That Old Chestnut…. Views on Physical Music Formats

28 March 2018. Filed under category General Philosophy, Uncategorized.

“But I just love the theatre of vinyl: taking it out of its sleeve, dropping the needle.”

“I love the artwork and liner notes of my albums.”

These old chestnuts are alive and well and, in fact, I have sympathy for those that hold onto them as excuses to buy more music products. However, over a year ago I gave up buying physical media (e.g. vinyl, CDs, Blu-Rays – both music and movies, etc.) and the world didn’t stop turning. I still currently own a legacy of heavy metal that I have collected over the years, and perhaps that makes me a hypocrite, but I simply said “no more” to accumulating more. This was for practical and environmental reasons; starting to question whether I really needed that next purchase, whatever it was, music or otherwise.CDs v Download

What replaces it? Well I still want to grow and listen to new things so, unless they start releasing music in a water or nano-particle-carried-by-the-wind format, digital downloads have become my go-to format of choice. The downloads we pay for are a far more efficient way of getting money directly back to the artist, without the need for distribution to stores and postage. Furthermore, while storing and downloading music does require energy, it is much less than the energy required to produce media made from dead dinosaurs that contain music in digital (CD, Blu-Ray) or analog (vinyl, cassette) form. Downloads are also ethically far-preferable to streaming. If you subscribe to a streaming service, cancel it and feel shame. They give hardly anything back to the artist and are a cancer on common sense.

And here’s the clincher – a digital download is a superior sounding format unless it is intentionally made not that way. What I mean by that is a lossless download (e.g. WAV or FLAC) of CD quality or better (e.g. higher bit depth and sampling rate) blows away the drawbacks of vinyl as a sound reproduction medium. Even an MP3 at 320kbps (which is fairly standard now, gone are the days of those washy sounding sub-100kbps abominations) is sonically indistinguishable from a standard CD at 16 bit, 44.1kHz except for perhaps the most expert of trained listeners. Although, it is for that reason that I only buy downloads if available as a lossless file. I figure, may as well get it in the highest resolution format available.

There can be advantages to vinyl if the sound file (always from a digital source out of the studio these days) cut into it is better treated than what goes on the CD or download: it may often be less compressed and sometimes EQ’ed differently, but these are not advantages of the format itself, only a symptom of the insanity that stands in the way between the artist/engineer and the listener. Read up about the loudness wars.dvds

There is no way one can rationalise that the act of taking a digital master file at a studio quality bit depth and sampling rate, manufacturing a vinyl record from it and listening to that record with all the associated noises that can creep in at every stage of production, storage and playback, is better than listening directly to the digital master file at a studio quality bit depth and sampling rate in the first place. There is just no sense to that thought process.

Records are heralded by some as the ‘purest’ analog representation of the music available but they are and always were flawed and impure.

Of course, for myself and for the LP collection I already have, I “just love the theatre of vinyl: taking it out of its sleeve, dropping the needle” but I am not deluded that it sounds better. Much of the time it sounds like shit but I still love it.

My point here is that I won’t buy any more of it because I can get the ‘vinyl fix’ from what I already have and recommend newbies not to bother getting sucked in by it. Spend your money on something else or pay more to the artist than they actually asked for; i.e. through a platform like Bandcamp give them what you would have paid for the vinyl (and its postage). They will appreciate that far more than the lower cut they get for having sold you a vinyl record and kept the antiquated world turning another day longer.sell-record-collection-1024x713

The above rant should satisfactorily address the sonic inferiority of physical media. It is true that physical media might appear to be a durable archive format but, so long as you back up storage of downloads, that is at least as reliable as a thousand individual CDs prone to scratching or LPs left in the sun. Or your house burning down.

What about the artwork and liner notes?

Perhaps the traditionalists have a point here. We humans like tactile things and, frankly, collecting mementos. I can understand the attraction of reading liner notes and lyrics because I value these as an important part of the whole album experience. So, what to do?

One solution would be to divorce the artwork from the physical media. You can have one without the other, i.e. aa0077539398_10 booklet does not have to be accompanied by a CD or LP if the music is provided as a download. Production of artwork alone is a lot more environmentally friendly than additional production of a CD and jewel case (by way of example) and, in principle, could be supplied as a printable file to a local outlet configured to produce a standard size of booklet as a collectable. That would do away with the international distribution costs. A pipe dream perhaps.

The physical artwork-only solution is a bit of a fudge since an electronic artwork/text content document can be provided along with the download, but perhaps it is a reasonable compromise for now. Baby steps. Also, arguably it would provide the best engagement with the fan until an equally engaging digital solution comes along (i.e. better than a PDF viewed on a tablet or laptop).

This is my current position and opinion based on considerable thought, a few facts and evidence. I noted from a previous blog post that, while consistently railing against streaming, I still advocated buying vinyl especially second hand ‘classic’ LPs. I gave up on that because the stack of vinyl was just getting unwieldy.

I like the idea of recycling old products made in an age when there was simply no other alternative for distributing music but I find the idea of producing new vinyl from ever-dwindling resources slightly obscene.

Debate me. Tell me I’m wrong. I like to learn and make decisions based on good information.


Some random links; environmental impacts of music and minimalism more generally:



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