Formats, Fetishes & The Future:
How Is Your Music Being Distributed?
1. Where are We Now?
2019 was a pretty incredible year for radio DJs when it comes to the ways in which you could receive audio submissions. In fact, in 1998 – when I first began in radio – submissions were limited to tapes, CDs, & records, and the average artist was rarely going to have access to making their own CDs or records without having to shell out quite a bit of money to get them. In short: while it was possible, I only ever received DIY submissions on cassette in 1998, for better or for worse.
And, since 1998, I’ve lived through the “death” of several of these formats, as reported –repeatedly – by a number of press outlets. While the LP was already sort of dead when I started in radio, over 70% of my shows were from records then, and I continue to play a tremendous amount to this day, at which point the vinyl record is now declared “alive” again. LPs, cassettes, and CDs have all been declared dead in the last 20+ years, and yet I kept getting submissions from artists on these dead formats, who are clearly unaware of this unusual situation, and kept making art anyway, in spite of what they might have “heard.”
Even after tapes and records were “dead,” nearly every big label kept releasing them, which made the news about these “deaths” even more puzzling. I would be spinning a CD of a new album as an DJ on another station is citing a news story about the death of that format, and using that same song to announce it. “Death” announcements continue to happen, too; Sound Opinions reports each format death as if it were a celebrity who passed, despite the obscene number of new albums all coming out in that exact way.
Last year alone, I received audio art content from a wide number of people on the following formats: microcassette, cassette, pro-duped cassette, 8-track, CDr (5”, 3”), pro-duped CD, vinyl (12”, 10”, 7”), lathe-cut records (10”, 8”, 7”), digital (both as links and as paper codes, from any number of labels), postcard / zines (w/ codes on / in them), and even a cassette that I had to assemble myself in order to listen to it. (The audio tape was shoved inside of a cassette shell, with no leaders, either, thank you very much, endometrium cuntplow.) I have often dared artists to submit something in a format I can’t play, and so far, I’ve been lucky not to have to admit defeat. (I do have two 16” transcription discs that I cannot play anymore, but now that I got a new turntable that can play 16 RPM releases, I think I can finally listen to that Earth record. And I used to be able to listen to transcription discs… but that’s another story.)
My point, which I am so indirectly getting around to, is that the nonsense about format – alive or dead – is, again, mis-reported and full of inaccuracies, because one does not have to look far to find that, among every artist working on their own to create audio work, any format, dead or alive, can be perfect for the right project. And yet, even though every artist has to make the choice as to the exact means through which we will receive their work, it is surprising who thoughtless most artists can be with the most crucial aspect of transmitting the idea within the art to the audience you are trying to reach.
2. History Lesson
200 years ago, the idea of collecting music was limited to a single format: sheet music. The format is so antiquated that very few artists sell their music in this form on their own; if there is sheet music available now, this is usually in a specialty story, manufactured by a third party. And that was the case 200 years ago, too. Entire businesses had already been around for ages, and the most current, popular songs would be available at specialty shops, where you could take the music home, read it, and perform it on the instrument of your choice, most commonly a piano. The barrier to entry for music enthusiasts was quite high: you had to know how to play something, you had to love music, and you had to have the funds to afford an instrument AND the lessons to have learned how to play it. (Or, the leisure time available to learn it.) Then, you had to shell out for the sheets. (Assuming you could even read, which was not a guarantee in 1820.) Not a lot of choice, if you are an artist wanting to get your music out there. You can hope you become famous, and that someone what’s to make sheet music of your tune. Or you can try to make and sell your own, which had many financial barriers.
By 1920 – only 100 years ago – the shellac 10” disc record (the precursor to the modern vinyl record) was the most popular format, and sheet music was largely for nerds & concert performers. (Initially, the wax cylinder, first available in 1896, was THE format of the early 1900s, in that it was the only one, and made by Edison, lending it a mark of quality that consumers were familiar with. But when a number of companies all began making discs in the early 1900s, and consumers began wanting the discs more than the cylinders, the format “wars” began… and were essentially over by 1920. You could still get cylinders, and certainly many people never modernized. But the disc was where it was at.) These discs were not only durable and easy to sell and market, but were cheaper to produce, and offered labels a chance to really promote new artists with a small investment. However, this didn’t leave much room for a DIY artist to release material, in either cylinder or disc format, as the means to release your own just didn’t exist in those days. Your own hope was to become well known enough for a label to want to make records of your music. Most likely, you performed locally at bars to your friends and enjoyed the free drinks afterwards.
It is tempting to jump ahead another hundred years, but what happens between 1920 and 2020 is a new kind of format war that develops at a very accelerated rate. Due to a number of technological developments as a result of WWII, open reel tape recording was developed, and became available to the very rich by the late 1940s, but often only used in expensive home studios, or by rich hobbyists. In 1963, the modern audio cassette is introduced to the public, and for the first time, people at home have access to recording sound on their own, and replaying it for the future. One could get still get sheet music, cylinders, discs and reels made if they were rich enough, as was the case in the past. But you only had to be middle class to afford a cassette recorder in the 60’s, and this was the major difference.
This revolution in home recording is not only incredible, but with each passing year, got cheaper. The home cassette tape-trading network of DIY artists can only truly begin in the mid-60’s, and only because there exists a format the DIY artist can afford.
At first, labels were more than happy to have two different versions of an album, to capture different markets. And this idea was accentuated with the introduction of the 8-Track. But by the early 80’s there is already a wariness toward the notion that artists continue to re-release their material in different formats, and in 1982, when the Compact Disc, or CD, finally rears its head, a true format war begins. Vinyl and cassette – both analog – could coexist to some degree as different faces of the same idea, even if they were truly for different kinds of music fans. But CDs offered a new kind of sound, through digital reproduction, and this technology was both exciting and scary to audiences. You either loved them or hated them, and it was a very divisive format for artists, labels, and fans for years.
Initially, only labels could make discs. It didn’t really become attractive at all to DIY artists until 1996, the first year that home CD burners cost less than a grand. It wasn’t much later that CD-rs began to become a reasonable option to people, and suddenly the digital stigma began to drop away. By the year 2000, a CD burner was standard in every home computer. It wouldn’t be much longer before the CD as a format is declared “dead,” though, ironically, it is just getting started for the underground.
In the ‘90’s, not only are home-burned CD-rs a reality, but a new innovation is taking the world by storm: the .mp3 file. As audio becomes easy to manipulate on a computer, so do new kinds of artists, who are looking to distribute their work on diskettes and the early Internet. What seemed preposterous in 1994 when I first encountered “downloadable music” is now an expectation for nearly all artists working at any level.
Unlike most formats, digital file downloads were almost exclusively the domain of the DIY artist at first. Labels were, and to a degree still are, afraid of the power that digital distribution offers the music fan.
Certainly the story is a little more nuanced than what I’ve offered. (Oh yeah, the 3” CD is in there, somewhere, too, which becomes the format of choice for experimental artists.) But the point is this: between 1920 and 2020, not only are new formats being developed, but the consumer arguments regarding the death of, and the usefulness of, these various means of music distribution puts us in a curious place, here, in 2020. Nostalgia, retro enthusiasm, the ease with which it is to find and repurpose old devices and media, combined with having easy ordering and distribution through the resources we have available online, has created a very interesting change to us, culturally, in only the last 100 years: where it was once a rich person’s pastime to listen to, engage with, and even make your own music, now the technology is so cheap, and the distribution methods are easily accessible, that the barrier to entry is almost entirely removed, and we can make art in almost any format we want.
All that is left is: do you want to make music? And, if so, how do you want to make it?
– Austin Rich