Originally published in The Irish Times, April 15th 2011
IT’S BEEN a while since Jon Bon Jovi was described as anything close to a spokesman of a generation, but his recent denunciation of download culture resonated more vociferously than expected with music fans of a certain vintage.
You could argue that the rocker is being more than a little excitable with his dramatic statement that “Steve Jobs is personally responsible for killing the music business”, but in many ways he has a point. Although CDs remain the most popular format for music buyers, their value has been diminished by the convenience of MP3s, not to mention illegal downloads.
Nevertheless there are bands, companies and music fans still doing everything within their power to stay connected to the physical world.
Last week The Flaming Lips announced their plan to release several new songs on a USB key enclosed in an edible jelly mould in the shape of a skull, with frontman Wayne Coyne telling Billboard: “Everybody’s in the same quagmire now. How do you release music? What would be interesting? I’d just like to release music all the time and just put it out in all kinds of weird formats and not just collect it until we’re ready to put out every two years or so.”
The White Stripes released a slightly less wacky version of their album Icky Thump on collectible USB keys in 2007, oddball indie-pop band Of Montreal bundled download codes of Skeletal Lamping with items ranging from a paper lantern to wall decals, and Laura Marling made an event of her debut album by releasing it as a Song Box keepsake. Even Tinie Tempah appealed to his young demographic by releasing a version of his album as a collectible lanyard with a download code attached. Novelties? Perhaps, but it sure beats the throwaway nature of a computer file.
That’s what Nick Dangerfield was thinking when he came up with the Playbutton. He was running a small label in Tokyo several years ago when he realised there was a gap in the market for his innovative concept. A friend wearing an oversized badge – or button, as they’re known in the US – on their lapel triggered the idea.
“I said ‘you could almost fit a CD in there!’, and the idea went from there,” he says. “It’s a bit wacky, and it looks really primitive from the outside, but the inside is the high-tech part. It’s simple technology, but it has a rechargeable battery, and a player, and a chip, and an equaliser, and a number of little things. It marries the past – when people used to wear buttons to show their loyalty to a band – with the technology of today.”
The Barcelona-born, New York-based Dangerfield and his business partner, Victor Esther, began working on the Playbutton – essentially a flash drive loaded with a single album and embedded in a badge that has an earphone jack – and they started selling the products in January, having found a willing manufacturer in China that understood the concept. One of the company’s main objectives is to encourage the gifting of music, he says – iTunes vouchers don’t have the same resonance. But despite that, he’s under no illusions that Playbutton will transform the state of the music industry.
“I hope people will like it, but I never see it becoming anything that record labels will use as a regular format for releases – not at all. I think it belongs to the very limited editions and very special releases, to be sold at a handful of stores. But I would love if it created new dynamics in the purchasing of music.”
There have only been several releases on the Playbutton to date. The company acts as both a record label (having issued the debut album of New York band Bubbles) as well as a go-between for bands interested in having their album made in to a button. Dangerfield is also in the process of chasing down catalogue owners of bands such as The Smiths, with the aim of reissuing iconic albums as Playbuttons, which go for about $20.
“The button is so iconically rock’n’roll. It’s been there forever as an element of musical affiliation,” he says. “Perhaps it’s good, in a way, that there’s been this wave of piracy, for the music industry to react a bit and raise the bar in what they offer – make more beautiful products that people actually want to own. With CDs, we were just making these jewel box cases with a little flimsy booklet inside. There wasn’t a lot of effort in the presentation.”
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are perhaps the most recognisable band in the Playbutton company’s catalogue, having had their second album, Belong, released on the format.
“It’s a really good idea,” says singer Kip Berman. “There’s so many attempts these days to recreate a bygone era, with people reissuing music on tape or whatever. There’s this fundamentalist view of things being better back then, and that everything became corrupted. And I think that’s a dangerous attitude to take towards music. You should always respect the past, but at the same time you should be thinking up new ways of expression and creativity.
“The Playbutton idea is a wonderful way of taking a physical thing that’s readily identifiable with music, and totally transforming the context in which it’s understood by using it as an MP3 player. I had a couple of Playbuttons on me at SXSW last month, and rather than just pointing people to a place to download it, or say it’s on iTunes, I could just hand people this button. And there was something wonderful about that physical interaction with people, being able to actually hand them something.”
The button’s lack of a shuffle switch also means that a band’s painstaking tracklisting won’t be in vain. “We like the sense of craft that bands put into making an album, and the difference between making an album and a singles collection is really important to a band like ours. So the fact that people will get to listen to the album in its entirety is important.”
Nobody is more aware of the shift towards downloads than the major labels. Although the CD remains king at the moment, the industry’s scramble to combat illegal downloading is relentless. Despite the bleak forecast, Pete Murphy, head of press and promotions at EMI Ireland, remains positive about the future.
“There is a whole generation who have grown up believing that music is free, and it’s going to be very hard to rein them back in,” he says. “But if you start to appeal to the next generation, whether it’s a lanyard or a USB key – just try to direct them towards legal downloads and actually paying for stuff again – that’s what the industry needs to develop over time.
“Ultimately, if products like the Playbutton drive people towards retail outlets, it’s a good thing. There’s going to be a lot of different, transient formats that will come and go very quickly – but anything that keeps people buying music has to be a good thing.”
The anomalous rise of the popularity of vinyl in recent years also surprised Murphy, who himself is an avid collector of both CD and vinyl. Indeed, Dublin’s Tower Records has expanded its vinyl section in recent times to reflect its renaissance.
“You see a rise in download culture, but I’m amazed that there’s a rise in vinyl culture again. It means people actually have to buy a turntable – a new piece of equipment that wouldn’t necessarily be in the house. It seems that young people are investing in music again. Someone gave me a copy of Screamadelica on vinyl the other day, and it’s such an impressive package. It’s so different to getting a CD, and certainly so much different to getting a download. You have something tangible in your hand. You really feel like you own the music.”
Making music collectable has never been so crucial to the faltering retail sector. The past 12 months have seen many of Ireland’s independent shops close, but a glimmer of hope remains among the remaining retailers.
“We’re seeing more and more albums and singles coming out on different formats,” says Gennaro Castaldo of HMV. “Partly this is because artists and their labels are becoming more imaginative in how they seek to connect with fans, but it’s mainly because rapid changes to digital technology are making it increasingly possible.
“Ultimately it’s always going to be about novelty and niche – designed mainly to attract press or social media coverage to help a release stand out – and the vast majority of releases will remain on CD and digital formats. But it will be interesting to see what new ideas the tech boffins come up with. A few years back, HMV stores exclusively stocked the first single to come out on a USB memory stick – by Keane – and they sold out within days. They can be highly collectible and are likely to appreciate in value.”
Twentysomething Dubliner Mark is a self-confessed “music obsessive” who has spent “thousands” on CDs in the past. These days, however, he’s more inclined to get most of his music via illegal downloads, unless it’s a collectors’ item or individually numbered limited release from one of his favourite bands.
“I just can’t afford to buy most CDs, apart from certain bands that I really like,” he says. “Music is too expensive these days. I can’t afford to chance €15 or €17 on a band that I might never have heard of. If I really love an album [that I’ve downloaded], then I might buy it. It’s a popular opinion that illegal downloading is a lost sale, but that’s not necessarily the case.”
He agrees that a certain amount of responsibility for the faltering retail sector lies with people such as him – but he also thinks that stores, labels and promoters should be doing more to increase footfall. Special events don’t have to be restricted to Record Store Day alone, he says.
“It would be a sad thing to not be able to physically browse a back catalogue in a shop, but I don’t see why some of the independent stores don’t tie into more in-stores or live gigs and stop solely relying on sales, or even the novelty releases you mentioned,” he says. “Getting people into shops again is crucial. I’m not saying that running a business is easy, but independent stores need to provide something the big stores don’t, and adapt to the online market – not just sit back and sink, like some of them seem to have done.”
And he doesn’t necessarily agree with Jon Bon Jovi’s sentiments, either.
“It was inevitable that people would find a new way to consume music – it’s evolution, plain and simple. The biggest challenge facing the industry now is giving music a currency that’ll steer future generations, and people like me, away from exploiting it.”