By Jack Sharkey, March 6, 2018
In this installment of our Masters of Sound series, we sit down with music-industry veteran Bobby Owsinski to discuss the current state of the music industry, and how smart speakers like the Apple Homepod and Echo Dot may be leading us to a high-fidelity renaissance in spite of intuition it’s just the opposite.
Bobby Owsinski is a guitar and keyboard player, songwriter and arranger, and a producer/engineer based in Los Angeles. Owsinski was a pioneer in the field of mixing music in surround sound and co-founded the industry leader Surround Associates where he worked on over a hundred surround and DVD productions for a variety of legendary acts including The Who, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Iron Maiden, The Ramones, and Chicago among many others.
Owsinski is an in-demand mix engineer and producer having recently landed at #2 album on the Billboard Blues charts with an album he mixed for Adrianna Marie and Her Groovecutters, and #6 on the iTunes rock charts with an album he produced for the band SNEW.
He has become one of the best selling authors in the music recording industry with twenty-three books including the best selling “Mixing Engineer’s Handbook,” “The Recording Engineer’s Handbook,” and “Music 4.0: A Survival Guide For Making Music In The Internet Age" (all now in their 3rd edition). He has also penned hundreds of audio-related articles for a variety of popular industry trade publications such as Surround Professional, EQ, Billboard, Film & Video, Hollywood Reporter, Pro Sound News, Mix, Grammy Magazine, Electronic Musician, Recording Engineer/ Producer and Music Executive Insider and has also appeared on CNN and ABC's "20/20" as a music branding and audio expert.
Bobby and I sat last week via Skype to talk about technology and the shape of things to come in the music world.
KEF: With the release of the Apple Homepod, alongside the Echo Dot and Google Home, the word ‘audiophile’ has taken on an entirely new meaning, on that is fundamentally changing the definition of “high-end audio.” But that may not all be bad news for the true high-end market as it may pique the interest of more music fans to explore what true high-fidelity is all about. Do you see these new products as being beneficial to the artistic community?
Owsinski: I agree with you 100% and I actually just wrote an article exactly on that topic for Forbes. It came out a couple of weeks ago online [Can the Apple HomePod Ignite A New Hi-Fi Era? Forbes.com Feb. 10, 2018]. It was basically all about the fact that there are some pretty good audio engineers over at Apple right now and they haven’t been utilized for what they can do but now it looks like they’re getting a chance to stretch out. I agree with you that one can only hope that this will be a step better for a general population that will be exposed to better audio. As far as I’m concerned though, that whole genre of smart speakers I find as a trend but I don’t find it as something that is going to move the needle over time. I feel that it’s the cool thing to do this year and then we’ll be on to something else in terms of what the consumer is looking for.
KEF: A flavor of the month so to speak. But should there be a fear that music will become even more of a commodity than it already is? Does the new technology lessen the experience of enjoying music for what it is rather than just as a void filler in the background?
Owsinksi: Well maybe it’s the continuation of a trend that started quite while ago. The whole digital download movement started the trend. I don’t know that it’s any different now. It’s accelerated perhaps. My hope is that at some point in time, as with all things, it will cycle around again where music will be more important to people. But it’s not right now, not the way it used to be.
KEF: Is it that the media is so watered down now because there are so many options?
Owsinski: I think that there are many options to take your attention away from it. That being said, music is still important, especially to a certain age group and that will probably never change. It’s a matter of how important though. I think the importance was different when [Baby Boomers] were growing up and a lot of that had to do with the distribution method, which back then was vinyl. The consumption method was different – you might go to a record store and buy a record based on the cover, which is gone today. There are many attempts to bring something like that [experience] back and we’ll see if that actually happens or not.
And also, when you sat down to enjoy the product, you tended to listen to the album all the way through. Now we’re in a singles society, which is very consumable and very fast, where if you don’t like what you’re hearing you’re on to the next thing very quickly.
KEF: With the way media and technology are today, can we ever replicate that because everything is so much more fractured than it was?
Owsinski: I’ve done a lot of research on this, and it’s been part of many of my books where you find the music business is driven by technology and it always has been. The music business was sheet music, then it went to piano rolls and then before vinyl it went to the Victrola and acetate 78 RPM. Then it went to reel-to-reel then of course cassette, and so on. So every time there is new technology – a new distribution technology – that adds convenience, that drives the music industry. Right now we’re kind of climbing to the apex of what this new consumption method is – streaming – and at a certain point there’s going to be a new technology that’s going to drive it again. Now how it drives it we don’t know, but it’s entirely possible that it will come back around to where it was post-Beatles where it went from singles to the album that was important. We may have that again if there is a suitable distribution technology. But we don’t know what that is yet.
KEF: So even if an artist comes out with a killer album, as consumers we’re just not in the habit right now of consuming an entire album. We’re consuming the singles we hear off of Spotify, radio, television or whatever – a singles market.
Owsinski: Exactly, because the album is not important. And the album in fact is going down in importance. If you look at the sales, even of digital albums, it’s going down and down and down by double digits every year. Album sales are not going well, and as a matter of fact, you’re starting to see from record labels where there is less emphasis on the album and more emphasis on singles, again going back to the old days where you didn’t even get the chance as an artist to record an album until you had a couple of hit singles. You’re starting to see that again where there’s more and more emphasis on releasing a series of singles rather than on releasing a product that is the album. I can’t say it’s a bad thing, it’s just different.
KEF: How does that speak to the vinyl revolution? There’s no denying the fact that vinyl sales are increasing on a regular basis. They’re still a tiny piece of the overall pie, so is it still just a hobbyist’s fad or is it something deeper than that?
Owsinski: Well, it’s certainly not hobbyists only. When you look at the demographic of who buys vinyl, Baby Boomers are a small portion of that surprisingly enough. It’s Millennials that are buying vinyl, it’s Gen-X that are buying it. Sometimes they’re buying it and it’s almost a novelty where they’re not even playing it, or they don’t have the means to play it, but they are buying it. And the one’s who are buying and do have the method to play it back are enjoying it more. I read an article, from the UK, and it was something like ‘when a twenty-year-old hears vinyl for the first time.’ And it was a girl who happened to go to one of her friends’ house where they had a vinyl setup and a nice stereo playback system. Now ‘nice’ is relative to what it is but apparently it was better than what she was used to. And she was amazed at what she heard and it changed her listening life forever because after that she became more critical. Which comes back to the Homepod in that again, it’s your reference point. When you hear something that’s really great – there’s your reference point and now you know what you’re missing and you keep on trying to get back to that. If you don’t know what you’re missing you don’t know what that is. You don’t know what you don’t know.
KEF: In my experience, as people get introduced to higher levels of quality of music and you really hear a song in all of its elegance and it’s very hard to go back and listen to it in a lower quality. Once I hear something in a higher resolution it’s actually kind of heartbreaking sometimes to go back and listen to the same track on an mp3 or whatever.
Owsinski: Especially coming from a speaker company, from KEF, where you’re used to hearing things at a level that most people are not. A level of quality that most people are not [listening to]. Again, you get used to that and its very difficult to go to anything else. Your expectations are at a point where they are very few things that can actually qualify, so to speak.
KEF: So we can look at it that these new devices are a gateway to better and and larger listening experience overall. So is it a good time to be music fan?
Owsinski: Oh, it’s probably the best. If you are to read the criticisms of today’s music, I think it’s probably the same as it has been for the past fifty or sixty years. The criticisms are always the same from a certain generation – an older generation, and the fact of the matter is there is great music being made. Does it all hit the visibility level that we’d like? No. The Billboard Charts, the Spotify playlists, the normal playlists on radio, those are very limited and they’re limited to a certain genre but there’s plenty of great music being made – there always is – it’s just a matter of finding it and that’s always been the problem. For everyone, for record labels, for distribution networks like Spotify.
So again, we’re back to the same old thing where it’s music discovery. Music discovery is the Holy Grail, and I would say that’s getting even tougher only because there are so many choices. Where to find trusted tastes, so to speak. That’s way playlists are very important, they’re probably more important than ever but even that’s being corrupted so we have a problem there as well.
KEF: What’s your go to format for new stuff you’re listening to?
Owsinski: I do like high-res files and I like HD Tracks and others like that if I can find what I want to find. That’s always the problem and I fear that’s going to get worse. You know we have the whole problem of finding the masters and also we have a whole period of time when the masters were actually not high-res when everyone thought 44.1/16 or even 48k was plenty, so we have masters that aren’t that great to begin with. But anyway, that’s my preferred method. I don’t have vinyl; I would like vinyl but I hesitate jumping in because it’s a big commitment from a space perspective. You get to a point in life where you try to simplify and you try to simplify possessions and the I don’t like the idea of going and getting a lot of new possessions when I can get something that doesn’t take up any space at all like a digital file or I can listen on Tidal which is sometimes very good or even Spotify which can be very good depending on the master.
As a little comparison, I have a subscription service that I do called Hitmakers Club. What happens with that is you get access to a number of webinars that I do every month and one that I do every month is deconstructed hits where I ask [subscribers] what they would like me
to deconstruct. Deconstructed in we’ll listen closely to all the sections, listen to what happens, listen to the arrangement. We’ll listen to why it is a hit. Sometimes they want brand new hits, sometimes they want old material. One that recently came up was Dreams from Fleetwood Mac. Now this was on Spotify, so there’s the limitation already that you have but I’ve got to say even on Spotify listening to that track it was amazing. It sounded so good and I’m listening to it and I’m thinking ‘boy there’s things on here I didn’t hear before or I didn’t hear it the same way.’ Now we’re talking about a limited bandwidth, digitally encoded, 320kbps, it’s not very high but it was still really good because there was a whole lot of dynamic range because it was just done well way back when. It wasn’t squashed to hell.
KEF: It was a great recording without a lot of dynamic compression so all of that good stuff was preserved when it was recorded.
Owsinski: So even under the limitations that we have, things can still sound terrific. And they do, under the right circumstances. And then we’ll listen to something that’s brand new and we’ll listen to the difference. Spotify of course levels everything out because they want everything at -14 LUFS I believe (Ed Note: Loudness Units Relative to Full Scale (LUFS) describes volume without direct absolute reference so it is able to describe loudness level differences) and what ends up happening is you can really hear the difference in what a limited dynamic range does because the volume level is the same. Read more about Dynamic Compression.
I'd like to thank Bobby for taking some time and sharing his insight and experience with us. For more information from and about Bobby please check out BobbyOwsinski.com. On a personal note. on my own weekly required reading list is Bobby's music industry blog Music 3.0 and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the day-to-day goings on in the industry.