By Beppe Colli
Jan. 1, 2013

When it comes to semi-popular events (a category that has to be kept separate from "niche"), I'd say that the title of "event of the year" for 2012 goes to the, quote, unquote, audiophile, new vinyl 180gr pressing of the whole Beatles catalogue, in stereo. An event that sits halfway between the re-release of various Pink Floyd titles and the massive Led Zeppelin re-release program about to start. And let's not forget about the Beatles vinyl mono box, whose planned release date is, more or less - see below - "Spring, 2013".

The vinyl 180gr re-release program of the whole Beatles catalogue, in stereo - in so differently from the mono vinyl edition, all stereo albums are available in a box, and also as single titles - is one of a piece with the giant 2009 digital remastering program that was intended to give the Liverpool Four a more "modern" appeal, a fresh layer of paint that was supposed to take The Beatles into the future, the by now famous - oh, the blasphemy! - USB stick included.

Not everything was perfect, of course, but maybe things were better than what had been feared by most. (Though sometimes I wonder what kind of "ears" listen to this stuff, given that a laudatory article in a leading Italian newspaper listed Hey Jude as a track off The Beatles/The White Album.)

Here I have to immediately clarify that there are two different pressing of the Beatles vinyl albums in stereo. The European pressing - by Optimal, I think - appears to be almost completely problem-free. While the US edition - pressed by Rainbo - appears to be plagued by a vast quantity of horrors, as per the numerous debates all over the Web, with complicated issues galore about those many albums going back to the seller, and news of heads about to roll.

This is the story, the way I got it. It had been EMI's intention to have (renowned, reliable) RTI  press the whole lot. But it appears that RTI, unable to do it all due to previous engagements, was intentioned to sub-contract the work to Rainbo. It was only logical, then, for EMI to give Rainbo the green light, bypassing RTI. What went wrong is not exactly clear, but many problems that are usually linked to poor QC appeared as soon as buyers took the plastic off the albums - quite erratically, it appears, though according to reports Abbey Road appears to be the poorest performer. Warped albums, off-centre holes, non-fill, heavy background noise, squeaks, heavy distortion... the lot. A disaster, really.

It was at this point that the chase for a "safe copy" started, with unreliable results. There were those who bought/received multiple copies of the same album, all plagued with the same problem(s). Readers are invited to have a look on the Web, there must be a few thousand pages out there by now, all written in the last couple of months.

The fact that the new edition had not been remastered off a fresh analogue master puzzled a few, though it has to be said that the idea of having a fresh analogue remaster - when it's obvious that the digital 2009 edition is the "building stage" for the new vinyl - was quite implausible. But it was argued that a 180gr vinyl pressing of that order of magnitude needs a very accurate QC - which definitely comes not cheap. Wouldn't have been better to have, say, 120gr vinyl, which is less error-prone, and doesn't necessarily sound any worse? Sure - but what about the whole "audiophile" cachet?

This Beatles imbroglio is only the most talked about, for obvious reasons of size and importance (let's not forget those big boxes - featuring LPs, CDs, 5.1 DVD-As - featuring historical works by Jethro Tull such as Aqualung and Thick As A Brick), in times when industry works full-steam, full-speed ahead, in order to squeeze the last drop off the Deluxe trend. It's too early to say if this long series of incidents will prove to be invisible to the buying public - who, it has to be said, appear for the most part to prize the "look and feel" of those boxes much more than the featured music - or if it will be the proverbial last drop that'll make the majority of buyers go towards downloadable, "liquid", Hi-Rez files.

I have to admit I'm quite sorry to have to talk about the diminishing well-being of many musicians, a lot of them being very dear to my heart.

That the market conditions were a lot worse with every passing year had already been apparent for some time, but today things are quite dramatic, with no reversal of fortunes anywhere in sight.

There are three main factors at work. A weak economy, which makes many listeners care a lot less for "daring listening experiments". The habit of consuming a vast quantity of different "objects", so one's income will never be equal to the enormity one deals with. The fact of giving each experience just a tiny fraction of one's time. These items appear to be increasingly important the younger the consumer. Hence, one could derive the prediction that a reversal of attitude when it comes to "difficult" works - and a growing propensity to allocate one's money precisely to these works - is currently not in the cards.

It goes without saying that musicians try to do their best in order not to go under, with varying degrees of success. The typical US strategy - which has also been adopted elsewhere - called "sink or swim" still works. The same doesn't appear to be true of various subsidizing schemes, though one has to admit that when it comes to actual results, different nations get different outputs, the famous "Protestant Ethic" definitely playing a role when it comes to the quality of the music many Dutch musicians have released in the last few decades, compared to, say, those Italian musicians in the same "genre".

In closing, I have to admit I was quite surprised when, at the end of the year, I happened to receive a certain number of e-mails inviting me to buy digital files and (physical) CDs at heavily discounted prices, as if a difference in price could make a difference when it comes to one's attitude about recorded material.

Interesting times ahead.

Beppe Colli 2013

CloudsandClocks.net | Jan. 1, 2013