, and has made various other controllers (plus a mixer) over the years.

The touch solution here is compelling. Rather than use one control separate from the screen to control what’s on the screen, you touch the screen – and the waveform – directly. Ironically, Native Instruments has probably done more than anyone to popularise just that concept. Touch in Traktor DJ on the iPad is a revelation: suddenly, making and triggering loops and the like is stunningly intuitive. (Traktor is hardly alone, but I think deserves special mention because of its unique focus on touchable looping, etc.)

Now, obviously, tactile controls have appeal that touch can’t replace: knobs and faders work better in physical form than in virtual renditions, wheels need resistance, and so on. So you don’t see Luis using touch for the whole controller; instead, he integrates it with that hardware (including the jog wheels I love to hate so much).

Happily, iPad docks never caught on. We have seen controllers extend the iPad, so that’s one option – as Native Instruments like to show in their own solution. They even launched a promo video around the concept. The attendees aren’t staged: the crowd includes Berlin tech luminaries such as DJ Sarah Farina, Berlin Geekettes’ Jess Erickson, and the Through My Speakers crowd – plus a lot of NI employees. In other words, make whatever jokes you want about iPad DJs – this DJ crew can out-DJ plenty of aspiring DJs regardless of what tool they happen to be using.

I imagine in some weeks, as the NV ships from Numark and the S8 from NI, the iPad – augmented with controllers – will be the logical rival. It now offers several DJ apps with features similar to what you get on desktop, and touch is integrated directly with the program.

But that raises the question of why no one has worked out getting capacitive touch into custom hardware. Why haven’t we seen a touch-enabled CDJ? Why are we just now seeing screens (hardly new tech) in the controllers, but still no touch?

There would seem to be two remaining obstacles. One, simply, is cost. Add up the cost of those jog wheels (or pads), and faders, and pots, and even built-in mixers, and it may be that manufacturers can’t add touch within their cost targets. Only Apple and Samsung and Asus have the sort of supply chains that make touch screens cheap.

Another, trickier problem may be that touch itself isn’t always desirable. Add touch to a screen, and you open up the possibility of accidentally triggering tracks when you brush the display with your hand. That has also kept many DJs away from the iPad in high-pressure situations: capacitive touchscreens don’t like sweaty hands, and big audiences don’t like train wrecks.

Still, this seems to be an idea worth testing, not only in the DJ world but in future instruments, too. It’d be strange if all touch interfaces were left to Apple, when the iPad is very often not a perfect musical device. (Ask my iPad mini about that – it’s suddenly become unfriendly with WiFi networks since meeting iOS 8.)

So, whether the idea is ready for prime time or not, I’d keep an eye on experiments like this.

And, after all, Luis was ahead of his time last time.

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Apple’s One-Click Link to Remove Unwanted U2 from iTunes Marks a Textbook Marketing Fail

remove

Execution is everything.

Musical tastes are personal. And it seems that force-feeding people a new album from U2, unsolicited, doesn’t go over well. Apple giving away U2′s new Songs of Innocence is in itself not a bad thing. But there are two problems. One, the album is poorly reviewed – think Paul McCartney “Wonderful Christmastime” rather than Abbey Road. Two, because the album simply appeared in purchased music – and because iTunes (cleverly enough) displays what you’ve purchased from iCloud – it showed up in people’s collections when it didn’t belong.

So, we’ve learned something. This doesn’t work. And as always, you can’t really buy marketing. That is, sure, Aphex Twin rented a blimp, but in the end, they had more successful viral marketing because they let their fans choose to spread their new release. U2 tried to force that promotion, and even though Apple and U2 are loved by many people, the combination comes across as corporate and inauthentic.

Peter Cohen shouts at the Internet over this, but I think that’s because he’s in the unfortunate position of reading lots of tech blogs.

This isn’t a “self-indulgent, first world problem.” It’s a textbook case study in the difference in power between word-of-mouth and a poorly executed promotion.

I know lots in the music production community who were offended by the U2 move, too. And there’s a reason for that. Apple may be a big corporation, but they aren’t Coca-Cola. They’re Bic pens, or a Nikon camera, or a Gibson guitar – we use the product to make things. And they’re an RCA turntable or a pair of Sennheiser headphones, Technicolor film or a book printed by Penguin. We use the product to take in stuff we love, too. Apple’s marketing has lately been really cleverly sensitive to this (and has featured a lot of great music making apps, too). So the U2 record proved, like the release, to be a bit deaf.

There will be subtler cases of this. If YouTube or Spotify or SoundCloud tries to tell you what to like, if Facebook ultimately buries your friends under ads, it’s a problem, not because advertising can’t work, but because it can obscure the reasons to use those services. Heck, I even have to protect my own personal authenticity and CDM’s. So, yes, sometimes the reaction on the Internet overdoes the tone a bit. But filter out that tone and you’ll know what’s working and what isn’t.

And every PR person in music, every record label looking to promote a new release ought to pay attention to what has happened here. I will meanwhile enjoy scoring this Aphex Twin 1, U2 0.

And if that doesn’t say it all, this does:

https://itunes.com/soi-remove

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Apple Watch a Likely Target for Music Making Applications – Experimental and Otherwise

applewatch

Apple Watch could be the first in a new wave of wearable technology for musicians.

The idea isn’t new. We’ve seen various notions involving wearing extra controls for music. In fact, the whole category of alternative interfaces is deeply indebted to Michael Waisvisz, who helmed STEIM for many years and whose interface The Hands inspired generations of musical gloves and gestural interfaces. Guitarists have had various rings to wear; IK Multimedia is currently experimenting with rings that aid in gestural control of iOS.

Apple Watch may not become the accessory the iPad and iPhone have for music, but – partly due to the success of those platforms – it’s ripe for experimentation. And since I can already prepare Traktor sets with my iPhone and plug my guitar through an iPad, music companies already target iOS as an additional platform (atop Windows and Mac).

Those developers should see Apple Watch alongside the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch developer tools soon. Apple is promising that you’ll be able to use their wrist-born iOS gadget for notifications and information, with “fully native” apps (presumably iOS apps with a different screen size and hardware capabilities) “later next year.” So, figure notifications first, full apps later. Even the former will be useful, but putting those two categories together, imagine this:

Visual notifications while you play. BPM, cues in songs, uh… lyrics, if you’re especially bad at remembering them.

Remote controls. Transport controls and the like are a logical app. Think of a simple app with wireless Mackie Control for transport information.

Touch. The iPad and even iPhone offer larger touch surfaces, but you do get something out of the Watch. There’s reportedly pressure sensitivity, and “Taptic” provides haptic feedback. Now, you wouldn’t buy an Apple Watch for these features, but you can bet some developers will try hacking creative musical applications with them anyway. The new touch sensing tech could be something we see on iOS devices later, too.

Easy-access controls. Even the “Digital Crown” looks useful. Imagine a metronome on your wrist, turning this dial to change the tempo up and down precisely.

Wireless and Bluetooth provide a connection with your computer, so as with iPhone and iPad controllers, remote control is a likely application.

But I could see a KORG tuner or metronome on the Apple Watch, too, or an Ableton transport.

Copy and paste the above observations to Android-powered watches, or other wearable tech, too, of course, but there’s reason to wait for Apple to run this headline. I think the Apple Watch has a particular shot in that so far Android watches have been fairly disappointing in their design, and that iOS, unlike Android, has proven a viable platform for music developers to actually make money, reach customers, and find a single platform that’s easy to develop for and test. Even at companies that are giants of music tech, there simply aren’t big budgets for testing on a lot of different devices, and so critical mass has very logically shifted to iOS. (A reader called this a “monoculture” last week. Hardly – AAX, VST, AU, OS X, Windows, Linux, 32-bit and 64-bit and different OSes on top of embedded and DSP chips… this industry has enough platforms, so one mobile OS may be enough.)

Apple Watch is mostly a teaser at this point. We should know more as Watch Kit shows up in the developer tools. Apple’s increasingly liberal policy on developer NDAs should also mean we get to talk about it sooner.

Now, I’m very skeptical as I’m sure you are about whether I personally need such a thing – that’s $350 that could be spent on an entire synthesizer, which is more fun than a watch. (I like watches, the old-fashioned kind.) But I bring this up in part because I imagine the Apple Watch could serve as a platform for new ideas. It’s possible (and often desirable) to prototype synth hardware on the iPad. And the very presence of the Apple Watch on the market may reinvigorate a decades-old discussion about just what sorts of sensors and instruments you would want to wear. (McRorie, again, ahead of his time – the musical utilikilt may always beat the watch.)

And because many DIY solutions can be constructed for far less than $350, there’s no reason you can’t go off and make your own, non-Apple wrist-worn creation today. That’ll fill the time.

But whether it’s made by Apple or not, I’m fairly confident that the cultural impact of Apple’s creation is that wrists will go naked no more.

http://www.apple.com/watch/technology/

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SoundCloud Explains Their New Plans to Us – And How Ads Will Work

soundcloudstats

Money at SoundCloud has in the past flowed in one direction: you, the uploader, pay for premium plans, and SoundCloud gets the cash. Now, for the first time, money is going the other way – from the service to artists and labels.

In the process, that means one significant change: SoundCloud listeners will begin to hear ads.

It’s been interesting to watch the reaction – from people losing their minds over ads appearing on the service to more measured responses and genuine interest in the service “growing up” and adding income to become sustainable. This of course collides with worries about SoundCloud’s recent deals with major labels. But before we get into opinions about the changes, let’s first understand just what has changed for those of us who use the service.

SoundCloud is this week rolling out advertising, first to their invite-only premier partners – that is, producers like big labels (including giant Universal Music Group) that recently signed licensing deals. Later on, says SoundCloud, those those ads are also will be available as an option for all paid users who want to earn money from their content.

In addition to the advertising option, SoundCloud has also adjusted its plans. Here are the facts.

There are new plans, with new names – and more upload time.

At all levels, you get more upload time than before – even on the free plan. SoundCloud tells CDM:

Partner:
Entry to the Partner level is free. Partners get 3 hours of free upload time per account (up from 2), basic features and stats
Pro:
Pro Partners get more upload time per account (6hrs, up from 4), plus expanded features and stats that help them build and connect with their audience.
Premier (the new tier):
Premier Partners have the opportunity to make money on the platform by placing ads against their content, get unlimited storage, premium stats and account management support.
For now, access to the Premier level is by invitation only.
We’ll be rolling it out to more creators over time.

(No word yet on whether CDM, as the world’s single largest media source for people who care passionately about the connectivity of hamsters and control voltage, will be invited to be a premier partner. Seriously. We’re like the BBC World News of turning houseplants into synthesizers.)

Ad plays will get you paid, and more money goes to you than goes to SoundCloud.

While the rest of the Internet aches about this change, yes, ads could theoretically make you money. Now, I asked SoundCloud if they could tell us something about how they’re allotting revenues.

“Every time users see or hear an ad, artists get paid,” SoundCloud’s Alice Regester tells CDM. “We’re offering a sustainable business model that benefits SoundCloud and creators, with the majority share of revenue being paid out to Premier Partners.”

That is Premier Partners for now; SoundCloud tells us that the larger share of money will also go to you when ads become available to you later on.

Ads only impact the United States, at first. Ads will only target the US, and only be heard in the US. That makes some sense, as it’s the largest listening audience on the site. It seems a no-brainer that this will extend to other markets in the future if it’s a success.

What will the ads sound like? You’ll definitely hear them – think something along the lines of what you see on YouTube, only longer, and… you know, sound.

SoundCloud tells CDM, “audio ads will be occasional, skippable after 15 seconds, and up to 30 seconds long.”

You can opt out of ads on your content. Don’t want ads on your content? Like so many labels and producers, you use SoundCloud mainly to promote record sales (even on vinyl) and live gigs, and worry about making your money there? No problem – this is an opt-in service.

You’ll eventually be able to pay not to hear ads. For now, even if you pay for a subscription to SoundCloud, you’re going to start to hear ads on content, if you’re in the USA. For a lot of us who spend most of our time listening to small labels and independent artists (and, for those of us outside the United States), that won’t really be noticeable. But if you don’t like it, SoundCloud does confirm to CDM that eventually they plan to offer subscription opens for listeners who don’t want to hear ads, ever.

No details on that plan yet. SoundCloud calls it a “consumer” subscription and says it’ll be detailed in the “months to come.” That implies it won’t be bundled with uploader plans, but it’s early days yet, so probably too soon to make any assumptions.

Read up on the changes in the official announcement on the SoundCloud blog (penned by none other than founder Alex):
Introducing On SoundCloud, our new creator partner program

Analysis: this could be a win for uploaders in more ways than one.

The most significant concern I continue to hear from SoundCloud users – the DJs and producers who made the service the success it is – comes down to worries about their content being removed. EDM giant Kaskade is probably the best-known of these users. But SoundCloud has always faced a balancing act between licensing and users. Recent licensing deals with Universal Music Group may indeed allow them to directly flag content they believe they own. On the other hand, that’s better than issues like false positives, in which artists were surprised to see their own uploads incorrectly flagged.

The Kaskade story is telling. It’s not so much an indictment of SoundCloud as it is the way record deals are structured. The truth is, many labels today are likely to benefit from their artists uploading their music – especially because someone like Kaskade might have more followers and more engagement than his label. Some of this responsibility will lie with SoundCloud, in finding better ways to arbitrate communication between artists and labels and to channel legitimate copyright complaints (including disputes about removals). Some of it lies with labels, to work with online services and their contracts so that they maintain good relations with artists and everybody is able to promote the work they own. But just dumping on SoundCloud may miss the underlying point – and this could be one step further, even for those of us who aren’t on majors (and aren’t necessarily huge fans).

A lot of the worry about SoundCloud has centered on their new-found collaborations with big labels. But while the majors are getting the features first, there isn’t yet evidence that SoundCloud will favor majors – in the way that YouTube has. (You can read how distasteful I found Google’s tactics.)

Furthermore, a lot of this false positive business seemed to stem in part from automatic algorithms rooting out music that artists had legitimately uploaded. My advice: if you’re going to upload DJ mixes, upload them to MixCloud, which has a licensing structure better suited to that music. But SoundCloud still impresses as a service for producers’ original music. The player and upload features, the stats, the community and discovery features all remain unmatched for content makers. And it seems SoundCloud has an opportunity to roll out opt-in advertising options that some producers might like, in the way some YouTube uploaders have – and you can ignore them if you don’t want them.

While we’ll have to see, I wonder if the more formal relationship between SoundCloud and labels will stop the brute-force approaches to content takedown. That is, I would have the opposite reaction to the apocalyptic Cory Doctorow take. Now that SoundCloud has sorted its licensing deals with majors, it may mean they’re free to keep uploading their content, and the rest of us can share our own productions. The challenge for SoundCloud is the business challenge they’ve always faced: they have to keep the service useful enough to us that we keep paying for it. For now, that’s money I’m glad to spend.

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