Perfect Sound Forever 4: The Final Countdown
Most industries have some kind of Golden Age. A time when the stars align Just So and the cash flows like cheap white wine at a provincial Hen Do.In many cases, the boom is real while it lasts.The car industry got big because people were getting richer (remember when that was possible) and so wanted to buy a car, and then another. Hoovers are handy round the house, so that industry did well too. Features get added that make upgrading worthwhile. What, that new motor is faster, sexier, safer AND uses a lot less petrol? That hoover not only picks up fag ash but also dessicated cat sick and sawdust - and has a longer cord? Saturation and slowdown happens, but reasonably predictably. A real, evolving need is being satisfied and the punters are paying.Sadly for the music industry, their boom was less real than the smiles in a porn video. It was all a pipe dream from the past.The CD powered period was more than a golden age. It was a hurricane of drugs, sex, diamonds and all kinds of blingmagic. All the trouble of real independent labels and distributors, lower profit margins and often brain dead A and R policies based on buying dying talent rather than developing it were long gone by the 90s. Yet gangrene was already there.The majors never realised the CD cash castle was built on the back of the back catalogue.The big acts of the 60s, 70s and to a lesser extent the 80s had big, real fan bases to bleed. Whether you're talking Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Marvin Gaye or fucking Elton John these acts started small, got huge, got a deal and toured more than rich kids visiting Cancun. Forget the music and think business - this is a proven product tested to destruction, not just some faddy punt into the dark like Jessie J whose few Number 1s and Number 2s cost more blood and treasure to puff up than ancient Rome.It was love.You love the artist, and the album. You already had the LP, the tape and even better, a CD. But like any lover you want more, you want to relive the magic again and again until it can go no further.So they give it to you. A "remaster", which at the start tried to make up for the fact early CDs were often wack as fuck. Some were a step up. Then the next round just made stuff sound louder, more "modern" and MP3 ready. Then they got you again with tracks that didn't make the final cut first time for a reason got jammed back in - and maybe a live recording until then you'd be a criminal to have. What could be next? CD labels that looked like LPs. That Mono mix again. But the magic was gone. Nothing could replace the zombie acts, because at least they were real.In terms of the big new acts that could feed this back catalogue fuel tank, pickings started getting slim around the late 80s.Look at the consistently top grossing stadium filling and royalty earning acts of today, the most recent are the likes of U2, Bruce Springsteen, and whatever's left of The Rolling Stones. The the great artists of the 80s and 90s do a full album show from time to time for the cost of a weekend break. Nothing as big will come in their wake - long after todays top 40 tarts are doing greatest hits PAs for corporate xmas parties and turning tricks on the side, Metallica and Coldplay will be entertaining millions from their cybernetic wheelchairs.Even tragic Marillion are doing better than most acts from a decade or so ago - They earned it and so now coin it as they have a fucking FOUNDATION. The Kate Nashes and Jentinas of this world circle the drain of the cruise ship entertainment circuit - a fad imposed top down and could only drown in reality. A novelty and marketing driven machine decided what could and should be cool and made it from scratch, jamming down your ears. And even stopped bothering committing it to wax.If you ever wonder how and why when you hit the early 90s a lot of vinyl gets rare and expensive, even for big records and acts, its because revolutions take time. 1983 was just the start of the silver worm's progress. By 1990 LPs were for poorer countries and collectors. If you remember my rants about the reissue game rights to press records from massive stables like EMI were given away rather than sold. If you were putting out a new record, wax was barely a "nice to have" - it was a hassle.Meanwhile as the party wagon got going for the Majors, Moore's Law had long since turned what was a premium bit of HiFi kit into a plastic punch line. Moore's Law means that the silicon chips that power everything get twice as powerful and/or smaller and cheaper every 18 months. Cheaper usually wins. In 2013 we've reached the end of that boom too, for good and ill. Your next iPhone will only be 30% faster than the one you got two years ago, but Peak Tech is a story for another time.In 1983, a good CD player cost as much as an almost passable used car. By the end of the decade, good was rare and decent was barely ever seen.I smelt it happening.My Dad's first CD player, and he was late to the party so kept vinyl until the later 80s with Super Quartz controlled automatic everything with built in cleaning brush Denon direct drive turntables, was a bulletproof Discman. You could have dug through rock with the tiny thing that somehow had more magic tech than seemed possible. Super smooth servo to spin the disc, a laser probably borrowed from NASA and gold plated jacks plugged into a lovely DAC.I was jealous.When I hit my early teens a bit of plastic pony poo was stuck to the top of my latest boombox that played CDs too. But somehow..they sounded distant and muddy. I held my nose and used the proper kit when I could. When the Discman was passed down to me it got used into the ground. It was great, but in my pocket from time to time it would skip.And when it stopped working much altogether, it was time to get another one. But Sony just offered cheap Chinese horrors by then - what to do? Panasonic offered a part metal machine with a new feature - an anti-skip buffer. Amazing. I could do jumping jacks with the fucking thing and its would never skip. How could this magic be? It read the CD a minute ahead and compressed the bastard into digital mush. It literally mashed the CD into an MP3 on the fly to make it more convenient. Until I learned about taste, that was that. Now I worship at the Dread temple of DAC and so should you too. Digital music may be a second choice, but music always deserves better than bad.So by the time the tills really starting ringing for the majors, the playback tech for this actually rather lovely format was almost universally trash. Sure, HiFi heads had some amazing kit to choose from, well built with smooth servos and gentle DACs. But sales of these could usually be counted on one hand. £100 or even less got the job done for most. Moore's law meant that DACs, the most sacred part of the mix, went from being exotic well designed translators of bits into bliss became too cheap and crap to even price - unless they were good, and the good ones still cost you a bit. And CDs sure always cost way too much.Before Napster, analysts said the majors needed to put out more product to hit more demographics, and make it £7.99 or less in premium packaging to delay the digital deluge. £100m 5 album deals to clapped out divas and £20m marketing campaigns to launch the Next Big Thang is a big, big risk (Hollywood is about to learn this too) compared to say 50 £2m five album deals with proven acts that appeal to different people. Most will bomb, but the risk is spread amongst proven product. The big boys were too busy counting the money to hear.One sound that was heard was the hissing of another bubble popping. Three things lanced the CD boil in 1999:An American college type called Shawn Fanning invented a file sharing programme to let his mates listen to his big ass CD collection.The Top 40 radio format conquered all around the world - a short, marketing driven playlist with barely 40 acts on it became all kids heard in most places - meaning that they never knew about other things they could dig. This cut off a lot of back catalogue interest, and meant only a handful of current acts got all the cheddar.And the latest crop of loud, barrel scraping remastas sold quite a bit less than before.You know what happened next.The naughty internet, which was just a small tip of the shiteberg, became a war zone against "pirates" in public, but in private a peace settlement was sought. The majors came within touching distance of cutting a deal with Napster that would have made it the official market research platform. Napsterites, including me, spent way, WAY more on CDs than what was normal. Under protest, all the majors except Sony wanted to sign up for a deal that would have got them more cash and market data than they've had since. Of course it didn't happen.A thousand other "pirates" took to the seas and a generation stopped buying records in a real sense. This killed everything from music videos that pimped the CDs no-one wanted anymore to HMV. CD players became something for old people and HiFi types. Computers stopped including them too. So what should you do?If you have a decent CD player, cherish it. If you don't have one, get one while you can. CDs are the best deal in music, and not just because your favourite record shop has the best for less. CDs are cheaper than downloads, and you can then convert them into anything. And ironically, the Man now doesn't want you to have them. Why? You own them. You can rip, mix and burn them. They actually fucking exist.Optical discs still are about 70% of all media sold in Europe. Mostly Now! 873 and a Buble Christmas with Sting, with a bit of high end on the side. Sort of like vodka and other drugs.You will miss discs when they are gone. Why? Because in the Cloud Streaming iRadio Playlist magic place you will have far less choice, less control and will not actually own anything. New artists will get too little cash and exposure to have careers. Zombie Dad Rock will stalk the land.Welcome to the future, unless you're smart enough to resist. And Destroy.