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A Missive from the Recording Industry Regarding Covid-19

05-31-2020 | By Scott Dorsey | Issue 109

While he was in quarantine from the terrible plague that was raging in London, Shakespeare wrote King Lear. That is a hard act to follow. I don't think I am going to manage writing anything nearly so significant while stuck here in quarantine.

I have spent a lot of time talking to friends in the recording industry by phone, something I hardly ever do anymore. That, combined with poking around on the internet has given me a rather unexpected view of how the Coronavirus is affecting the audio production world.

An informal survey around the industry shows that business is actually up in a lot of places. People are stuck at home and deciding to work on some of those old projects that have been sitting on the shelf for years. People who do mastering work or transfer tapes from obsolete formats have had a huge spike in demand.

A lot of the American mastering engineers I talked to said they were absolutely slammed with new work coming in from people who had finally made that album they had been meaning to make. I suspect that is going to continue on for a while. Musicians who aren't touring are staying at home and finishing albums.

Maintenance people are also doing well. A friend of mine who repairs film sound equipment says that he's been getting in gear for preventative maintenance that he hasn't seen in decades. People are finally getting around to cleaning things up in the back room, and getting those overdue PMs done that they have been putting off while the equipment was in heavy use.

On the other hand, the live music scene is dead, and those of us who count on spring music festival season for a considerable portion of our total income are out in the lurch. Classical groups aren't recording either, due to the difficulty to keeping everyone in the band six feet apart, let alone doing the spring concert series. Production sound for film? Forget it. The post people are getting some business but anybody who works on set is twiddling their thumbs right now.

It's different in Europe. The mastering folks I talked to are sitting around with very little work coming in. I think to some extent this is because there are more large formal sessions in Europe and fewer people working at home, so the impact on the industry has been very different. Business seems very bad overall there, though. Even the LP pressing plants which have been working overtime are hurting.

Of course, the LP business has been hurting already due to the loss of Apollo's lacquer manufacturing. When the Apollo plant in California burned down in February it took out much more than half of the world's production capacity for making lacquers for disc mastering. I can't help but wonder what would have happened if Apollo and Transco had not merged in 2007. This has been a hard blow to mastering engineers involved in the vinyl business and the Coronavirus on top of that isn't helping anyone. In Europe the business has dropped off... in the US it might be booming like the rest of the mastering industry except that it's limited by the supply of lacquers.

Interestingly, the reports from streaming services are that fewer people are streaming music right now. I'd think that with people being stuck at home they'd be more likely to sit down and listen to music, but that is not happening. I guess that this supports all the people who claim that people don't actually listen to music alone any longer, but only as part of some other activity. Take those other activities away (no more driving, no more exercising) and they stop listening to music. The one big exception is YouTube.

On the one hand this is disturbing to me, but on the other hand it might be an opportunity to get people to sit down and listen mindfully to music. When I was in college people used to have record parties where everybody would go to someone's house and listen to the latest LP all the way through and then talk about it afterward. People don't do that sort of thing any longer, but this might be a chance to try and convince people to do it again, even if they have to do it apart and online.

I think a lot of us are sitting around trying to figure out what sort of long-term changes this is going to bring the industry. I don't know what they are, but I know that it's going to change things. And I hope that when things finally do open up and it's safe to go out that the first place people will want to go is to a concert.