12 November 2019

Replacement discs versus downloads

DGM recently announced that replacement downloads are now available for those albums in the “Heaven & Earth” boxed set, which, due to a mistake by the BluRay author, sadly played at the wrong speed. This has led to renewed online discussion about the merits or otherwise of replacement discs versus downloads. As promised, here is a philosophical consideration of the fundamental issues which this raises

The very quick and simple version: you can either charge the maximum retail price that the contents of your box will justify - thus earning very large profits more than sufficient to cover unexpected costs - or you can fill a boxed set to bursting with wonderful goodies, while keeping it more generally affordable, but not have such luxury.

You can approach the music business through the prism of business or the prism of music.

A boxed set, viewed through the prism of business, may well be excellent – but it would be designed around the profit motive ie. it would only contain sufficient music to justify the price tag and the work involved. To put it differently, a boxed set with eighteen CDs, four BluRays, and two DVDAs would only be made if it was going to be significantly more profitable than one with fewer contents. A quick search on Amazon would suggest that, by that judgement, “Heaven & Earth” is either under-priced by about £100. Or, more likely, the price is right, but it should contain less music.

A boxed set, viewed through the prism of music, is designed entirely differently. It is an opportunity to share with music lovers all the music that falls within the remit of that box. Thus, every year, we start with a list of the music that we believe a box might contain. Having completed that list, we inevitably find other items, and we spend as much as six months working very hard to make ourselves poorer. The selling price of the box does not increase due to the increased work or content. There is a market value above which a boxed set becomes largely the remit of wealthy collectors and would thus fail to achieve its main purpose. With each added disc, particularly BluRays or DVDs, the profitably continues to fall sharply, as the third-party authoring and manufacturing costs rise inexorably.

None of us make any complaint about this or would have it any other way. Money is, of course, important, but if it were the defining principle, all of us within DGM would long since have moved on to more lucrative pastures. The purpose of the work has to be the music. Commerce is the necessary fuel to make it happen. This may seem loft idealism. But it is also practical. I suspect that many of those who faithfully buy our products would also long since have moved on were it not for the ethos that underpins them.

To operate in the marketplace while being free of the values of the marketplace

To help bring music into the world which would otherwise be unlikely to do so.

Thus, in the case of the Heaven & Earth boxed set, we can proudly create a boxed set that contains over 7,000 minutes of music in all the various formats. A figure that bears repeating.  Seven thousand minutes. That is over one hundred hours. Or more than nine days spent listening continuously for twelve hours. A triumph by all those involved.

Of all this music, frustratingly and annoyingly, ten items play at the wrong speed – hence the downloads from the site. One might think that the remaining ninety hours (far in excess, I suspect, of any of our previous boxes) together with the printed contents more than justified the purchase price.

Apparently not. Any relationship mediated by commerce is necessarily problematic. Consumers have perceived rights. In the case of concerts, this may mean that they have the right to take photographs. In the case of the boxed set, it means that they have the right to a replacement disc.

Except that replacement discs do not exist. The boxed set has never been re-manufactured, nor is it likely to be.  The cost of replacement discs (authoring and manufacturing 16,000 BluRays, and then paying someone to receive requests and mail out discs to 8,000 people worldwide) would realistically be close to £100,000.

So in practice the request for replacement discs is a request that not only do we spend up to six months making these boxes, we now actually lose money in doing so, even if the fault is not our own. Hardly a sustainable business model. Indeed, some of the abusive emails that I have received inevitably make me question any future boxed sets. The innocent joy of polishing treasures in the belief that you are sharing them with those best able to appreciate them is long gone.

Contrary to what some of them believe, I bear no malice towards music fans on the audiophile forums who uncovered the error. Indeed, it is fortunate that they did (and we would always want to know of any error that someone finds). But the apparently joyful “treasure hunt” that it became, where “fans” were congratulating each other on finding some new timing error, often by ripping the music and comparing times in a computer rather than listening, did become distasteful. Before we reached the question of the sometimes vociferous and aggressive demands for replacement discs.

After the seemingly endless hours that have been devoted to this, one feels like screaming “what do you want us to do?!”. And the answer is simple – some people want their replacement disc no matter what. Or alternatively, they accept that it is, of course, completely unfeasible for everyone to have a replacement, but they want to be an exception, and have one made just for them.

Actions have repercussions. Faced with the same last-minute decision to re-author a BluRay to add bonus albums, we would now almost certainly decline. It takes valuable time and money, adds nothing to the selling price and increases the chances of errors. We have learnt the hard way that people do not thank you for adding the bonus content – they complain loudly about the mistake.

But what of even larger decisions? Whether, for example, to add an additional BluRay so that a new discovery can be added in higher resolution or in surround sound. Seen through the values of the marketplace, only a fool would do more work to make a boxed set less profitable, and, by increasing the content, again increase the likelihood of an error. And it seems those values are increasingly being forced upon us.

I am of course angry that there were errors in the Heaven & Earth boxed set. I am particularly angry on behalf of all those who worked so hard to create it that we are not celebrating and remembering an astonishing musical triumph, but endlessly discussing a third-party authoring error. And yes, I am angry on behalf of the fans that they do not have the perfect boxed set, which we all worked so hard to give them. But right now, I am even more angry that those who continue to insist on replacement discs rather than downloads may force us into a position where DGM can no longer be true to its business aims.

To operate in the marketplace while being free of the values of the marketplace

To help bring music into the world which would otherwise be unlikely to do so.

Both things are only possible with goodwill from those at DGM, but also with matching goodwill and understanding from music lovers. Just as concert goers who insist on their perceived rights can ruin a concert (and did, in fact, drive Robert Fripp to cease live performance in 2008) so if purchasers force the values of the marketplace upon us, then it will no longer be possible to bring music into the world in this way.

This question of the replacement discs is therefore surprisingly fundamental.

DISCOVER THE DGM HISTORY
.

1940s
1950s
1960s
1970s
1980s
1990s
2000s
2010s
.