Pop Stops looks back at 15 while looking forward:

Will DVDs save the music industry?


This summer, Pop Stops celebrated its 15th birthday.

I never would have thought in 1988, when I was a new college graduate and news beat reporter on his first assignments for The Star, that 15 years later I’d still be turning in a weekly column about my favorite subject – music. But here I am. A couple jobs, cars and residences later, and still, every Saturday, I sit down and write about what I’ve been listening for the past week.

I’ve covered a lot of bands over the years, from bubblegum popsters Paula Abdul, Britney Spears, and Backstreet Boys to art rockers Yes, Fate’s Warning and King’s X, to alternative ‘80s poster kids Psychedelic Furs, R.E.M. and The Cure to country crossover luminaries like Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Johnny Cash. I’ve written about hundreds of artists in a variety of genres every year, and hopefully,  introduced you to some innovative music you might not have stumbled over otherwise.

Change, change, change

The music industry has changed a lot in 15 years; when I started this column, record companies were still sending out records – black vinyl LPs - to me to review (Timbuk 3’s  “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades” was one of the first records I was sent to review during that first summer of Pop Stops). For a time, cassette tapes came into vogue as a cheaper alternative, and then finally everything switched solidly to CDs. The industry has also toyed with other formats, including mini CDs and DATs (digital audio tape). For awhile, the Mini-Disc format was pushed, but has never really caught on. Currently there’s a new DVD-Audio format being embraced by audiofiles that remixes the sound on normal CD albums to be optimally playable utilizing the multiple speaker systems of high quality Surround Sound entertainment systems.

The CD boom years lasted throughout the lates ‘80s and early ‘90s, as music lovers both converted all of their favorite vinyl LPs to aluminum disc format, and embraced new powerhouse acts, from Nirvana to Counting Crows to The Fugees.

But then things started to change. The Internet became an increasingly common (and useful) tool, and music lovers found that they could discover new bands (and collect songs from old favorites) by downloading digital song files from the ‘net, rather than paying for a whole album of sometimes unknown quality. As connection speeds increased and sound file encryption technology (like the MP3 file format) advanced, it became possible to download whole albums of CD-quality song files in just a few minutes rather than hours.

In the latter ‘90s, the use of the Internet for “song pirating” steadily leeched away at both artists’ and the music industry’s bottom lines, with Napster and Napster-like web sites offering free downloads of songs to fans (who then generally wouldn’t buy the CDs).

While the initial defense was legal copyright violation actions, the music industry has recognized that freezing mega-song-trade services like Napster won’t stop people from trading song files for free. Over the past few months, I’ve noted a new weapon in the campaign of the music industry to try to drive people to buy music, rather than steal it – the DVD.

Led ZeppelinWill  DVDs save the CD industry?

Record labels have tried a variety of things to make the audio CD more valuable to consumers, so they keep buying albums.

Over the past few years, the industry has truly gone digital, offering CD purchasers “keys”  to special downloadable music and video extras via Web sites, only accessible if you have the audio CD resident in your computer’s CD-ROM drive. And more and more, artists have been releasing “Enhanced CDs,” adding videos, lyrics and other “bonus” items playable in computers to their CDs.

But bonus CD content hasn’t done the trick. The latest gambit by the industry to keep you, the listener, buying new music, is the DVD.

DVDs have been slowly replacing the VHS tape as the format of choice for home movie (and concert recording) buffs. Recently the two-DVD self-titled Led Zeppelin release topped the DVD sales charts, as fans scrambled to view old concert footage of varying quality from the classic rock act (performances ranged from a 1970 show at the Royal Albert Hall to the band’s performance at Knebworth in 1979, and the discs also include footage from a couple of rare interviews).

KansasClassic ‘70s band Kansas, (which was a subject of my 10-year anniversary column for a disc recorded with a symphony orchestra) recently did what many acts are doing: the band released a live album in tandem with a live DVD set featuring video of the same, or simillar material. Kansas’ Device – Voice – Drum offers the video recordings of the songs on the CD, but also includes band interviews, a “Making of the DVD” video and information on the band’s extensive discography.

Siouxsie & The BansheesGoth music champions Siouxsie and the Banshees have just released Seven Year Itch, a live concert album and separate DVD set documenting last year’s reunion tour after a seven-year hiatus. The DVD offers the same songs as the CD, along with bonus interview material including a great tour of what the backstage area of a major concert venue looks like hosted by drummer Budgie.

The industry has also found the DVD format to be a great way to increase the reach of song videos; Tori Amos recently released a DVD of her single “A Sorta Fairytale,” which includes a “Making of the music video” segment, as well as the video itself, a technical masterpiece that creates a visual metaphor of lonlieness and companionship by digitally putting Amos’ head on a foot and showing her hopping along and then falling, needing the help of another to get up. It looks much better than that description probably sounds, and nods at the term her fans have often called themselves – “ears with feet.”

But the promotion of standalone DVD music video singles and collections doesn’t solve the problem of people not paying for songs on CD. The “album” remains the bread and butter of the music industry.

Ben Folds LiveTo address that problem, record companies have begun including bonus DVDs inside the case of CDs. While you may be able to download some of the songs from the CD from the Internet, it’s still bandwidth-prohibitive to download DVD files...so the added bonus makes it more attractive for fans to purchase the CD to get the accompanying DVD videos. The Ben Folds Live album last year was one of the first that I noticed which embraced this strategy (a separate DVD with eight concert video recordings was packaged with the CD. The DVD included tracks covered on the CD and non-CD songs). And the New Order hits compilation of a few months ago included a bonus DVD with a couple of music videos and a live video performance. The band has since released a couple of separate full-length concert DVDs.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed the trend of packaging CDs with bonus DVDs picking up. Metallica’s  latest release St. Anger was packaged this summer with a full-length DVD of the band taped during rehearsals for the album recording sessions. Certainly that encouraged anyone who is more than just a casual fan to purchase the CD, rather than pirate songs from it.

The strategy is especially useful for introducing new artists. Cold, a hard rock act akin to Saliva, has a “Making of” DVD packaged inside their new CD Year of the Spider, as well as a music video for the disc’s single. SerartAnd Serart, a new avant garde offering from System of a Down’s Serj Tankian with Armenian folk artist Arto Tunc Boyaciyan advertises that the CD “includes a DVD with the film Sun Angle Calculator. The term “film” may imply a little more than this is...Sun Angle Calculator is really a long music video that is a kaleidoscopic collection of surreal imagery --  from dandelion seeds and shots of outer space to military missions and bazaars. All these disparate images swirl together in Daliesque fashion as a soundtrack plays behind it sampling a number of the rhythmic, at times almost tribal, music from the CD. It’s not really a “film,” as most people think of it, but a 12-minute promotional video for the album.

Where are we going?

The use of DVDs to shore up the stalling CD industry is an interesting trend, and certainly a welcome one in terms of value-added bonuses in album-buying for fans. I’ll keep watching it, and listening, over the next five years. I’m looking forward to seeing where the music industry is when Pop Stops hits its 20th birthday in 2008.

Stay tuned!