A record for your life


“A record was like a massive flat mp3…. there was almost no information on it at all. It was very impractical – it could break or warp in the heat and get scratched…

…but it was better than your life.”
Stewart Lee

Record player Twist and Shout by the BeatlesI finally got my record player plugged back in. I unplugged it in late December to make room for a seven foot Norwegian Spruce that I’d covered in glass balls and low voltage white bulbs. We’d long since thrown that tree away and vacuumed up thousands of tiny needles and now it was time to re-install just one needle in its place.

There was an air of anticipation and excitement. My three children gathered around. From a massive pile of 7” black discs, some in paper sleeves with pictures on, some in plain green sleeves, they selected one.

Oliver (age 6) slid it out of its cover and I showed him how to place it on the spindle by touching only the edges. I told him to flick the switch on the left to ’45’. I lifted the metal arm over just a little bit and Mabel (age 4) flicked the switch on the right; once to make the platter spin and again to lower the needle into place.

We all watched as the disc span round and round at 45 revolutions per minute. A crackling sound, like that of a well established fire came from the speakers. Then, the room was filled with the booming mono sound of the most energetic 2 minutes and 35 seconds ever committed to the physical realm.

49 years ago, a few young men played and sang live in a recording studio in Abbey Road, London, using their voice boxes, guitars and a drum kit. The sound they’d made caused vibrations in the air which caused magnets to create electronic fluctuations along a wire which cause another magnet to re-arrange the rust particles on a lengthy plastic tape into a pattern.

Later, another magnet was affected by those magnetic particles from the tape causing low level electronic fluctuations in a wire which were amplified by a complex arrangement of glass vacuum valves to move a diamond tipped needle to vibrate. The needle was held still while a lacquered disc spun round at speed, allowing the needle to carve a spiral on its surface.

A mould was made from that lacquered disc and a glass disc was made from the mould. This was then pressed onto millions on lumps of hot vinyl plastic which were flattened into a 7” disc.

One of those discs found its way into a shop in mid 1963 and was bought by my Dad. 18 years ago when I got my own house, I liberated it, and now it was here, spinning around in my lounge with my three children jumping and dancing to the sound of the Beatles performing Twist and Shout live in 2012.

They were in room with us. This was no sample. No abstract digital file in the cloud from zeros and ones in a computer. They were here for real. (As real as a reflection in a mirror of you, is actually you, where a photograph of you is not you.)

That record is a time mirror that reflects their sound, via magnets and needles, right here from the long distant, unimaginable so-called past of 1963 to today, here and now. They were with us, alive and happy and infectious.

But more important that all that was the fact that my children were dancing and singing. Music was real. They could see it. They could touch it. They could choose it.

The past two weeks have seen Oliver become a DJ, going through my collection of singles and albums, intrigued how the large cover images may relate to the secret sounds hidden within the grooves. He’s playing tracks for his sisters to dance to, or draw to, or play to. He wants to be like Ringo and play the drums so he can come with me to my conference performances and provide the beat for my keynote songs.

He’s developed an ‘ear’. Some tracks he says are ‘too noisy’ or ‘too sad’. Mabel has lifted the piano lid and is more considerate in which keys she presses. She knows that some combinations are more pleasing than others. Our youngest is just 20 months old. When the records are on she smiles and dances and twirls.

It’s an involved process to choose which record to put on. You have to make a decision that will involve some physical activity that needs to be done with great care. The records are precious and fragile, and therefore by association, so too is the music. So once a record is on, it needs to play all the way through. It needs to be listened to, to be engaged with. There’s no easy way to change your mind, or to default to ‘shuffle’. You make your choice and stick with it.

Is there a danger, in our perceived search and adopted desire for ‘easy’ and ‘quick’ we are at risk of overlooking the experience altogether? After all, what is music ‘for’?

In our instant coffee, free download, always online world, do we rush through the day to get to the evening? Do we sometimes rush through the week to get to the weekend? Do we rush our children through childhood so they can grow up? And rush them through education so they can get some certificates?

Do we risk rushing the journey of life to get to the destination of the grave in the easiest and shortest possible time? Do we risk taking for granted the complexity of the human experience in order to dumb it down to effortless chicken nuggets that we can consume on the move?

Take a moment.

Dust off your own record player (whatever that might be) and put on a record. Choose it. Touch it. See it. Listen to it. Dance to it. Enjoy it.

Life is not about the needle reaching the run-out groove in the centre of the record.

It’s about the music in between.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


And by the way. For those of you who read my blogs and take all the metaphors literally: this is not a blog about replacing new technology with gramophone vinyl records. If you thought that, this blog is not for you. You’ll find material better suited to your taste here.

Why HMV will die and how they could have survived


hmv oxford

Not much music in the window. They filled it with a display for Oasis' Don't Look Back in Anger single in 1995. Those days are gone.

HMV is the last recorded music retail outlet left in the UK high street. Over the past few years we’ve seen the demise of Our Price, Woolworths and Virgin Megastore/Zavii. Now, for the very same reason HMV are closing around 60 stores.

People usually blame the demise of our record shops on technology and the rise of iTunes and Amazon. But I believe there’s a deeper reason why the high street shops have failed.

The fact that it’s more convenient to buy music online is a misnomer. We’ve all fallen into the trap thinking that ‘convenience’, speed and price are the only factors involved in a purchase. That is of course true with a commodity. With a purchase that is not a simple commodity, price has little baring because its the buying experience and the added value that is important. This is how the music industry has played the biggest part in it’s own death, by stupidly turning music into a base commodity.

The rot started in the mid 1980s when the music industry began the great compact disc swindle. They persuaded us to buy all the music we already had on vinyl, citing the better quality (which wasn’t quite true) and the better durability (which wasn’t quite true) and the fact that the new medium was smaller and therefore more, ‘convenient’. Because it was smaller we lost the experience of the album cover art. Because CD singles and albums were the same size we lost the specialness of both mediums. Because it was so handy and cheap it was quickly devalued and able to be given away free with magazines. The digital nature of the encoded audio and availability of CD burners meant it became easy to duplicate. By removing all the awkwardness and weaknesses of the vinyl record, they had transformed recorded music into a cheap, valueless commodity.

12” long playing records or a three minute 45 rpm single are completely different objects to the equivalent CD. They are bigger, heavier, have bigger almost poster-like artwork. They are fragile. To play a vinyl record you have to remove it carefully from the sleeve, place it on the spindle, lift the needle into place. After 3 or 20 minutes or so you have to lift the needle again and turn the disc over. With vinyl you are engaged and that’s the key: listening to music is an experience, not a commodity.

In the mid 1980s, Our Price Records changed their name to Our Price Music because they were now stocking tapes and CDs. They somehow felt they weren’t ‘records’. A small point but a relevant one in the separation of ‘music’ from the medium it came on and at the same time from the experience. It’s interesting that new bands, even today, stubbornly refer to their product as ‘records’ not CDs. A compact disc or vinyl disc is the medium for the ‘record’, which is the important thing.

At this point in an argument like this people usually cite the old chestnut of the ‘march of progress’ and the ‘advancement of technology’ and that we shouldn’t live in the past but embrace the future. This is rubbish. If technology was more important than experience we would not have restaurants or cooking, we’d just take a variety of nutrition pills. We would not have clothes fashion, we’d all wear silver fabric jumpsuits. The experience is important and that’s what we cling onto. That’s what we pay for. That’s why cinema attendance has never been so high even though it’s more convenient to watch DVDs at home on your 40” TV. That’s why music concert and festival attendance has never been so high when we can all put our iPod headphones on an listen to whatever we want whenever and wherever we want.

The irony is that the secret to the safe survival of the music industry was right there all the time, inside the music industry with the songwriters and musicians that make new music. The technology involved in recorded sound has advanced unimaginably since the early 1960s and yet all new rock bands that start making music aim to make that music using methods and technology that goes back 50 years. That’s why rock bands play guitars that may be newly manufactured, but their design and set up is a facsimile of the instruments that the Beatles, the Stones, or Led Zeppelin all played. In the 1990s VOX amplifiers brought back their old fashioned looking range of amps because all the bands wanted their stage to look like what all the classic bands stages looked like. Amplifier manufacturers ditched the advanced electronics and transistors to return to the values and tubes of the 60s because the musicians wanted that authentic value sound. And of course every rock band wants their records to be released on vinyl.

Of course not all new music follows this pattern and amazing sounds and new forms of music have been created with new technology too. The point here is that the music industry failed to realise that all music is not the same. The dance halls are filed with electronica, young girls fill their iPods with the latest pre-fab teenybopper and festival goers want their bands to be live and authentic. These are just three types of music which are created and consumed in completely different ways by different types of people for different types of people. And yet HMV and the like tried to sell it all in the same way, and when that started to fail they filled their shops with DVDs, computer games and iMacs, betraying the music audience they used to serve and appealed to no-one.

It’s probably too late for a single company like HMV to recover, but it’s not too late for the music industry. They need to re-discover that music is an experience. Some of those experiences can be packaged and sold at a profit and some cannot. They need to stop treating all music as the same thing. The genres are consumed in such different ways and yet the only way they’re differentiated in a music shop is by having their CDs in a different rack.

High street shops have something that iTunes doesn’t have: a physical shop that you can walk into. Music shops (and bookshops) seem to moan or panic as if such an advantage is a noose around their neck. If retail was dead, how come Apple Inc. opened their hundred or so shops worldwide and get a footfall of almost two million people per day for products that is easier to buy online. The answer is that they have created an experience that you can’t get online.

If the music shops realised that certain genres of music have an audience that would relish having a shop experience they could have transformed their retail units to accommodate them. By getting rid of all products that people would rather buy somewhere else they could have re-stocked vinyl records (a niche but growing market). They could have hosted classic album listening sessions. They could have hosted live bands. They could have built a model around the long-tail (selling many different obscure materials rather than stocking just few obvious titles). They should have realised that the markets these ideas would appeal to have the money and inclination to want it. It would mean abandoning the X Factors, Pop Idols and the charts (you can’t compete with the commodity of the download) and embracing an older audience. It would mean only the music genres that have the strongest experiential and lifestyle elements: possibly including new emerging urban sounds, some types of dance, classic rock, blues, jazz and folk (basically all the music forms created from the ground up by people, not manufactured to a formula by music industry management).

They say you can make excuses or you can make money, you can’t do both. The problems any business faces today can’t be blamed on technology or changing markets, or government policy or the world banks. They can only be blamed on an inability to creatively change the business model to follow the money. The reason businesses can’t cope with change is that their stuck in one way of thinking with an inability to be more creative when solving business problems. That’s way those record shops have gone. It’s not because people don’t want music or don’t want a shop, but because the shops failed to supply the experience the audience wanted through stubbornness, greed, ignorance and by keeping on doing what they’ve always done and expecting different results.

Book Ayd to speak at your event.
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Music for Pleasure


A colleague of mine, Alan Stevens, recently wrote in his (excellent) newsletter that he’d been converting his old vinyl LP records to digital files on his PC and commented on his nine year old daughter’s astonishment that they had music ‘on both sides’. It reminded me of the fact that new technology and new ways of doing things are usually more convenient, but not always better, or more fun. Listening to a vinyl LP (or 45 rpm single for that matter – which can be exhilarating) is a totally different experience to listening to a CD or iPod. I would say that it’s a better experience and this is why:

First of all the sleeve is bigger. At 12″ the photos are nice and big and the sleeve is satisfying to hold as you listen to the recording. Care is needed taking the record out of the sleeve impressing upon you the value of what you hold in your hands. You need to slowly lower the needle into place, it can’t be rushed. The sound of a vinyl record is an analogue of the actual sound that was recorded. That means it’s almost exactly the same. This is not true with digital playback which is a sample of the original, it misses data out. True audiophiles can hear the difference and will tell you that CDs sound ‘cold’ compared to the truer, warmer sound of micro-groove vinyl.

But I haven’t mentioned the best bit yet. The record only lasts about twenty minutes or less, even though these are ‘long players’. Then you have to get up, walk across the room and pick the needle up and turn the record over. This has a massive impact on how music was presented and listened too. Artists had to arrange the records with a great opening track and closing track on both sides, like two acts of a play. It also means that you don’t put a record on and then wander off, you actually have to be there and listen to it. You’re involved in it, it’s interactive.

When the record industry sold us shiny CDs they were interested in making a lot of money in the short-term, by re-selling us what we already had, more than they were interested in the quality of the music or the concepts of the album and single . But by changing the listening habits and making music more convenient somthings were lost.
For example, it’s only now, with the concept of downloads that the idea of buying one song (ie. a single) has come back into play.

We all seem to succumb to the marketing messages and the thrill of the new. New technology is like electricity, fire or money – neither good nor bad. It’s what you do with it that counts. Does a high-tech solution always add to the human experience? Or is it better, sometimes, perhaps on a sunny day with a picnic by the river, to open up a hand crafted wooden box to reveal a wind up gramophone which, without contributing any CO2 to global warming, will play a thick shellac disc at 78 rpm and the sounds of musicians and singers who knew nothing of mp3s and downloads, will fill the air. Let’s not give up on an experience for the sake of convenience. Keep your records, keep your CDs and keep downloading. There are times and places for them all.

For more see:
www.aydinstone.com
www.sunmakers.co.uk