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The Music Buying Experience: RIP

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Record BuyersApril 20th was National Record Store Day and it got me to thinking "What happened?" In the '70s, '80s and part of the '90s, I joined the ranks of many others who regularly searched through isle after isle of bins full of treasures in search of a new gem to add to the collections of jewels that played upon turntable and stereo systems across the nation. My friends would do the same thing hundred of miles away but, we'd share what we found in regular phone calls and we would each soon own the coveted album. I would follow a particular artist, musician or even label to see what else they were doing that interested me. I have no idea how many albums I purchased that I had never even heard of prior to finding a name on a liner that indicated something good was about to fill my room with musical treasure. I rarely got burned. It was fun and was really the original music social network. Many long lasting friendships were built around the music and the discovery of new pieces of acoustic art.

Of course, those were the days we now refer to as "vintage." Vinyl was better in more ways than just fidelity. It was the marketing, the media and the jacket. The large 12 x 12 inch jacket allowed a lot of information to be presented that frankly, just won't fit onto the visible portion on the back of a CD. Digital downloads don't even have that! So, with the advent of the digital world, we lost an entire dimension to the music. We lost the ability to search out the music in a way that affordably allowed us to experience entire new worlds.

I would go to Peaches Records, Tower Records or another brick & mortar outlet without even an album in mind to purchase. I would go just to see what was new and maybe see what a particular guitar player was doing new. I'd frequently see the same faces in the same region of the store. We would talk about the music, the artists and the new albums. I would often leave with five or six albums that I would take home and audition one by one. Usually, the experience was awesome. There was fire in the music buying experience. Static and energy buzzed among the shrink wrapped sleeves in bin after bin after bin up and down isle after isle of vinyl. You don't see that excitement in any form of media sales today.

The evolution and development of the CD was digital and didn't have scratchy sound, was smaller and not only consumed less wall space but they weighed considerably less too. They were basically more practical in many ways. However, unless one took a microscope to the store to read what little was on the packaging (most was inside where it couldn't be read), there was no way to gain any relevent information that would entice you to buy an unheard of album -- especially at $15 per CD. The new media cost more than LPs did making the fortune cookie buying "take a chance and see what you get" experience too costly. The new format also lacked the ability to glean the information one needed to search out other avenues and projects. The critical element enabling the treasure chest search was lost. The maps were destroyed.

Without even realizing what they were doing, the record industry shot themselves in the foot with a cannon! They killed the entire music buying experience entirely. Nobody buys CDs or downloads today with the enthusiasm that they did LPs. The entire experience, atmosphere and attudes no longer even exists today. The continued falling sales numbers easily confirm that. There is no profit for the labels and even the artists are not seeing the rewards of their efforts that they did during the vinyl era. Something very bad happened with the advent of a better format of media. The operation was successful but, the patient died.

While there is still some vinyl being released, the experience of going through literally tens of thousands of albums in one giant record emporium is history. Meeting people in a record store that you could relate to because they were searching the same artist as you, was also lost. The joy, social aspect and gratification were all killed in one slow blow. Lost as the Drive-in movies was the loss of the music experience.

Today, everybody is trying to figure out how to get that back. There is good reason. That experience sold a LOT of music. More than has ever happened since. It isn't happening today. The industry has been trying to find the foot lost to the cannon for over a decade and the pieces are not to be found. They have literally tried everything they can think of to bring back the magic of the social interaction of buying music. Facebook, MySpace, Reverbnation, Twitter, Google+, ... ad naseum. Nothing is working like the big box record stores of yesterday did. Maybe part of the problem is that Facebook friends are virtual friends. They aren't real friends at all. A Facebook friend doesn't come over to your home to hear your latest golden nugget. The experience isn't there.

Part of the problem is that portability has taken the place of quality listening. Hearing your LPs on a vintage stereo system playing through large speakers that didn't have to strain to reproduce sound has been replaced by the low quality MP3 iPod and ear buds. The listening experience is as different as night and day. The old way was different. It was the difference between a big block V8 muscle car engine thundering at a light versus a 4 cylinder "they all look the same" import. Sitting in each is a totally different experience. One creates adrenaline and the other passes the time. One is a rush and the other is well, not even memorable. I know. I've had both in audio systems and in cars.

Vintage stereos were a whole world better than today's modern electronics. They were built better, stronger and more powerful than anything in consumer electronics today. Basically, they sounded a whole lot better and there was a reason. Watts were real watts! When the big-boy amps and receivers came out in the early '70s with 100 or 200 watts per channel and frequently even more, those were real watts! A 100 watt per channel stereo receiver pulled a lot more than 200 watts (2 x 100) out of the wall because the power was real power. Today's home theatre systems are designed for watching movies -- not listening to music. This is why a 5 x 100 watt receiver today doesn't even pull 400 watts out of the wall. Somehow watts got measured differently and, they certainly sound different too.

So, how do we get back to creating a social, participating, enjoyable and profitable music buying experience? Social networking may tell the network what an artist is doing, where they will be performing and what project they are working on but, does that effort have a financial return on the investment (time and money)? In most cases, not what one would desire. Besides, the buyer isn't an active participant in the buying experience. They are an audience of the gossip experience. There is no profit in gossip.

Can music be packaged to create the experience again? Probably not in a small or virtual format. With today's high speed internet and portable devices like smart phones and tablets, there isn't even a reason to "own" the music anymore. It's already all over the Internet on Internet stations, YouTube and other places. You want to hear a song, just find it and stream it -- sometimes even off the artist's own page. Free doesn't pay artists, musicians, producers, labels, promoters, etc. There is no buying exprience either.

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