Friday, April 30, 2010

Lessons from York - The Girl's Train revisited

The last post I presented a puzzle from the TCA Eastern Division Toy Train Show at York, PA. An exceedingly rare and valuable set suddenly appears on the market in quantity. The set, Lionel's 1957 Girl's Train, is one of those items that's desirable only because it's so rare.

I speculated that perhaps the core demographic for this set was beginning to age out of the market and downsizing. But there might be more to the story.

The Girl's Train sold very poorly when first offered, and for a long time wasn't particularly desirable. The toy train hobby heavily skews male (and conservative males at that), so a bubblegum pink locomotive didn't top anyone's "must have" list. But then investors entered the hobby; folks interested in buying low and selling high. The value of the Girl's Train climbed.

Strangely enough, demand was such that there were several reissues/homages to this fabled set. Williams created their version with a different engine, and even a passenger train in pastel colors! K-Line also produced a pastel "girl's train." (pictured, left)

None of these impacted the value of the original, though. But Lionel has now reissued the Girl's Train, using the original dies. In book collecting, first editions are everything. But what about train sets?

Some older toy trains are desired for their operation. Not so the Girl's Train. I seriously doubt anyone has put this on their layout and run it. This is trophy item that only maintains its value by minimizing handling (scratches affect condition, y'know).

So what caused the sudden appearance of all of those Girl's Trains at York? Downsizing? Need for cash? Or an anticipation of falling value?

Anyone know of something similar happening in other hobbies? What were the causes there? Your thoughts are welcome!

- Ralph


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Lessons from York - A mixed message

Dad and I just returned from our semi-annual trip to York, PA for the Train Collectors Association Eastern Division toy train meet. Now whether you're interested in trains or not, please read on, because I'm asking for your input.

In the past I've tried reading what happened at the meet as an economic indicator. In the fall, there were a lot of abandoned tables, suggesting either money was too tight for vendors to commit, or perhaps had committed but didn't have the funds to travel (the show pulls attendees and vendors primarily from the East Coast, but some travel cross country to attend).

The 1931 Lionel Catalog featured an evergreen trophy item -- the
standard gauge State Set (the passenger train in the foreground). The
remaining items pictured all either merely desirable or highly desirable.

This time virtually all the tables were full and attended. So perhaps a segment of the economy has picked up.What interested me, though -- and where I'm looking for insight -- is what we saw at the show. Although toy trains have been around for more than a century, what shows up on the market tends to run in cycles. At least in this hobby, many try to collect what they fondly remember from their childhood. So as time passes, the desirability (and value) of items rise and fall in a fairly predictable fashion.

At York, though, we saw a lot of something that I consider a trophy item. That is, an object that was unsuccessful in the marketplace initially, which meant very few were ever in circulation. This makes the object extremely rare, which drives up its value. And while a trophy item still isn't desirable on its own merits, its rareness makes it a crown jewel in any collection. For cars, I think of the Edsel. For stamps, the air mail upside down plane. The thing that lets someone say, "Oh yes, I'm a serious collector. Why I even have a [trophy item]!"

In this case, it was the Lionel Girl's Train. (pictured right, from the Toy Metal Museum) That's right. In 1957, Lionel decided to market to girls and offered a train in pastel shades. It bombed. Girls interested in trains wanted the same ones the boys did.

As time passed, the Girl's Train became a trophy item -- something no truly complete collection could be without. Although to my knowledge no one ever wanted one to actually run, even when it was new.

At York this time we saw no less than ten Girl's Train sets for sale, plus several more partial sets and some individual pieces. Why is this coming back on the market now -- and en masse? Collectors of postwar Lionel were the most interested in the Girl's Train, and that population is just reaching retirement age. The next generation is focused on the offerings of the mid- to late sixties.

The value of the set remains quite high. So are people selling to raise cash? Are they trimming their collections in preparation for moving to smaller homes? Or has the bloom finally fallen off this rose?

So my question is this: what's happening with your hobby's trophy items? Are they showing up in the marketplace? Has the perceived desirability of them changed?

I'd be interested in learning if this is something unique to the small world of toy trains, or part of a larger phenomenon.

- Ralph


Monday, April 26, 2010

Where's Ken? Back from Boston!

Long-time readers have noted Ken's decreasing frequency of posts. And there's a good reason for that. While one of us has been typing away commenting on events in the world, the other has been out in the world doing things -- like training.

Training for the Boston Marathon.

Which Ken entered, and completed in the upper half of the pack. You can read the details of his race on his own blog, Milestones.We followed him through the Boston Athletic Association's website. With his electronic monitor we received updates in real time.

Take a peek at his post -- it was a well-run race, and an interesting first-person account.

Jeopardy contestant, Boston Marathon runner, and accomplished Nigerian scammer scammer. What next?

- Ralph

Friday, April 23, 2010

RIAA - Really Imaginary Accounting Adventures

Two recent news stories that should give one pause (but probably won't because the subject matter's too esoteric). First, AfterDawn reports that the Government Accounting Office has taken a hard look at the numbers the RIAA and MPAA have quoted for years. Numbers documenting how much they lost to piracy. Numbers showing how file-sharers are destroying their livelihood. Numbers that were totally made up.

In the second story, TorrentFreak shows that -- according to their own numbers -- piracy seems to have little impact on the growing digital download market. According to the numbers, it looks like a simple case of market shift. CDs -- which are very profitable -- are declining in sales, while digital downloads -- low margin items -- are on the rise.

So what do these two stories mean taken together? At the very least, it means that the entertainment industry is not just in deep denial -- it's delusional. Instead of adjusting to a changing market, they're placing the blame on a minor problem by making it a major one.

So the MPAA and the RIAA have gone to war. People have been dragged into court, and hefty fines levied -- based on made-up numbers. Legislators have been stampeded into passing draconian laws that trap the innocent -- based on made-up numbers. Countries are being strong-armed into complying with the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) -- based on made-up numbers.

As the laws continue to become more severe, more former innocent (and legal) acts are becoming grounds for prosecution. Have you copied a CD to your computer? Used to be legal -- RIAA claims it isn't anymore. Loaned a DVD to a friend? You're doing some unauthorized distribution, friend.

And what happens when everyone becomes a criminal (and liable for arrest, prosecution and fines)  -- based on made-up numbers? What happened to alcohol consumption during Prohibition?

 - Ralph

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Another Look at the Thousand True Fans

The Information is Beautiful Blog posted a wonderful graphic illustrating how much musicians earn online.It examines income streams from all of the different venues available, and looks at independent artists vs. those signed with labels. For many, the chart prompted despair -- 1.5 million plays on, for example, earns a solo artist $1,160 -- the monthly minimum wage.

I suggest looking at it in a different light, though. Kevin Kelly's articulated the concept of the One Thousand True Fans as a way for independent artists to achieve success. Basically, if you can connect with one thousand fans who are willing to spend $100 on your downloads/albums/merch/concert tickets, then you can make a decent living catering to a niche market.

So let's look again at the numbers from our chart, and instead of looking at minimum wage, look at what happens if those One Thousand True Fans voted with their dollars and each made a purchase.

Self-pressed CD @$9.99 -- $8,000 to the artist
CD Baby Album @$9.99 -- $7,500 to the artist
CD Baby iTunes Download @$0.99 -- $570 to the artist

Look what happens when the artist signs with a label.
Retail album CD @9.99 list -- $2,000 to the label, $300 to the artist
iTunes album download @$9.99 list -- $6,290 to the label,$940 to the artist
Amazon MP3 download @$0.99 -- $630 to the label, $90 to the artist

Notice anything?

Traditionally, the advantage to signing with a label has been that the resources of the label could be used to boost the artist's profile, increasing their fan base. But look at it from the artist's perspective. To match the income ($8,000) from a self-released CD, the artist now needs 26,000 fans to by the album at retail. OK, that's not impossible. And when those 26,000 fans purchase, the label will make $52,000.

How about downloads? In order to net the same $570 you netted as an indie artist from your One Thousand Fans, you only need 8,220 folks to download your song -- and make $5,186 for the label in the process.

Now of course, labels measure success in terms of hundreds of thousands of fans. So if you had 250,000 of them (sort of the bare minimum), you'd then have $22,500 coming to you from your downloads -- while the label pockets $157,500.

Hmmm. Maybe it's best to keep those One Thousand Fans to yourself.

- Ralph

Monday, April 12, 2010

The CE Classical Challange - Public Radio East

The Public Radio Classical Challenge rolls on!  (Please check the link in the previous sentence to get all the disclaimers surrounding this informal survey). We stay in North Carolina and examine a day's worth of classical programming from Public Radio East (serving Eastern Carolina). Like many stations, WTEB has a news/classical music format. It airs classical music overnight using WFMT's service. It has three locally-produced classical music blocks throughout the weekday; mid-mornings, afternoons, and late evenings.

Public Radio East broadcasts in an area that has a large seasonal population (beach-goers), and so I'm not surprised that their programming leans towards the conservative side of what's shaping up to be (as our survey continues) to be a very safe approach to programming.

Based on our one-day survey, the most representative WTEB track would be an orchestral composition from the late romantic/post-romantic period (1870-1910). Something by a dead, male, European composer, of course. That fits in with the 101 Strings-type sound many stations seem to be aiming for (especially during the dayparts). And for the most part, the repertoire's consistent with the offerings of the North Caroline Symphony.

But there were some subtle differences. WTEB aired a very percentage of chamber music. This is good, as it exposes the listener to some of the works they're likely to hear in more intimate settings, such as the local Manning Chamber Music Series and the North Carolina Chamber Music Festival.

What about vocal music? Still no danger of hearing any opera arias or lieder broadcast over the airwaves (at least on the day we checked). But WTEB did play some choral music, which means members of the various choral societies in the listening area can actually hear works they might perform.

Still, some things remained the same. Jennifer Higdon may have won the Pulitzer Prize for music, but it's not likely you'll hear her on WTEB. Why?

1) She's a female composer (0% aired)
2) She's still alive (0% aired)
3) She's writing music in the 21st Century (0% aired)

Three strikes. She's out.

Here's the breakdown for the day's playlist:

Types of Ensemble
68% Orchestra (includes soloist with orchestra)
18% Chamber group
7% Solo instrumental performer (mostly piano)
7% Choral ensemble
0% Solo vocalist

Style Period
50% Romantic
21% 20th Century (mostly works before 1940)
18% Classical
11% Baroque
0% Early music
0% Soundtracks

Composer Demographics
96% European
4% American
0% Other

100% Dead
0% Living

100% Male
0% Female

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

What's Operaitus?

Jennifer Rivera made an interesting point in "Trying to Remain Opera-tional" recently. This talented mezzo soprano maintains a highly entertaining blog chronicling her adventures as a professional singer, sprinkled with wry observations about life and the world of opera.

In her post "Operaitus," she comments on the chasm between the art of operatic singing and American audiences. She writes:
I've definitely seen things in plays and movies that were supposed to pass for opera singing that, well....weren't. And very few people seemed to be aware of the difference.

But how do you combat such a problem? And is it even something to be combated? If people are listening to something and enjoying it, why spoil it for them by letting them know that what they're hearing actually sucks ass?

I think the reason to try to educate people is that when they realize what they are missing, they might be able to get to an entirely new level of understanding and passion about this art form, and with that knowledge, their appreciation of the art form can only be deepened. If they went crazy for somebody just because he sang passably and in a foreign language, imagine how moved they could be if they were aware of what went into opera singing, and were able to appreciate it in it's true form! 
It took me a while to appreciate opera (hey, I majored in percussion), but once I got it, I understood how much I was missing -- and what the fuss was all about.

That's really the challenge. How do we educate when there's no foundation to build upon? Ms. Rivera's concerned about opera, but if you think for a moment, I'm sure you can come up with other areas of human endeavor that are suffering in the same fashion.

When we only have a superficial impression about something, we cheat ourselves (a point I've made elsewhere). The more we know about a subject, the more deeply we can engage with it, and the more we can get out of it.

So do yourself a favor. Pick an art form. Doesn't have to be opera -- it could be anything you sort of like. Dig a little deeper, and start reaping some aesthetic rewards.

It's not healthy to subsist exclusively on empty calories -- and that's true of the arts as well as nutrition.

 - Ralph

Monday, April 05, 2010

To our Easter/Christmas Friends

It was good to see you in church this Sunday. I'm glad you came. A big part of worship is tradition, and I know yours is to only come at Christmas and Easter. We're genuinely glad you came -- some attendance is better than none!

Of course, I hope that you break with tradition and come more often. You're certainly more than welcome (and I hope we made that clear). And, while you might be giving up the luxury of sleeping in at least one day a week, it's only through attending that you'll discover what you've been missing, and get the full benefit of Christian Fellowship.

For one thing, you won't be among strangers. Perhaps you know some of us through work, or the neighborhood, but by only attending twice a year you miss the experiences we share throughout the year. Things like family game nights, and outings, concerts, and day trips. Or things like serving the community through work at the shelter, or helping distribute food, or volunteering for light home repair.

These experiences (and seeing the same folks every Sunday) are great ways to get better acquainted with a pretty diverse (and I like to think interesting) group of people. We have educators, woodworkers, veterans (of several wars), firefighters, police officers, doctors, writers, and many more. Some of us have traveled far and wide, some camp, some fish and hunt. Some of us even play cards (yeah, we can do that). Whatever your interest, chances are there's someone here who shares your passion.

But there's an even more important aspect of Christian fellowship that you cheat yourself out of by only coming twice a year -- and it's a big part of why we celebrate those two holidays in the first place. Because Jesus was pretty clear: we are to treat others and serve others as He served us.

So whatever problems you're having in life, we understand, and we can help. Mostly because we've gone through the same thing. You might think, by only seeing us twice a year, that we're kind of insulated from the indignities of the real world. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We're all human, and our imperfections are with us always. Members of our congregation have suffered through divorce, others survived destructive relationships. Some have been victims of violent crime. Some of us have lost our jobs -- and some our businesses. Some of us have suffered with addiction, or helplessly watch a loved one be ravaged by it. We've been struck down by debilitating illness, or lost family members to disease.

Individually, we're not much. But when we come together, we help each other through those difficult times no one should have to suffer alone.

So if life's good for you now, come on back and we'll celebrate that fact with you. If it's not, please come back so we can help.

Because that's what friends are for.

Hope to see you before December, but if not, we'll welcome you then.

- Ralph