Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A lament for physical media: Daft Punk's Random Access Memories (CD edition)

The last couple of weeks have been testing times. Really, they have. As a long time fan of Daft Punk (I saw them in '97 at the Mayfair in Newcastle) it's been tricky to avoid their carefully planned promotional strategy for the release of Random Access Memories. There's been the constant radio airplay of 'Get Lucky', there's been the teaser tracks, the ad spots, the full album stream via iTunes, etc. Let's just say the hype has been building for a while (check out Billboard's timeline here).

This has made it difficult to resist the allure of the various pirate offerings. There was the video that was compiled by fans using clips from the various Coachella adverts and Saturday Night Live spots. Then there were the various iTunes live stream audio captures of differing quality appearing all over the web. The official release of Get Lucky was prompted by an illegal leak captured from a Dutch radio station, forcing the hand of Columbia into releasing the single early.

Nevertheless, I purchased the single through iTunes and not long after I pre-ordered and paid for the iTunes LP (Mastered for iTunes) version for the sum of £8.99. I had succumbed to the hype, and on release day the album was pushed to my iPhone, my iMac and my Macbook so that I could enjoy the official release whereever I went.

However, I do have to admit to having downloaded the album in advance of this official release. I've tried all sort of versions: the supposed CD rip (Columbia / 88883716862 / CD), the WEB rip (Columbia / USQX913001 / WEB), the vinyl rip (Columbia / USQX913001 / Vinyl), and the special mastered version (Qobuz 24-bit / 88.2 kHz Édition Studio Masters / WEB). However, I much prefer the sound quality of the iTunes version. It's just a shame that if I wanted to buy the Japanese bonus track 'Horizon' I'd have to pay for an expensive imported CD (£22 registered airmail) or resort to piracy (Sony Music Japan / SICP 3817 / Japanese Edition + Bonus Track / CD).

It's an ethical nightmare

I'm a fan. I'm a fan who also loves the album - I will gladly hand over my money for Daft Punk product. However, I'm not keen on the excessive import/postage costs for 1 track alone. I want to legally purchase this music but it seems ridiculous that in the era of digital networks and near zero-distribution costs that such a disproportionate barrier exists.

And it gets worse...

It would seem that the availability of the UK CD release is less consumer-focussed than it could have been. Forgive me for sounding like a digital dinosaur (CDs are digital, right?) but I actually like to own physical media like CDs - even if I seldom play them - primarily because I've suffered several hard-drive failures over the years and lost large sections of my digital music collection. Secondly, I don't like the idea of being tied to Apple's proprietary compressed music format for the rest of time. Can I take this with me if I switch to a different device (Window Media Player? PS3?). At least with the CD, I can control the format and codecs I prefer in a few years time (without having to transcode the media and reduce the audio quality). Thirdly, it's a lot nicer to listen to CDs though my high fidelty audio setup than it is to listen to compressed music.

So if I want to buy Random Access Memories on CD I can use Google Shopping's search tool to find me a copy from Sainsbury's for £8.99. This is a price I'm happy to pay but where's the competition? Google Shopping doesn't even search most of the big providers. Tesco and Asda are both charging £10. Morrisons sell it for £10 but they don't have an online purchase option! What is this? The 1990s?

It seems like the supermarkets are the only physical music retailers left. This is okay if you are after something that's likely to chart but what about the leftfield music? HMV and Virgin are dead. Play.com has become a glorified market place where smaller providers offer products, often with a lack of detail or item description, and questionable feedback scores. Zavvi have stopped selling CDs altogether.

I guess I could always go to everyone's favourite tax avoider, Amazon (I will not link to them), but I find it morally repugnant to pay them £9.99 for a product when I know they'll go out their way to avoid paying corporation tax. CD-Wow were caught out by the Channel Islands tax loop-hole being closed down, so WowHD replaced them and they have the best price at £7.99.

So, I can buy the CD at a reasonable price but only because I know where to look (I'm not wanting to pay £19 Littlewoods!). But does everyone? And are people being offered a fair price for their supposedly obsolete media? As physical formats become less and less relevant to the consumer they'll inevitably become rarer as demand decreases, forcing the price up. This looks like its happening right now. I find this rather sad, but predictable. I guess we can always pay perpetual fees to access rather than own

EDIT #1

It seems I may need to clarify a few things about my initial whine:

My whinge here is partly about the death of the high street music retailer - I admit I didn't make that clear enough. I can go buy this album from a supermarket as it's a certainty to chart (the bookies recently slashed the odds on it being the biggest album of the year) but I've struggled to buy a less renowned artist, like Deerhunter (Monomania), from Asda or Tesco. I used to rely on specialist music stores to provide me with my physical media. Failing that, I'd go to the usual suspects (Play, Zavvi etc) who are also on the wane (Amazon excluded).

My initial lazy searches only turned up 3 recognisable UK stores selling the CD (Sainsbury's, Amazon and Littlewoods) with prices from £8.99 to £19.00. There was another company called Base.com, but I've no idea if they are reputable. Apparently they've been around for  decade but this was the first time I've heard of them. ScreamingCD.com showed up but they are Canadian based and postage is an issue.

Amazon are hardly offering music at a competitive price on all their products. After some digging around I found alternate prices: 25% cheaper in the end. This does matter to me at least. I actually spent more than I expected as I found some other bargains. I ended up buying 4 CDs for £30 rather than 3 meaning I could support more musicians, admittedly at a lower royalty rate. Then again, the royalty rate on CDs is better that than that on digital releases. The Gowers Report (2006: p51) showed that artists get 8%  from digital sales (less than the credit card company who handles the transaction!) while they get 9% from CD sales. This is marginal when dealing with one consumer (ie me) but the problem is scaleable. The shift to digital distribution is not always a best case scenario for creators.

Returning to Amazon, if you are the one-stop shopping destination for a substantial amount of internet consumers then monopolistic practises tend to occur. This is not my point by the way, it's one made in the BBC series The Virtual Revolution, in relation to sector market leaders becoming dominant (eg Facebook in social, eBay for auctions, Amazon for entertainment goods, etc) .

However, it's also about the death of the recognisable online retailer who used to provide me with many varied pricing options for my favoured consumer products. Put simply, I hate that it now takes more effort to find the things that I like when it used to so much easier.

It's easier to just buy the album via iTunes (even though Google Play and Amazon's MP3 store are offering it cheaper) - which I did. However, just because it's easier doesn't make it convenient or flexible. I still wanted the physical CD (which I have also purchased from HDWow) so that I can play the uncompressed sound through my Arcam/Mission/Marantz stereo.

A plea for help...

For the record, I can't get these 256 kbps .aac files to play in Windows Media Player without transcoding and making the lossy format even worse. If iTunes sold Apple Lossless (.alac) files then I'd be happy to batch encode them to .wav (well, actually, happy is not the best disruptive term for the process). If anyone has some helpful solutions for this issue then I'd be grateful for your advice. Likewise, I'd appreciate advice on how to get these .aac files to play on my Sony Playstation 3 without a reduction in quality. I suspect the answer is the CD ripped to .wav though...