analysis

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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Dark Shadows: Listen to Stroboscopic Artefacts’ Lucy Mix and Reflect on Music and Society

lucy

Here, in the season so many associate with sun and sand, the gothic factories of dark techno continue to clang away.

So, yes, the results may not be cheery. But the music defining this new generation of adventurous techno is uniquely focused on timbre. It is a soundscape set against the groove, not only about tweaking just the right high hat, but forging some terrain of sonic design, taking the listener on a journey to actually find something new. It makes landfall on undiscovered countries, rather than simply assembling an expected framework for the dancefloor.

It also carries with it some of the weight of social mindfulness.

And for lovers of sound, the trend can make fans of techno who weren’t before, and lift spirits. Dark, grimy – maybe. But sonic aficionados may find themselves grinning ear to ear.

The Italian-born artist Lucy and his label Stroboscopic Artefacts are right at the heart of the present scene. Lucy, making Berlin the home based for a whole lot of globe trotting, hails from a country that has seen hearts broken by Neo-Liberal dreams. But he also talks eloquently about what music can do, and makes some of his images political – the churches, schools, and guns he saw landing in Texas. Whether you agree with the societal technique, he also has constructive ideas for what might happen on the dance floor.

Zeitgeber, the combination of SpeedyJ and Lucy.

Zeitgeber, the combination of SpeedyJ and Lucy.

Apart from Lucy’s solo outings, Stroboscopic has quick become a hub for a lot of great artistic threads at the moment. Lucy paired with SpeedyJ to produce the collaboration Zeitgeber – the energy of these two artists produces something really special, like two weather systems colliding in the upper atmosphere; catching them at Berghain, the result was relentlessly electric. There’s great stuff from Kangding Ray. But SA is also highlighting new artists – Irish-born Eomac, who lit up Boiler Room last week with a live set and with whom CDM will be talking soon, as well as Sendai, are contributing to a beautifully-collaborated series of records this summer from SA.

Here’s Zeitgeber from Boiler Room:

Name-dropping is useless, though; listening is everything. The reason I think the names “Lucy” and “Stroboscopic Arfetacts” keep coming up is because they’re doing the best possible PR – actually reaching your ears with music.

So, rather than monologue, I will turn over your sound to Lucy himself.

He’s done a perfectly-mixed set for Electronic Beats this summer. Even the mix demonstrates Lucy’s penchant for even-keeled flow. (Yes, I fear badly-prepared mixes as much as you do, and there are sure a lot out there – mixes that inexplicably jump the tracks and fall off into a ditch, as if no one was expected to listen.)

And it shows how this zeitgeist crosses generations — there’s Ricardo Villalobos, but also Inigo Kennedy and so on.

Lucy, aka Luca Mortellaro, has been putting out some of the darkest and richest techno in Berlin for more than the past five years, blackening the already grim shadows thrown on the city’s various dancefloors. The Italian born DJ and producer has also been putting quite a bit of work into his own label Stroboscopic Artefacts, which he founded in 2009 and where he has already released two of his own LP’s—2011’s Wordplay for Working Bees and 2014’s Churches, Schools and Guns. No stranger to Electronic Beats, Lucy was recently featured as a guest reviewer in the current Summer Issue of EB Mag, where he gets analytical about Diamond Version’s corporate slogan-themed CI. In this exclusive EB Radio mix he keeps it moody with the likes of Regis, Rrose, Ancient Methods, Silent Servant, Donato Dozzy and more.

Tracklist:

Regis – Solution (Voice) [Downwards]
G!wikwe Man – Plays The Mouth Bow [Tristes Humanistes]
Eomac – Spectre [Killekill]
Inigo Kennedy – Birth [Token]
These Hidden Hands – Isopod (Ancient Methods Remix) [Hidden Hundred]
Shifted – Chrome, Canopy & Bursting Heart [Bed Of Nails]
Brendon Moeller – Guilty Pleasures [Prologue]
Rrose – Onceless [Stroboscopic Artefacts]
Abdulla Rashim – Red Uprise [Northern Electronics]
Jon Hopkins – Collider (Karenn Remix) [Domino]
Lucy & Silent Servant – Victors History [Mote Evolver]
Ricardo Villalobos – Das Leben Ist So Anders Ohne Dich [Perlon]
Efdemin – Some Kind Of Up And Down Yes [Dial]
Donato Dozzy – Sotto Ma Sotto [Stroboscopic Artefacts]

Also posted this month, there’s an extensive interview by Dub Monitor’s Inyahed Signalman, from Movement Detroit 2014, on the eve of an official Movement pre-party hosted by the excellent Electric Deluxe.

But there’s more to say about this. Whatever EB is saying about adding grime to shadows (that’s possible?), to many of us, some of these folks are really bright spots – and an inspiration, even when we leave the sunlight to subterranean studio time. I hope it’s the same for you. If you’ve got people in this crew you’d especially like us to talk to or things you’d especially like us to ask, ladies and gentlemen, do let us know.

http://www.stroboscopicartefacts.com/lucy.html

http://www.stroboscopicartefacts.com/

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Can a Pioneer Turntable Do What a Technics Turntable Couldn’t?

PLX-1000_large

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.

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Wu Tang Debuts Song in Hackable Form: New Track on Blend First

wu_advisory_album

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.

blend_newsfeed_homepage

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.”

Cappadonna’s track “Vegan” will also be on Blend:

More info on Blend:

https://blend.io

If you want to try this out for yourself – or put your own music on Blend – you can sign up for free, using our exclusive CDM VIP pass:

https://blend.io/vip/createdigitalmusic

The post Wu Tang Debuts Song in Hackable Form: New Track on Blend First appeared first on Create Digital Music.

Apple is Still Going Pro, from Hardware to Pro App Updates [Editorial]

logicmixing

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.

macbookpro

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.)

As always, caveat emptor – I’d skip, for instance, the low-end iMac Apple just unveiled, as you lose too much performance and capacity for the price savings.

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.

The post Apple is Still Going Pro, from Hardware to Pro App Updates [Editorial] appeared first on Create Digital Music.

In the Age of Beats and Spotify, Winners – and Opportunities

iphone-now-playing-spotify

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.

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.

Spotify

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 –

Drip

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.)

beatportpro

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.

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.

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.

beatsmusic_collage

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.

Radio 1′s playlist secrets uncovered: the battle of the ‘brands’

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.

The post In the Age of Beats and Spotify, Winners – and Opportunities appeared first on Create Digital Music.

Streaming DJ, Now a Thing: djay for iPad Adds Spotify, Automix, Could Turn Music Upside Down

Remember downloads? Remember CDs? Remember vinyl?

Add to that – streams.

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).

automix

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?

In the meantime, count this as at least one shoe.

https://www.algoriddim.com/spotify

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Moog’s Werkstatt for Moogfest is a Patchable Monosynth, Leaked in Image

werkstatt

Moog seems to have something special planned for Moogfest – na klar!

“Werkstatt” looks to be a kit synth the company has prepared for the event in Asheville, North Carolina later this week. As Synthtopia observes, the photo was revealed on the Instagram feed for the event – and appears to coincide with a three-hour assembly workshop with the engineers.

“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.

Bis bald!

PS – the Moogfest Instagram feed is full of awesome:
http://instagram.com/moogfest

The post Moog’s Werkstatt for Moogfest is a Patchable Monosynth, Leaked in Image appeared first on Create Digital Music.

Roland Could Make AIRA Sync Box; New Directions at Company

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.

RH301 – Rhythm Work Station / Utility Tool

And that itself demonstrates what the big players could do for the business. Far from competing directly with boutique makers, they may actually help widen the space for those products.

And who knows; some AIRA owners today may wind up modular buyers tomorrow.

The post Roland Could Make AIRA Sync Box; New Directions at Company appeared first on Create Digital Music.

Deep in Debt, Big Retailer Guitar Center May Be Acquired

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.

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.

The Beginning Of The End As Guitar Center To Be Acquired

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:

Guitar Center strums a new tune

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.

A Guitar Maker Aims to Stay Plugged In

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.

It’s worth revisiting the original acquisition of Guitar Center.

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.

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