One of the blessings I have been given in my career was being taught how to do a truly great audiophile demo. It started in the early days of my retail career when I was a teenager working at Bryn Mawr Stereo and Sassafras Audio in the Philadelphia area. Every day that I came to work after high school, I was armed with the best classic rock, classical and jazz Compact Discs (mostly coated with green paint on the edges purportedly to reduce laser refraction) ready to play everything from And Justice For All in the car audio room to A Love Supreme or The Firebird Suite in the audiophile room. I was prepared.
Most audio stores use audiophile records to demo the potential of an AV system. These discs and today's downloads are recorded fantastically and they clearly highlight what a system is capable of doing. From the days of Jazz at the Pawnshop to Fourplay to Reference Recordings to any number of surround sound recordings from DTS Entertainment to Chesky Records - they all sound great, complete with airy highs, taut powerful bass and punchy midrange. Speakers never sounded better. Surround sound has never been explained to consumers more clearly. And ... regular people never buy these records.
Traditionally, Audiophile records, be they on vinyl, Compact Disc, SACD, Blu-ray or by download, do well if they sell between 3,000 and 4,000 albums total - not per media. More mainstream surround sound remixes like Queen's A Night at The Opera have sold in the neighborhood of 30,000 records total on DVD-Audio complete with a stereo and 5.1 mix. The fact is audiophile music doesn't really sell that well to mainstream consumers.
Five Reasons Why Audiophile Music Doesn't Sell
1. Songwriting: Audiophile music sounds fantastic. Nobody argues with that; however the songwriting can be either too personal, too noodly (self indulgent) or just out of date with the current musical trends. Mainstream consumers need music that they can sink their teeth into. Cover songs were good enough for Jimi Hendrix and Van Halen as they were coming up in the world of popular music so they should be good enough for audiophile-based artists too.
2. Technology: Audiophile music is often sold using the most cutting edge recording techniques on the most high resolution audio format of the day, ranging from gold CDs (from the old days) to SACD to DVD-Audio to Blu-ray and even 24/192 downloadable files. The problem is: how do large audiences of people buy into many of these formats and get their full potential? Everyone today knows how to download a song from iTunes but they tend to sound no better than a 25 year old Compact Disc at best. Getting 24/192 audio into your system is a much trickier maneuver and most consumers will take convenience over performance.
3. Little To No Star Power: Audiophile recordings rarely include star performers, like when Sting appears on "Money For Nothing." Simply put - the budget isn't there for such showmanship, but it sure helps sales. While Hip Hop isn't an audiophile genre, the rap and R&B world is all about the all-star drop by. I wonder out loud if John Mayer or Lenny Kravitz or Winton Marsalis were hired to sit in on a track, whether new audiences would get hip to cutting edge audiophile music in volumes of people larger than the readership of The Absolute Sound, Stereophile or even our own HomeTheaterReview.com.
See the other reasons and more on Page 2.
4. Marketing: Audiophile record labels have no money to
market the records, let alone the technology. Their message is harder
to sell than what a major label is selling. Taylor Swift is hot, young
and can sing a bit, but the label doesn't have to sell the technology
of SACD to sell a record or a download. And make no mistake: major
labels spend a fortune on PR, photos, music videos and other goodies to
make an aspiring artist into a unquestioned star. Their ability to
develop stars? That leaves a lot to be desired.
5. Licensing Fees: Major labels that own the rights to A-list
records want to be paid big time for the right to license said albums
for reissues. Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs famously made high end vinyl
and Compact Discs for musically important records like The Police
Synchronicity, Pink Floyd's The Wall, Dark Side of the Moon and many
others. Today, it's not uncommon for a small label looking to make an
audiophile statement with a meaningful record to ask for $250,000 up
front. Nearly every audiophile label can't afford the buy-in to bejewel
their catalog with high resolution versions of top selling records to
help buoy their other titles.
Should audiophile labels give up? Hell no. But they need to stay
focused on what they do well and stick with that. If an audiophile
label has a sultry female vocalist - record her doing half of her next
album doing familiar tunes with the tightest studio musicians the label
can afford. With the major labels sucking economic wind like never
before - the days of $250,000 fees for top records for an audiophile
release may be numbered. Find an investor and offer to spend $1,000,000
for 10 top selling records and do a killer, over-the-top job
remastering them for Blu-ray and sell them to every person with an AV
preamp and a $149 Blu-ray player. Nearly 30 percent of the American
audience has the player. The right record could become a hit. It's
important to note that there should be options on other catalog titles
too. YES fans loved Fragile on DVD-Audio in 5.1 audio but never got
Closer To The Edge at the same level of audiophile bliss. Dark Side of
the Moon on SACD cost Sony a fortune to release on a hybrid disc but
where were Animals, Wish You Were Here? and The Wall? They were never
released. Be prepared for your success.
Everyone with a performance-based music or 7.1 home theater system
should own a few key audiophile discs. My demo pile includes imported
24/192 audiophile jazz DVD-Audio discs, heavy metal from Audioslave on
20 bit DualDisc, pure DSD SACDs, 5.1 DVD-Audio discs and even HD
downloads. Blu-ray is likely the best format for audiophile music, but
so little is offered in that format at this point. 2L Records from
Norway has some cool tracks but it's pure audiophile material. The
likes of AIX and Chesky Records offer titles that you need for your
collection. They need your support as they are as much involved in
advancing technology as they are in selling musical stories. Could they
do better with the way they develop, produce and sell their music?
Absolutely, yes. Can you find better examples of music to make your AV
system perform it its best? I suggest - no.