Written by 4:26 am Audiophile Music

21st Century Vinyl Bargain Hunting and Interpol!

Mark Smotroff reviews some budget priced Interpol albums while pontificating on the modern day music biz


A new secondary market is emerging amidst the 21st century vinyl revolution that is fascinating to watch: something I’ll dub the Millennial Budget Line Back Catalog.

Frankly, I’ve been waiting for this to happen. 

AR-FirstLP[1].jpgThis newfangled vinyl industry has held off on that sort of thing for a while, keeping prices fairly high on newer artists and offering only the most modest of discounts along the way.  Dramatic pricing cuts on select titles is a practice that used to be commonplace in the earlier days of vinyl (and with CDs, for that matter) — lowering prices to keep established titles selling. Lower prices helps to entice new fans to buy the “back catalog,” recordings which may have already paid for itself in terms of ROI (Return On Investment, for those of you readers who are not particularly business minded) to the artist and/or record label.  

Or, simply, the music has stopped selling for various and sundry reasons and the labels, stuck with too much inventory, reduce prices way down, selling at a loss to clear out the warehouse.

This sort of budget music marketplace was at one point a pretty sizable and even important sub-industry-within-the-music-industry.

For those of you to young to remember that earlier wave, a mini primer on the old school music biz might be enlightening:  

So, for example, if a particular record didn’t sell enough copies to make money for label — ie. recouping expenses, making a profit — the struggling artist would frequently essentially be held responsible for these costs and thus got into debt to the label. The artist might disappear (as many did, opting for alternative careers) or eventually would get lucky and have a big hit to repay said old debts. 

In the interim while waiting for their investment money to return one way or another, the labels would take action to stimulate quicker sales of said older product. Often they would put a permanent mark on the album’s corner — a drill hole, a saw cut, a punch out, etc. — and the album would thus be marked for eternity as a “cut out.”  These cut out “overstock” titles were marked as such so they couldn’t be resold at full price (in theory) and was a way for labels to reduce inventory (and effectively get the failed albums off the accounting books as a write off). The albums would often be sold in bulk to overstock distributors who got them out to the stores, often in droves, selling for $1.99 per disc. 

Cut out bins were heaven for record collectors (like me!) on a budget!  And this practice wasn’t just limited to vinyl — again, there were plenty of cut outs and budget releases in the CD world as well. 

But… that was then and this is now….

Fast forward and we’re well into the new Millennium and the way the music industry operates is a very different animal.  We don’t really have cut out bins anymore, for better or worse.

Artists are generally wiser about their careers today and increasingly not signing those sort of life-damning contracts that were “de rigueur” in the industry back in the day. Now, many artists raise their own funding, paying for much of their own marketing, promotions and other stuff the labels used to do in order to keep costs under control, at least until they reach a certain level of success that they can afford the old school support mechanisms. They even “crowd-source” the funding of new releases, ensuring sales and also involving the fans along the way. Heck, the whole indie rock movement spurred a generation of DIY music makers who refused to be chained to the old ways of doing things. Some have made a cottage industry out of it (such as Guided By Voices and their fearless leader Robert Pollard).

Things have changed for stores too these days (the ones that still exist, anyhow). From what I’ve been told by several retailers, stores are no longer able to return albums that don’t sell — they must purchase them outright. So, it is up to the extra savvy buyer at the modern day music store to be able to foresee what will sell and what won’t.  

When they do get it right, it is great. Stuff sells out. And then they order more as they need it. People go out to the stores looking for things and there is a perception that an album is “hot” …  

It all seems like a win win situation for the artist and label alike this time ’round… 

If the stuff doesn’t sell, then its not really much sweat for the label since they got paid up front. 

However, stagnant stock can do some damage to the artist’s brand and image — if there is too much stock sitting there obviously not selling through, it just sits there looking lame as if the artist is not so popular anymore. 

Epic fail, dude. No one wants to buy your music. 

A used record store manager told me something interesting recently: when he has two copies of a record on the shelves, they don’t sell. When there is one album on the shelves, it is more likely to sell because it seems to the customer to be less likely to be there the next time they go shopping. Impulse purchase psychology stuff…  

All that said, here and now here we have something curious emerging in this new Millennial version of the vinyl music industry:  in recent months I have seen several stores lowering prices on stuff that was ridiculously overpriced to begin with — including many Record Store Day editions — trying to clear out the stock to make room for other better stuff. (Remember, sometimes good things simply don’t sell because they were priced too high in the first place).  

  

]]>It’s not quite a “cut out bin” of yore, but when an album was formerly selling for $25 and is now $15 or less, that is no doubt more enticing to the budget minded music customer. 

AR-SecondLP.jpgBut also there is the issue of the labels themselves dealing with their own inventory overstocks — remember, because the stores have to pay for stuff up front, the labels may not be selling through enough of the titles that they have had to pay for to be manufactured in order to achieve certain economies of scale. So, an alternate selling strategy must come into play. 

Enter a web retailer like Popmarket.com which has been getting more aggressive with its recent offerings directly from the labels. For example, at the time of this writing they have about 30 or so albums on sale for $12 a piece with free shipping! That is a pretty cool deal for brand new relatively recent albums of the last 10 years or so. 

In fact, it was such a good deal that I went ahead and ordered three albums by the band Interpol — two of which I’d never had before on vinyl — and also a Cocteau Twins record that I’d never had on vinyl before (separate review to come on that one).  Some of these albums I’d never even seen on vinyl previously.  

For $12 a piece, I am ok with each of these purchases and they will serve me until the time that a remix/remaster program happens perhaps someday 20 years from now… To that… you’re probably wondering how some of these things sound (this is supposed to be a music review, after all). 

Here’s how they stack up… 

Turn on the Bright Lights, the band’s debut, sounds the about the same as the CD with a slight upper edge going to the LP.  For example, a song like “Say Hello to the Angels” has some nice ride cymbal hits that decay more naturally on the LP than the CD. But other wise the album sounds very similar to the CD, with some warmer bass and mid ranges I think are probably attributable to my Bellari mic tube pre amp.

AR-FourthLP.jpgThe second Interpol album — called Antics — also sounds only marginally better on the vinyl than the CD, but its really hard to pin point why.  I mean… a track like “Evil” seems to rock more on the vinyl. I know that you audiophiles out there will find that a lame description, but there you have it.  

Vinyl rocks.  (Right. Right.) 

The fourth, eponymously titled album was — and remains — my biggest disappointment and simultaneous thrill.  

It was a thrill because I really do like this record a whole bunch. However, it is a biggest disappointment because this album — Interpol, the one that got me into the band in the first place — turns out to be less than a fan favorite. Many fans apparently hated this album when it came out. In concert recently the band played exactly zero songs — count ’em, 0, a big goose egg — from this album. From what I’ve heard that has been the case for some time now. 

(Go figure.  For what its worth, I think this album is the best one at encapsulating their sort of Philip-Glass-meets-Joy-Division-at-a-U2-show aesthetic. But that is me, a latecomer to the party…)

Interpol, the album, is also my biggest disappointment because the initial pressings I got back upon its initial release were all heinously warped, so much I had to return the album three times before the clerks at Amoeba Records offered me a full refund so I could get the less pricey-but-functional CD.  

Its a biggest disappointment since the band and label went to the admirable trouble of issuing the album on a way cool special edition two-disc vinyl set spinning at 45 RPM and featuring a genuinely (dare I say it?) unique pressing with a large hole like would normally be found on a 7-inch single!  It was a really nifty marketing concept — as you checked out at the counter, the clerk would give you a special custom Interpol adaptor to accompany your very special new album! 

So, what’s not to like about a two disc 12-inch LP set spinning at 45 RPM with a groovy custom adaptor?  Well, when the vinyl is super thin to the point where it could warp easily then that is a problem. 

Anyhow, for $12 (vs. the $25 or so it was going for initially) I took a chance at ordering this special edition again from Popmarket to see if I might get lucky and get a better pressing than the last time.  This new copy goes literally half way to restoring my faith in the pressing: only one of the two discs is badly warped! And at least that warped disc is playable despite its rollercoaster action. Thankfully, even though the warped side is a little off center, it doesn’t seem to impact the music negatively. 

It is listenable…. and for $12, I am not going to hassle with trying to exchange it. But it did prompt me to write this review to alert you, Dear Readers, to this issue. 

But again, for $12, I think it is a cool thing to have warp or no warp. You’ll have to think this through a bit as to how much you really need this one.  FYI, there is a regular pressing available if you don’t want to mess with the 45 adaptor and such…

Now, all that said, you may be wondering how this album — again, simply titled Interpol — sounds compared to the CD?  Well in this case, the vinyl sounds quite good all things considered. But the reality is that, like Interpol’s other recordings, it sounds pretty digital at its root. So the apparent warmth I may be sensing may have more to do with my tube pre amp than the actual vinyl. Still its cool to have. 

Do note: all of the Interpol recordings sound really great in the car — huge even — another instance where artists are probably mixing their music more for mobile consumption vs. on the home stereo system. Keep that in mind audiophiles. 

If you prefer playing vinyl records and you like Interpol, you’ll probably want to get these, especially for reduced prices. If you already have these albums on CD, you’re probably good to go. 

I’d really like to see/hear Interpol do a truly audiophile recording, all analog and ambient. You know… one of those Cowboy Junkies styled live-in-a-church type album.  Maybe with some acoustic guitars as well as the electrics…. and a nice string quartet backing them… Or a collaboration with Philip Glass himself might be super cool (hey, if Beck could do it, why not these guys?).

Time will tell…  

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