Sunday, 14 February 2010

Format Wars: Digital Vs. Tangible

This is a pretty prevalent issue nowadays. Music formats: which to use, which to ignore, or what combination is the way to go? When I was first listening to music as a child, it was all about cassette tapes. I had a fairly small collection, though I also made recordings from radio and from my sisters' CDs (and I had a tape recorder at one point that I'd occasionally talk into!). I remember not liking CDs at first, probably just because I was orignally loyal to tapes and didn't want to change. But now I consider myself as being a part of the CD generation, as my most important, formative music-buying was on CDs, be it demos, compilations, or actual albums. I never bought vinyl and was always puzzled by the fetishization of it in the punk world and later in indierockdom (I mean, why would you want to use a clearly outdated and inferior technology? And records aren't even portable!). And then along came the Internet and the advent of digital music, completely transforming how we buy music, probably most greatly affecting buyers of popular music (they could buy singles again, no point in "buying the whole album that only has a few good songs," as the cliché goes). In this post, I consider a myriad of factors that has led me to switch over to buying digital, with a few exceptions.

(and I'm ignoring the illegal downloading phenomenon because I just don't do it and don't endorse it)

Album Artwork

I really like looking at album artwork and if the songs have lyrics, I like to have the liner notes so I can learn the lyrics, perhaps interpret them (I admittedly am not usually so concerned with lyrics, but on occasion, they matter). It's nice to be able to touch and open up the booklet that comes with a CD (and I'm sure it's even more fun for vinyl-ers). Artwork can give a band an image of a sort, or perhaps classify them as high-brow or low-brow. It contributes to the band's identity and certain bands are well-known for their iconic visuals (Converge, Iron Maiden, Björk, etc. -- this seems especially true for metal bands). Basically, I'm not going to say that visual art is meaningless or pointless for musical artists. However, I still think it's rather inessential. Sure, I love Isis' album covers and the photography in their liner notes, but I can look at them online if I want to (and find the lyrics online) and I'm not going to look at them every time I listen to their albums. I think the visual stuff that comes with tangible releases is a bonus and not an essential, though certain bands' visuals warrant me buying the tangible version of their music. It's important to mention that too often, buying a tangible version is nearly pointless because there are no liner notes, no lyrics, and no interesting visuals, further pushing me away from tangible formats.


It's pretty much a fact that digital music is cheaper than tangible forms. And that's quite simply because album art, jewel cases, etc. cost money and then distribution of these tangibles also costs money. Without the physical form, a few steps in the manufacturing of albums is cut out and that creates the possibility of selling at a lower price. It seems that digital music distributors have wisely chosen not to hike prices up too high, setting the standard album price at about 10 bucks, perhaps in an effort to foster more digital purchases from the disgruntled tangible buyers ("$18 for a CD? No way!"). I really like this standard price and I think it's fair. There are times when the tangible is actually cheaper (I got Earth 2 on CD for like $8), but these occasions are pretty rare (when buying new, since I almost exclusively bought new CDs). So why pay a higher price for the same music?


There's a problem in music fandom that I don't quite understand: the fetishization of the collection (especially vinyl). How could you say that collecting music in tangible formats isn't materialistic? And it isn't as silly or useless as collecting anything else, like Beanie Babies or action figures? It just seems like pointless consumerism of objects. Allow me to be a bit more specific: I'm complaining about music collecting when it gets to the point that one seeks out rare editions of some band's album, whether it be some colored vinyl or a first-edition CD that is no different from the edition currently in print (or it has even less music on it). What is the point of it? I personally equate fandom with liking the music a band makes, not collecting everything that the band puts its name on. Music is inherently intangible, so why materialize it when you don't have to?

Environmental Concerns

I'm not 100% on this, but I'm fairly sure that it's greener to buy digital because it eliminates the CD/vinyl manufacturing and materials (which often can't be recycled). With digital music, if you no longer want some music, you can just delete it from your computer, whereas with CDs and vinyl you can try to sell it, usually for less than what you paid, or throw it away and create more plastic waste currently damaging marine life. Maybe playing music on a computer uses less electricity than a stereo, but I'm not sure on that.


This factor obviously points to the superiority of digital music. You can take it and listen to it anywhere on a digital music player or computer and even send it via e-mail. CDs are fairly portable, but having a lot of them makes it heavy to lug around (especially in jewel cases). Vinyl is the least portable, since the records are so large and the record player is a bit bulky (not to mention speakers). Some may say that portability isn't that important, even I listen to music mostly at home, but when I'm walking somewhere or waiting around somewhere, it's great that I can listen to a song or too (or an album if there's time). It's a convenience that isn't always necessary, but occasionally useful. I'm sure some people use their iPods more than I do.


Having a lot of music takes up a lot of space. You need good shelves or some other rectangular caddy to house and organize your music collection. Obviously, digital gets rid of this problem, though you still need to be cognizant of hard drive space, and it's a good idea to have backups of your music (I acutally use CDs as backups, I ought to get a separate hard drive).

Sound Quality

Some people seem to have a real problem with digital sound quality. I'm not entirely dissenting, but it seems to depend on bitrate and how good of computer speakers/headphones you have. Really low bitrates make certain types of music sound horrible (metal for sure sounds like crap at less than 100 kbps) and if your speakers are really cheap and crappy (or you only have the speakers on a laptop), your sound quality can be horribly diminished (really low bass frequencies don't always sound awesome with my speakers). So, what you must do is only buy music at high bitrates (and encode CDs at high rates if you must buy them) and it's worth your money to invest in a pretty decent set of speakers for your computer. Now, this is one area where CDs are sometimes better, since a really good stereo always makes everything sound great and CD audio quality is uniformly excellent. I can't say much in the way of vinyl since I just don't use it on a regular basis, but past experiences with vinyl have never been good for me (always too many scratches on records, the "warm" crackling thing annoys me).


It sucks when you discover some band, mostly older ones or from somewhere outside the USA, and it's hard to get their music. Digital music is helping to rectify this problem, because now out-of-print stuff can just be issued in digital form, more cheaply, and become more accessible to anyone in the world. Sometimes it's actually easier to find music digitally than tangibly. Also, if you're buying a CD, it takes more time to actually obtain the disc, whether you go to a store or buy online. Some people really enjoy going to record stores and browsing, but you can waste time looking through the world of music, in addition to getting others' opinions in the form of lists and reviews, all online. So why not just download? You get the music immediately. When I'm anticipating a new release for a long time, it makes me much happier that I can just make a few clicks and BAM, I have the music to listen to forever. It's nice to shorten the waiting time.


What store to buy from? I rely heavily on iTunes and Amazon for buying digital music, though occasionally there are smaller distributors with cheaper prices and high bitrates, though I'm not exactly one to seek them out (I guess I could be saving some money). I like the convenience and excellent selection of the above services and I've already talked about prices. I don't care that you need specific programs to download music from them, since I already use iTunes to organize my music and the Amazon program is perfectly simple and functional. Whatever service you use, it's still going to be quicker than buying tangibles (as long as you're not on dial-up!).

Bands In Vans

Bands sell CDs/records to make money, period. When a band you like comes to town peddling their music and merch, it's nice of a fan to buy something to help support the touring bands. This obviously means not buying digitally, but this is a different circumstance. Prices are usually reasonable (of course I'm not talking about stadium bands), though often still more than digital. I do endorse buying tangibles at shows to help touring bands, but I would only buy them if I didn't already have them (if you do, just buy some merch instead!) However, it's happened to me, that when I intended to buy a CD from a certain band at their show, they didn't have it; it was sold out. I was irritated, and that makes me think that buying at shows is not always the most reliable way to get music tangibly (but this has only happened to me once and isn't enough to deter me from buying from bands in the future).

I was originally very reluctant to switch to digital music, but that's probably because of a general, somewhat unreasonable resistance to change. Weighing all the factors, digital seems to be the better option. I'm not one to really hold on to tradition, so after I got over my initial fear, I've hopped on board with the current way of purchasing music. Every now and then, I do pick up a release on CD, though I can't say I really miss the format.