Elliot: So Ben, I hear you’re very much against the digital revolution of MP3s, iPods, Spotify and the like. What do you like so much about physical media then?
Ben: Hmm, I wouldn’t say I’m against the ‘digital revolution’, per se - I own an iPod that I pretty much couldn’t live without, and I use Spotify on a daily basis (in fact I’m using it right now). But when it comes to digital downloads, I just don’t see the point.
Elliot: But what if you drop your iPod in the loo? What if Spotify shuts down? You’ll have no music collection left!
Ben: I’m not against digital music, but when it comes to distribution, I see the iTunes store and other download services as a fairly fruitless effort. I’m a stickler for having the real deal, a physical copy of an album - you have something corporeal, something tangible that’s the result of a band slaving away in the studio for months. I love having a booklet to flick through, even if the lyrics aren’t in it - after all, an album isn’t just about the music. So when it comes to buying music, why not buy a physical copy that you can then make a digital version of?
Elliot: I completely disagree. Booklets, covers, pathetic little fold-out posters and the like are all superfluous fluff designed to wring the last pennies out of fans. What really matters is the music itself. In terms of a permanent collection, MP3s are just as durable as any CD.
Ben: You’re mental! The artwork, the physical aspects of a record can be a totally integral part of an album. Let’s take one of your favourite albums as an example - Radiohead’s Kid A, a stone cold classic no doubt about it. But can you really tell me that the minimalist, semi-pretentious doodlings don’t add to the sense of menace and discomfort on that album? And if they don’t add to it, surely they reflect it. Especially in the case of Radiohead, the lines between music and art are, ostentatious as it sounds, pretty blurred.
Elliot: Alright, I’ll concede that Stanley Donwood’s artwork is absolutely stunning and definitely complements the music itself (as well as contributing to Radiohead’s overall image). That said, last year I was given a Kid A “Deluxe Edition” box set as a present which contained a second disc of live stuff and a bunch of booklets and cards and things. The extras were admittedly quite pretty, but ultimately disposable - I think I probably looked at them twice, maximum. The music on Kid A is what has captured the hearts and minds of millions, not the packaging.
|The Kid A deluxe edition boxset|
Elliot: CD boxes are so fragile, though. The amount I’ve accidentally stepped on and broken...
Ben: You can’t argue for a digital revolution in music based on your sheer ineptitude of not being album to keep an album on a shelf!
Elliot: Well, now I feel silly. But the advantages of an MP3 collection are obvious in comparison to a CD-based one - instant downloads from the comfort of your own home, for a start.
Elliot: It’s not just about convenience, it’s about distribution and price. If bands don’t have to produce CDs to sell their music, it frees them from record companies and record shops eating into the money they deserve. It also means albums can be given away incredibly cheaply - Arcade Fire sell The Suburbs on their website for £5, far cheaper than any record shop; Metric sold Fantasies for £1 in a special offer. Digital downloads have brought about the digital music revolution, rather than the existence of MP3s themselves.
Ben: That’s a valid point about distribution affecting the earnings of a band. But in terms of the price you’ll pay for an album, saying that it’s often cheaper to buy it as a download isn’t strictly true. Take, for example Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, an incredible, classic album (which you should all buy right now if you don’t already have it) - currently the CD is available for £2.99 on Amazon, delivered straight to your front door (or next door if you’re not in). The MP3 copy sells for £2.99 as well - but if you can wait a few days for delivery and own a physical copy for no extra expense, then why not? Also, deals such as HMV’s surprisingly diverse ‘2 for £10’ mean that a whole host of contemporary and classic albums can be bought on CD at a reasonable price.
Elliot: I would argue that’s a bit of an exception, being such an old album.
Ben: I suppose it does depend on what music you’re buying. On the whole though, I would rather pay a few quid more for the extra parts of the experience that you get from owning and listening to the physical copy of an album.
Elliot: The sheer amount of music piracy would suggest most people disagree with you - and because of this, I reckon prices will be pushed even lower. Rob Dickins, former head of Warner Music UK, has suggested that albums should be sold for £1. This sounds fantastic - you can listen to, and own, pretty much anything you want for such a small price. And though profit margins per album will decrease, the resulting increase in purchases will surely increase overall profits.
Ben: It would be interesting to see how that plays out. For many music fans, myself included, I think it’s fair to say that I’m willing to pay much more than £1 for an album I like, but it would be pretty intriguing to see if the popularity of albums could be re-stoked.
Elliot: Yeah - after all, this entire argument is void when it comes to singles (which are the way most people consume their music) since you can’t even buy those on CD anymore! There’s no way I’d buy a Duck Sauce album, but I have to admit to possessing a copy of that infectious ‘Barbara Streisand’...
On that revelation (Elliot, you really bought ‘Barbara Streisand’?!), it’s time to open up the debate - we could go on like this for a long time, but that would probably be very dull. So, do you prefer physical albums or digital downloads? Are you an album listener, or wired in to the latest singles chart? Feel free to throw your opinion down in the comments section, and we can carry on the debate there...
p.s. - Buy that Springsteen album. On CD, of course.