Wherefore Traditional Music Part 1?
Albums & CDs vs. Streaming Singles
By Elise MacGregor Ferrell - Published May 25th, 2018
HOW IS MODERN TECHNOLOGY CHANGING CELTIC MUSIC?
How can you get a Millennial to laugh? Just tell them your band is recording a new album, and releasing it on physical CDs. 'Are you kidding?' they'll joke. 'While you're at it, why don't you also buy some new encyclopedias! Give it up, old timer. Everybody streams now.'
Well, call me old-fashioned, but I still think a 'stream' is a good place to go fishing. And I still enjoy admiring my CDs' beautiful covers, shoving them into my van's CD player, giving the dash a good hard thump to jumpstart its disc changer, and then playing whole albums from start to finish, exactly as their creators meant for me to enjoy them.
If someone waggles an i-gadget toward my input jack, I roar 'GET that away from me,' while turning up my CD loud enough to drown out their age-jokes. In fact, if I had been a teenager in the 60's and early 70's, every time one of my favorite bands released a new album, I would have done like as those Boomers did, and invited some friends over to listen to the whole album from top to bottom (a suggestion that would shock most people today). However, the buzz among today's music influencers is that 'albums' are becoming moot, and henceforth almost everyone will only listen to single releases.
Be that as it may, my preference for CDs versus i-gadgets partly stems from wanting better sound quality. Although not everyone agrees with me, one expert who does is sound engineer Paul Stubblebine. When bands started asking him for MP3 conversions, he researched how to get the best possible quality, but on his fifth attempt the sound came out so much worse that his client wanted a refund, so that's when he decided to just let musicians convert to MP3 themselves. Paul points out that converting from CD-format to MP3 somewhat reduces sound quality, but what really degrades the listener's experience is further conversions (for instance, from CD or WAV format, to Phone MP3 and then to a Car Stereo via an average (328kbps) Bluetooth connection - the reason being that each format change may subtract some of the information from the original format, resulting in poorer a lower quality music experience.
Since you are reading this in a Celtic forum, there is a good chance of you being old enough, to likely agree with at least some of this and resist these changes, but we need to accept that the music industry necessarily has to keep up with the marketplace. CDs are disappearing, and for that reason I recently found myself sitting atop a box of brand new CDs, anxiously thinking 'Who's going to buy these?'
One hour of web-research turned up some disturbing facts: 1. Only a few Bay Area music stores still carry a good selection of Celtic CDs. 2. Most online retailers don't carry a good selection (unless you are primarily seeking new releases from trending superbands like Celtic Woman). 3. Many online retailer-lists don't appear to have gotten updated since Hardy Drew and the Nancy Boys released, 'No One As Irish As Barack Obama.'
Still, as the manager of a Celtic band (Charmas), I need to sell CDs and I don't give up easily, so I popped some popcorn, hit the 'locator' button on my wall-mounted telephone, (more millennial giggles) and did enough more research to find out that...
THERE'S A SURPRISING EXPLANATION FOR THE SCARCITY OF CELTIC CDs IN RETAIL STORES
You might think that a Global Economy would help Americans purchase anything they desire from Ireland and Scotland, but here's what the Bay Area's biggest Celtic music retailers told me...
Buyer John of El Cerrito's Downhome Music (which stocks about 200 Celtic albums, including both rare and popular artists, and vinyl) says it's getting harder to purchase wholesale music from overseas. 'We used to get our CD's from Claddagh...' he explained, but increased shipping costs have caused most distributors to drop out of the business.
Buyer John of San Francisco's Amoeba Music (whose inventory of a couple hundred, mostly pre-owned Celtic CDs/vinyl changes constantly), adds that a lot of old Celtic albums have simply gone out of print.
Buyer Eric of Berkeley's Lark in the Morning (who inherited a couple hundred CDs when he bought the business) is eager to sell off his inventory, because he believes that, even if some people still want CDs, most of them no longer have CD players in their cars.
Buyer Paige of San Jose's Streetlight Records (which stocks a couple rows of used Celtic CDs), says Streetlight would quickly go out of business if they could not return albums that don't sell, and for that reason she only purchases new albums from major label distributors.
THEN I SPOKE WITH THE MOTHER OF THEM ALL
Maggie Cadden, previously an agent for many touring Celtic bands, host of grand concerts, and mass-distributor for every kind of recorded Celtic music, says Celtic music's commercial boom is 'almost over.' Her retail sales company, Dara Records, has nearly stopped importing music from Ireland. They have also stopped selling CDs at festivals, because 'It's an older crowd now,' who simply aren't buying enough CDs to justify her effort. One recent trend Maggie does appreciate is the growing number of House Concerts, which affordably publicize new performers, and foster intimate connections between the musicians and their audiences.
When I asked Maggie how she thinks today's older Celtic music fans are sampling new Celtic music, her guess was that most of them aren't! Indeed, it seems plausible that most of today's new Celtic music is primarily reaching just a fraction of Celtic music fans who are still young enough to be frequenting House Concerts, festivals, and who are also…(I shudder to even say it again)...streaming!
Which brings us to the next obvious question...
HOW IS MODERN TECHNOLOGY CHANGING CELTIC MUSIC?
I can answer this question myself.
Our band's first album, Songs of the Sea, was a 'concept album,' featuring simple folk songs and varying combinations of just a few instruments, which became satisfyingly diverse when we carefully sequenced the songs and enhanced the whole album with artistic transitions.
Upon deciding to record our second album, Stark Raving Celtic, Charmas had streaming in mind, (Here is the link: Charmas Stark Raving Celtic on Spotify), but we still wanted to take a purist approach. So we gave each track enough depth to stand on its own as an individual release, while still giving the whole album cohesion by adding evocative transitions and long-fade endings. And we even took sound engineer Ken Capitanovich's advice to transfer the whole album onto analog tape, in order to give it the kind of pleasing, mellow sound that makes LPs pleasurable for extended listening.
Charmas' next hope is to attract more young people to become interested in Celtic-influenced music, so we plan to record an album of pop-folk songs targeted primarily for streaming. In order to catch the attention of Spotify surfers and pop-music bloggers, we'll need to cut right to the meat of each song, foregoing any lengthy introductions that might cause them to lose interest, and assuming that most listeners will hear the songs piecemeal, rather than playing the whole album from beginning to end.
In a world like this...
CAN OLD FASHIONED MUSIC FANS STILL GET WHAT WE WANT?
Absolutely! I've already listed several Bay Area retail stores which STILL SELL a good selection of Celtic CDs and vinyl. Downhome Music even keeps a CD player handy, for shoppers to conveniently 'try before they buy,' and (at least in Santa Cruz) Streetlight Records is generally willing to play any CD you want to hear over their house speakers.
As for streaming, I think it's a dreadful idea, but I'm embracing it anyway. This is partly because Spotify gave me a free Premium account (one perk of being a record producer), and since then I've discovered that I can use Spotify to hear full albums from almost any band I search for (because I have their Premium service), and then buy the band's CD if I like it enough to want it for my car. (Note that Pandora also gave me a free account, but I haven't gotten far with Pandora, because I quickly discovered that their music library lacks a lot of my favorite music. On the other hand, IHeart Radio, although seemingly very commercial, has a great selection of folk music, as well as a knack for suggesting new music I might actually enjoy, and I might explore them more in the future. Hillbillies From Mars bandleader Daniel Steinberg says he personally worked on Google Music's algorithms, and their streaming service is the best for keeping folk music lovers surrounded by rare artists, rather than continually steering them toward best-sellers.
Someone with knowledge that far surpasses mine could write a great article about choosing the best streaming service for Celtic fans, and I hope they will, because I would like to read it!
Additionally, online radio and music bloggers belong to a whole different world that I'm just starting to learn about. Futuristic stuff. Check the AmeriCeltic on-demand webpage, http://www.americeltic.net/on-demand-broadcast, or their AmeriCeltic Group on Facebook, for more on these options for Celtic content.
Great for a cozy evening sitting around the fire while nibbling on plain old vanilla ice cream, without any additions of crushed candy, raw cookie dough, or other new-fangled complications added...
Email author Elise MacGregor Ferrell at firstname.lastname@example.org