Friday, November 21, 2008

The Comedy Of Errors Continues

It's bad enough for the music industry's long-term health (assuming such a concept still exists) that an ever-decreasing number of people are buying CDs in ever-decreasing amounts, but when record companies seemingly go out of their way to piss off the remaining people who are still actually paying for physical product, you have to wonder sometimes at the point of it all.

The breaking New Order reissue debacle is only the latest in a series of self-inflicted PR black-eyes suffered by what's left of the Big Four distributors over the last few years. What is particularly disturbing in this instance is that the company at fault here is the once-mighty Rhino Records, who were at one time considered the best reissue label on the planet, with a reputation for sonic and packaging excellence recognized by consumers and retailers alike. Granted, the brain trust that made the label great has long since bolted the coop, but for this same label to not only release such a shoddily-created product with no input whatsoever from the band itself is one thing, but to then go ahead and release it in the United States (despite numerous complaints had already surfaced overseas) and then not even acknowledge that there is any problem until most die-hard fans have already impatiently snapped up their copies is simply inexcusable. In effect, what we have here is yet another example of labels seeking to squeeze maximum profits wherever possible while whittling down manpower and tossing previously trumpeted standards of quality and worksmanship right out the window.

It's bad enough that we're being conditioned as a society to accept slapdash plastic doo-dads rushed to market to meet quarterly expectations for their parent multinationals (how often do we pick up buggy cell phones and video game systems that don't always work correctly and accept this crap in order to be among the first to own them), but now this cynical attitude is spreading to "deluxe" reissues of 25 year old records, as well. With catalog departments being systematically pared down to skeleton crews, the job of researching and remastering old recordings has become far more of a major undertaking than it was in headier times, and time-saving shortcuts such as using sub-par quality LP-pressing masters or even vinyl records themselves as source material have become a more common practice as of late, particularly in Europe.

Another victim of this new corporate reality is the hatchet job done by EMI on the Pink Floyd box set Oh, By The Way last Christmas. What was already shaky idea to begin with ("Hey, let's put every Pink Floyd CD ever made -- not including any live albums, bonus tracks, singles or non-album cuts -- into a super-expensive, but cheaply made cardboard box and then market it to people who already own all the albums!"), was made far worse when thousands of irritated customers began reporting mis-printed CDs ("Hey! Why does Wish You Were Here suddenly sound exactly like Obscured By Clouds?"), doubled-up CDs ("Hey! I have two copies of Ummagumma, Disc 1!") , or even completely-wrong pressings ("Hey! This isn't Pink Floyd at all!"). For a list price of $299.99, you might think that some level of quality control was observed somewhere along the production line, but apparently even that is too much to expect these days. Silly us.

Perhaps the worst industry practice that is making even hardened music dorks such as I think twice about plunking down money for new CDs is the ongoing race to create the loudest, most unlistenable CDs possible. There was an infamous quote in Rolling Stone magazine a couple of years ago from no less than Bob Dylan that summed up the state of the art in music in no uncertain terms: "(modern albums) have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like ... static."

While it's certainly debatable at what point the loudness wars started in the 1990s, it was The Beatles who initially set the bar for increased volume in 1986 when their early catalog appeared on CD for the first time, with all of their discs mastered nearly twice as loud as any other rock titles on the market.

It took a few years for modern rock to catch on, but it started to happen around 1992-1994, when albums by Metallica, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots, and Alice In Chains seemed to leap forth from speakers with real, tangible ferocity, especially when compared to the rest of the market at the time. Of course, many of their competitors (or the heads of their labels) heard these records and then asked their producers and engineers why they couldn't make records that sounded just as loud (if not more so) as Metallica, In Utero, The Downward Spiral, Core, or Dirt did, and the race was on.

It was also right around this time that the first "remastered" CDs started to appear in record stores. The argument for the existence of these refurbished albums was that either a.) many CDs of older albums were initially rushed to market in the mid 1980s with little regard to making sure that the original master tapes had been sourced for optimum sound quality (hmm, sound familiar?) or b.) advances in sound reproduction technology since 1983 had made it possible for CDs to sound even "better" than before as a "warmer," more analog-feeling ambience of sound was now becoming possible.

I would be remiss not to mention that the real point to this wave of upgraded classics was, of course, to force die-hard fans to buy their favorite CDs all over again (which some maintain was the true reason for all of this in the first place). Now, it would have been fine and dandy to remaster these older albums once and then let the upgraded, "corrected" copies stand at that, but some records have been now been reissued and remastered multiple times, with differences in sonic quality and mastering on each different iteration. This practice certainly gives credence to those who feel that all of this is just a way to part fools from their money one more time, especially as these same records get progressively shittier sounding with every new appearance on the market.

I had been aware of this loudness war for years, especially since I used to make mix tapes for myself and my friends constantly, and learned early on what recording levels certain CDs from which time periods or musical genres needed to be set at for the best sound quality (and smoothest listening experience) on a finished TDK SA-90 cassette. My frustration with wildly varying levels of output (try making a full-career hits mix tape sourced from old and new Bruce Springsteen CDs to get an idea of where I'm coming from) had me solidly in the "remaster everything!" corner for years, and the first instance where I can recall a new record being "brick-walled" to the point of distraction was Oasis' 1997 release Be Here Now: though I wrote off a lot of my displeasure with that record at the time as being subpar writing and mixing more than anything else. After all, this was the same summer that Radiohead's similarly-mastered classic O.K. Computer had taken over the world, and that record was just great, thank you very much.

My first real animosity against this practice of level compression and peak-limiting came along five years later, when Rush released their absolutely unlistenable reunion album Vapor Trails. After years of earth-shaking build up from sundry rock and pop acts across the spectrum, here at last was a record that was so invasively and unbelievably shrill that it wasn't so much a "listening experience" as a buzz saw to the forehead.

These days, CDs with no dynamic range whatsoever are commonplace, especially at the major label level (indies either can't afford the software, or somehow just know better). Some of the blame is certainly attainable to the race to be as loud as the competition, yet other factors like a sea change in listening habits amongst music buyers away from expensive rack stereo systems and towards iPods, cell phones, and tiny PC speakers also have done their part to alter the way music is presented. While many consumers don't really seem to care that they no longer need volume knobs on their car stereos, enough have banded together in online communities that a whole secondary market of people actively searching out, say, older editions of Led Zeppelin and Genesis CDs has emerged in the underground, claiming that these CDs were actually done right the first time around and have only been marred by any remastering done since the mid-late 1980s. Even younger music fans have noticed recently how much better the video game version of Metallica's Death Magnetic sounds than the actual CD (a graphical comparison can be seen here).

Perhaps the most darkly amusing (nevermind ironic) side effect of these shenanigans is that a new generation of music buyers have embraced the once-comatose format of vinyl LP records as a superior alternative to compact discs. Once they realized what was happening, labels cynically began cashing in: even going so far as to issue record bags emblazoned with their laughable new catch phrase "because sound matters."

The best part? Out of this vinyl resurgence comes a new ridiculous extreme embodied by the bonus CD packaged with vinyl copies of Lindsey Buckingham's new album Gift Of Screws. Now, the idea of throwing in a "bonus" CD copy of a release with the vinyl LP is a nice idea, sure, but the sticker on this album proudly proclaims:



What the hell? I've heard many times before the old argument that vinyl sounds better than CD, but this is something new. If I am reading this correctly, Warner Bros, Records is now implictly admitting that modern mass-marketed CDs sound like dog shit. Even if you think this reaction is over the line, doesn't the very existence of a specialized "audiophile" pressing (available only when you buy the vinyl copy, no less! ha ha!) make you wonder what the hell the regular version is supposed to be?

One funny thing about modern "brick-walled" CDs: they make average bit rate-quality mp3s sound even worse than they already do (as if that were possible). We used to joke at work that the sudden leap in CD volume across the board in the last decade was actually a deliberate and subtle sabotaging of the mp3 format by the major labels, but in light of recent events, it appears that is giving the suits far too much credit.

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