Beauty in Music’s Physical Form

I’m not a neophile, I’ll quite happily admit that; I do not immediately jump on board the latest craze or gadget just because it’s new. However, I wouldn’t say I was especially big on nostalgia either. I don’t automatically think that something is better just because they don’t make it anymore. I just like things to work and I don’t see the point of change for change’s sake. For example, I like TVs with buttons on them so I can use them when I’ve lost the remote, but I like being able to take thousands of pictures on holiday, store them on one tiny card and only print out the ones that aren’t of my thumb.

All of which brings me somewhat inelegantly onto the subject of digital music downloads.

Digital music delivery is huge, I don’t think you can deny that, but is it an improvement over where we were before? It has certainly made music more available, it’s now incredibly straightforward for a new unsigned artist to get tracks out to people, but I think that’s a subject for another post. I’m more interested in the concept of buying something that doesn’t really exist in a physical form. In order to discuss the present case of music downloads though, I think it’s best to start with the past…

With each new format of sound delivery, there has traditionally been an increase in quality, from wax cylinders, to vinyl discs, to the cassette to the CD. Now, I know that vinyl is actually better in terms of certain specifications than the digital constraints of CD, but that’s a whole other post again… Generally though, each successive format has improved our listening experience. Then, in 1999, along came the super-audio CD (SACD). Using a 1-bit high frequency technology, the SACD offered audio specifications approximately equivalent to 24 bit 96 kHz recording, with better frequency response and dynamic range than the original CD. An excellent review on the science behind the quality of SACD can be found in Hugh Robjohns’ interesting Sound on Sound article.

While some hi-fi audiophiles picked up SACD players, it just didn’t catch on the same way CD did; the same for DVD-Audio. It appears that the CD is the plateau of consumer quality, a point above which it wasn’t worthwhile climbing. And it makes sense. What percentage of the world’s music listeners even own a hi-fi separates system these days, let alone have their chair neatly positioned in the stereo sweet spot and some acoustic treatment in their listening room?

So, the next step beyond the CD: a step backwards in quality. Limited bandwidth compressed audio: the all-conquering mp3. Now, this brings me back to the first paragraph, I think the mp3 is a wonderful thing. I can carry thousands of songs in my pocket (I sometimes miss my CD Walkman days though, but that’s also another post…) and I don’t really notice the loss of quality as I’m stood in a bus shelter, next to a main road, when it’s raining and listening through ear buds.

The thing is though: I rarely buy mp3s. There are the occasional tracks, maybe a random tune from an album where I don’t want to buy the full thing, but that’s really it. Virtually all my mp3s are ripped from the CDs I buy. The reason (apart from the whole quality thing): I like the physical interaction you get when you buy a record. Be it CD or vinyl, it’s a wonderful thing to look at the cover art, read the liner notes, it becomes more of a ritual, like grinding the beans for your morning coffee. Taking the record from the sleeve, sitting it on the platter, the thunk, hssssss, as the needle finds its groove… wonderful. And to come back to the visual art of vinyl and CDs, some of it is superb purely on that level, from beautiful to iconic and back again, records can be very pretty things… and I’m not just talking about my 12” Kylie Minogue Slow picture disc.

Back in my teenage years of limited pocket money, as opposed to now with limited disposable income but the benefits of credit, I could perhaps afford a CD every two to three weeks. I would end up knowing that album inside and out, I could draw the cover from memory (not very well, art was never really my thing), tell you who produced and engineered it, where it was recorded and even give you a potted list of the people in the thank you list.

I still get that same buzz today when the post delivers that tell-tale cardboard sleeve containing the latest vinyl purchase. The Hidden Orchestra limited double 12” on the clear/marbled vinyl and my signed Jo Mango 10” (she says I’m a wee star!) remain wondrous things to behold before you even listen to them, along with my complete set of the Journal of Popular Noise 7”s, an original 45 of The Velvelettes Needle in a Haystack and my early Amy Winehouse CD promos, the list goes on, but I love them all dearly. I just don’t get that same feeling with a mouse click and a little download progress bar somehow…


1 Response to “Beauty in Music’s Physical Form”

  1. 1 Will Hall November 11, 2011 at 6:30 am

    Couldn’t agree more. The digital revolution has really turned me off to a certain extent. When i moved to Australia from the UK 5 years ago i had to sell my Technics to pay for my plane ticket, put all my vinyl in storage and then started a new musical chapter when i arrived down under.

    When i was in the UK i only ever played vinyl when DJ’ing, and was lucky enough to hold some nice residencies at great clubs around the country. That all changed when i got to Oz and if i was to continue my passion for DJ’ing it was going to have to be in the digital format: i simply couldn’t afford to ship over my vinyl, nor could i afford to build a respectable vinyl collection to get me started. So i began to download stacks of tracks from Beatport and in no time i had built a hefty collection of nice music. But this in itself was a problem for me. Because i acquired such a large amount of music in such a small amount of time, i was unable to nurture each track as i would when i got a handful of new vinyl on a weekly basis back home. It didn’t allow me to get to know the songs as well as i would have liked, and the lack of physicality or presence of the music meant i didn’t form a bond with the music as i had always done with vinyl. Anyway i gradually found myself starting to enjoy playing out less and less. At first i put it down to the poor clubs in Sydney, or maybe i was getting too old for this game? I honestly think it’s because i turned to DJ’ing with MP3’s. Now and again i will use Traktor but that has even less appeal to me and i really struggle to get into a mix when i know someone has put it together using Traktor/Serato…..but that’s another whinge for another day!

    Nice read anyway matey.

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