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‘HMV has suffered from an ongoing wave of digital disruption’: what the CD decline means for mastering

HMV’s recent entrance into administration prompted fresh questions about the outlook for the CD format and related mastering services. David Davies speaks to notable mastering engineers Katie Tavini and Patrick DSP about the CD decline and what the future holds

The news that music retailer HMV had been placed into administration for the second time in six years, revealed during the Christmas period, served to underline both the severity of the crisis affecting UK high streets, and the somewhat chilly outlook for CD and DVD formats.

The importance of HMV to the UK’s offline music retailing sector is hard to underestimate. Although substantially reduced from its heyday, the company still operates 128 stores across the UK – including nine under the Fopp brand – and employs around 2,000 permanent staff. Despite continued diversification into areas such as digital technology and gaming, the chain first entered into administration in January 2013, albeit temporarily rescued by commercial restructuring company Hilco.

From a wave of store closures emerged a slimmed down organisation that appeared to be performing well, despite the continued decline in CD and DVD sales. But a disappointing performance in the run-up to Christmas last year saw the retailer move into administration once again, with KPMG appointed to assess options for the HMV business.

Will Wright, partner at KPMG and joint administrator, commented: “Whilst we understand that [HMV] has continued to outperform the overall market decline in physical music and visual sales, as well as growing a profitable e-commerce business, the company has suffered from the ongoing wave of digital disruption sweeping across the entertainment industry. This is in addition to the ongoing pressures facing many high street retailers, including weakening consumer confidence, rising costs and business rates pressures.”

There are some positive signs that HMV may continue in some form or other, with Wright “confirming that a number of offers on various bases have been received”. It would seem overly optimistic to imagine that all of the current stores will continue operations, raising the prospect of a further threat to offline music availability. But more generally, it’s by no means all bad news; the overall number of UK outlets selling physical entertainment products has risen in recent years, with the spike during the 2015-16 period being especially marked, according to data from the Entertainment Retailers Association.

Evidently, the resurgence of vinyl has played a significant role here, with record companies responding enthusiastically to the renewed interest with high-quality pressings of archive titles and the latest releases. The continued success of Record Store Day – which has given a focus both to the vinyl revival and ongoing efforts to buoy up the physical music market – has undoubtedly been a major contributory factor. There is, however, rather less cause for optimism about the future of the CD format. Although the decline has been more sudden in the US – where mid-2018 statistics made available by the Recording Industry Association of America revealed a $200m-plus drop in sales during the first half of the year, compared to the same period in 2017 – the UK has also seen a steadily downward nature.

In light of HMV’s current tribulations, PSNEurope spoke to a couple of leading mastering engineers about the implications of the CD’s uncertain future on their operations, and the steps they have to take to diversify their activities and remain consistently busy.

Katie Tavini is a UK-based mastering engineer who started her career in 2009 and has, in recent years, developed a particular affinity with independent and small label artists. She also recently became a regular columnist for PSNEurope. In her experience, “pretty much every person I master an album for does want a DDP file (for sending music to a CD manufacturer), although this rarely results in a mass-distribution CD release. I don’t think a lot of them are ending up in HMV,” she notes, “but a CD can still be very useful to have to sell via an artist’s website, or as affordable merchandise on tour”. Like most mastering engineers, Tavini has witnessed a transition in the marketplace, whereby whole album projects have increasingly been supplanted by standalone single releases and EPs. In fact, at the present time, “for every album I master I probably work on five EPs,” she says, noting that many of these will be destined primarily for digital and vinyl release.

Tavini does not foresee any dramatic changes to her present mix of work, aside from further strengthening her presence in the independent sector. But as an engineer who spends roughly half her time doing transfer work, she is acutely aware of the need to “keep an open mind” and operate a diversified business, hence her participation in workshops and exploring the possibility of delivering online tutorials.

The ongoing call for CD masters is somewhat at odds with the experience of Berlin-based Neptune Mastering, which is owned and run by dance music DJ and producer Patrick Gharapetian, aka Patrick DSP: “To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I mastered a CD with the whole DDP standards – it’s certainly been a while.”

For Gharapetian, the balance of his work has continued to shift towards digital releases: “People like the simplicity and possibility of quick releases that you get with digital.” But, the percentage of his work mastering for vinyl has also risen – to between 20 and 30 per cent in an average year – with artists and labels “generally approaching me about this kind of work, although I do also advise people to consider a vinyl release. It’s still a great thing to have a physical copy of your work, [not least for reasons] of pride or aesthetics”. As in London, the number of mastering operations has dropped from the music industry’s ‘80s/‘90s heyday, although those that do remain are doing well, and Gharapetian’s impression is that they are busier now than they were a few years ago.

In addition to his DJ and producer work, Gharapetian lately teamed up with an audio production school in Russia, being responsible for mastering students’ project work: “Diversification is definitely important.” Whatever the future for CDs, the experiences of these mastering engineers underlines the fact that the mastering sector has always been one of the most responsive components of the music production business. That being the case, it seems unlikely that the fate of HMV – whatever that may be – will have a dramatic impact on individual mastering businesses. What is more troubling is the potential loss of experienced and knowledgeable staff, and the further surrendering of musical recommendations and ‘gatekeeper’ duties to a handful of streaming services and some highly questionable algorithms – and that’s something that should concern all true music lovers.