Why T Bone Burnett’s New Ionic Originals Will Transform the Value of Music

A Brave New World of Record Production

In May 2022, longtime guitarist, producer, and visionary T Bone Burnett made a giant splash in the ocean of the music industry. His one-off production of a singular disc recording with Bob Dylan and its subsequent auction this summer made global headlines. “Blowin' in the Wind” fetched £1.5m ($2m) at a Christie's auction earlier in July, heralding a seismic shift in musical ownership, production, and consumption.

This recording is a one-of-one and will be a private recording. Much like an expensive sports car, it is a recording that can be only used on special occasions.

Starting his early career playing guitar for Bob Dylan, Burnett came to fame after his Grammy for Album of the Year in 2002 for the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which also went on to sell eight million copies. His decade of triumph culminated with a Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2010 for the Crazy Heart theme song “The Weary Kind”.

Burnett has also worked as a musical director for various film and T.V. projects and recorded dozens of prominent artists, including Roy Orbison, Elton John, and Gregg Allman. There are few musical success stories like his.

Named Ionic Originals, Burnett developed the new vinyl recording technique in collaboration with Georgia Tech. But what drove this new venture? Before LPs were available, master records were in the form of acetate, considered the highest audio-quality material.

The problem with acetate, however, is the gravity of the record needle wears the delicate material out through heat friction, causing it to degrade quickly.

In the Christie's video release about this new process, Burnett says, “We looked at the methods used to protect parts of the Space Station that are exposed to the direct heat of the sun and to make the damage-resistant glass on mobile phones.”

The new technology uses a layer of ionized lacquer that protects the acetate from the heat, meaning the record doesn't lose its warmth and depth of sonic resonance. At the same time, this material prevents dust and static from building up, which means the disc is durable for up to a thousand plays at no diminished quality.

In short, the new technique is for recording professionals what a Stradivarius is for violin players: the highest field of sound imaginable.

With his partners, T Bone Burnett formed Neofidelity, a company whose mission is to “Reset the value of recorded music,”a bold statement in the world of Spotify, Apple Music, and Soundcloud.

High Fidelity and High Stakes

According to Variety, Burnett is candid in his views on mass-produced media. For somebody who has spent his life behind a mixing desk with elite talent, he is a purist. However, having worked with the very best, Burnett can be forgiven for striving toward sonic perfection, which is how he justifies this venture.

Says Burnett, “I started cutting acetates in 1965, and they've always been the best-sounding medium. Musicians have always said, “God, I wish the record sounded as good as the acetate.”

Choosing such a high-fidelity medium for music reproduction involved eight years of research and development, which was the bulk of the investment costs. Finally, Neofidelity is on a path to reproduce this sound quality for many artists. However, skeptics question whether this new path creates a stricter hierarchy for the unknown artist to break into.

Is it merely pushing the likes of Bob Dylan and other heritage artists to more monetary rewards?

When asked about this, Burnett is naturally defensive, and maybe rightly so; the industry has always dictated commercial music's value with arbitrary standards. His response: “Why should an album of songs that you spend your whole life writing and recording be worth $4 or $12 or $1 or $20 or $30? Why should it be worth anything?

“Art is worthless and priceless. So how do you set a price for an album? I've never understood that in all these years.”

How Music Lost Its Value

The journey for recorded music has been short in modern human history. With the diamond disc's inception in 1908, analog playback with a vertical stylus evolved to become the L.P. vinyl record in 1948. Then, the tape cassette in 1958 heralded a boom in cheap mass production that pushed artists to a new level of sales alongside vinyl.

The tape cassette brought the first nail in commercial music's coffin: piracy. Bootlegging among peers and organized crime was rampant in the '80s, peaking late in the decade. Record labels even resorted to labeling cassettes with anti-piracy warnings and pleas.

The 8-track followed in the U.S., and these peaked in 1978 before their cassette rivals surpassed them in sales and popularity.

Much of the revenue lost in this period wasn't as much about selling for profit; it was merely friends sharing their new albums. Bedroom bootlegging propelled bands such as Metallica to the immense following that made their success possible. Ironically, Metallica and bootleggers had a stormy relationship in the years that followed.

What followed in 1982 was the first digital format for consumption and the first gasp of the LP record's death rattle: the compact disc. CDs at first revolutionized how we would listen to our favorite artists. This new format, celebrated for being unbreakable and pirate-proof (though still liable to scratching), led to a glorious decade for record companies' royalties.

For recording artists, however, the digital bull had already escaped the pen. Before long, bootlegging compact discs became as easy as cassettes (there cannot be a person born before 1985 who didn't make a burner compilation).

Then on the eve of Y2K, Sean Parker formed Napster, lobbing a grenade at the music publishing industry and (temporarily) pushing the value of music to zero.

After Metallica (see above) found some of their unreleased material on the site, they sued Napster — this triggered an avalanche of legal challenges from artists and companies that led to the website's bankruptcy in 2002.

Napster was the digital canary in a coal mine for music sales, with the next decade sealing the final nails in commercial music value's coffin. The mp3 became available to the public in 2000. Before long, torrenting sites and underground networks such as the Internet Underground Music Archive were sharing files for unsigned artists.

The period after this was a tussle between music publishing companies and their digital counterparts. Piracy was rife, and companies could do nothing to stem the flow. It meant streaming sites and subscriptions became a Band-Aid to stymie the flash flood of illegal downloading still in abundance today.

Of course, vinyl record sales and CDs have come back in recent years. As of 2021, however, physical music formats still only account for 11 percent of total music sales in the U.S. Leading the way are paid subscription sites, with a vast 57 percent of total market sales.

Cutting Out The Middle Man

Music store owner Chris has navigated a difficult few years because of the pandemic and has temporarily closed his business. Before that, vinyl was doing very well, and he hopes to reopen one day again.

“This looks to me like they are cutting out the middleman,” he says. “It is sad in a way because vinyl lovers would always want to own such a high-quality recording. I hope this becomes cheap enough for music fans everywhere but I am not sure that is the idea.”

He is right. The basis for this new venture is born of a need to reinstate the correct valuation on a now disposable entity

It is sobering how far music has fallen as a commodity in the U.S. In 2008, total unit sales (a unit equal to one album or around 1,500 downloads) for music in America was 1.9 billion. 2021 can boast total unit sales of 334 million — a drop of 82 percent.

In contrast, total revenues for music sold between these two dates show an increase from 6.6 billion dollars to 15 billion dollars. In other words, they are now selling fewer units but making more money through other means.

Whatsmore, merchandising and other revenue streams are growing. Year-end data show that the dollar-per-head spending at live venues rose by over 40 percent from 2019 through 2022. Nu-metal giants Korn were ahead of this curve a long time ago.

They signed an experimental deal with EMI/Virgin in 2006 that gave the label a 30-percent share of all sales, tours, sponsorship, and merchandising until the end of the decade.

It resulted from dwindling record sales at the start of the decade and their marketing appeal for a generation of skateboard-carrying nu-metallers. Korn was one of the few bands who took an aggressive approach to merchandise: in the late '90s, their hoodies, beanies, and tees were ubiquitous across the western world.

Defacing The Artist

There is also a sense among older musicians that music is becoming more faceless. The market's oversaturation can make it harder for new listeners to connect with an artist, which means younger listeners tend to know the song but not the artist.

This is no surprise, with the singles download market still taking the clear majority of total sales as it has done since 2008 when it reached 78 percent.

It is this defacing of the artist that has contributed to the devaluation of their work. Nevertheless, record companies and publishers discovered a successful formula for capitalizing on the digital climate. But at what cost to performers?

New artists and bands who make it onto iTunes, Soundcloud, or Spotify earn barely any money for their work. Like a painting, a song could take years of an artist's life to write, but it now retains little monetary value.

Independent recording artist Chuckie Steel has been composing his brand of electro-based music for some time. His new project, Girlfr1end, is reaching completion, and he has been re-educating himself on how to sell his music. His hard work ethic shows his understanding of how the music industry is evolving. He is even reading music psychology literature to try and find an edge within the market.

“There is barely any money in recorded music anymore,” he explains. “The only way artists make any profit now is by marketing harder than the next person. That's a career all in itself: older artists are in real trouble coming up against younger ones who understand how to tie in other concepts such as merch and social media influencers. So it is the ones who know the game best who win.”

So, what would an ideal world look like for new recording artists? One can argue that wannabe musicians and live performance streamers have never had it so good. With the possibility of building a professional-level studio in a bedroom and instant access to free marketing platforms, surely these are halcyon days for the aspiring home recording star?

These kinds of opportunities didn't even exist a few years ago.

“We are almost there, I think,” Chuckie concludes. “If I could wave a wand, it would be great to be able to set a price on a recording. It takes hours and days of my life to make music; when it is a free commodity, it can feel like wasted time. Although, I'm not sure anyone makes music just for the money anymore. What's the point of just doing that?”

Burnett would disagree. Something that you spend years producing should have more value. Original oil paintings fetch tens of millions of dollars, mainly because copying is impossible. An analog record is similar to a painting in some ways; Burnett's objective is that we can start viewing pieces of music in the same way.

Burnett is frank when asked why the release of “Blowin' in the Wind” is such a radical step and what is in it for Dylan's devoted fans. He says in Variety, “I have to say, I've been told for 30 years that I should give my stuff away. So what's in it for me, if I'm just going to give myself away? You know, I don't like to play live. I'm a recording artist. I like working in a studio.

I like working in private. It's not that I don't care about or even love those people, but at this point, that's not my concern. This is about high art.”

This move, in some ways, is another warning shot, much like Napster, who showed the record industry that if it overcharges the public there will be consequences. Conversely, T Bone Burnett is on the other side of the pendulum with this one. He is showing the record industry that when they devalue the artist, he now has a way to bring that value back.

*Chuckie Steel's music is on Spotify. His new project Girlfr1end will be releasing material later this year.

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