Sunday 6 February 2011

Quiff vs. 'Fro: Is there any point in physical CDs anymore?

While Quiff Pro 'Fro may be something of a two-headed beast of a blog, the two of us certainly don’t share the same brain. In fact, sometimes we find our views on music and the music industry irreconcilable, which is where our new feature Quiff vs. 'Fro comes in. In this edition, we ask - is there any point in physical CDs anymore?

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
Ben: When it comes down to it, a great album will stand up as a great album without all the extras added in along the way, no question. But I see that a CD copy with album art and a tracklisting and lyrics to flick through just enhances the experience that the album presents. And to bring this back to the main argument - if people can have a CD copy and easily make their own digital copy, why settle for just a load of MP3 files?

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.

Ben: That’s the beauty of Spotify - if you can’t get into town for a few days, listen to an album of Spotify, then buy the album when you get the chance, stick it on your iPod when you get home. I’m not really arguing against digital music, but I don’t see the point in solely downloading off iTunes. What is it that stops you from browsing through the local HMV (for lack of other, better options)?

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.


  1. its an old debate in a new way, vinyls or cassettes, cassesetes or c.ds, now c.ds or mp3, c.ds are done for and in 30 years time will be looked at in the same novelty as viynls are now. the first real major music labels were spawned in the 50s when vinyls were sold for £30 quid (which lets not forget was alot more money back then), and now people are talking about reducing albums to £1, if that happens major labels won't bother making c.ds or phisical forms of music as it won't be profitable. so over all to end my little ramble, there will always be a certain nostalgia to owning a cd but in the long run they will be replaced and forgotten and made even more redundent than mp3s have made them

  2. Do you not think that the reason vinyl is making a comeback could be because people aren't ready to get rid of physical sources of music yet? After all, the large sleeves and booklets of vinyls are surely part of the attraction as well as the warmth and quality of the recording, and those are effectively an exaggerated version of CD artwork. I think that as much as downloads continue, music fans won't let go of the pleasure of physically owning an album.

    As for £1 downloads, it could work well, but it could also serve to decrease the value of the album as, pretentious as it sounds, a work of art. The majority of albums I buy, I am more than willing to pay at least £5 for, and I accept that I'm paying to own a body of work that a musical artist has created. Take away the physical form, and you're left with a cold, virtual MP3 file that you've not had to invest in, and as a result I feel listeners may not get as much out of it.

  3. funny that its making a comeback at the same time as 'vintage and retro', just throwing that out there ;)
    and fans will let go off phisical albums because kids that were born in the last 5 years will never own one except what they find in there parents attic.
    i think your misunderstand the £1 album idea, theyre doing it because it seems like the only way to get downloaders to pay, hu wouldnt pay £1 for an album? 12 songs thats less than 10p a song, and i hate to say but albums values have decreased, not in musical value but in worth, recently the us billboard 100, the biggest chart in the WORLD was topped by a random indie band who sold like 80,000 copies? thats the smallest number 1 the world has ever seen, you think that would of happened 30 years ago? what bout 20? not even 10 years ago!
    as for art work theres nothing stopping them from adding a digitally attached photo and booklet

  4. the 80,000 maybe to high, i cant remember the exact number but it was in the 5 figures.... my bad guizzz

  5. I don't see it as one side verses the other - I'm an avid CD and vinyl collector, which has been made much easier as downloads have driven down the price of CDs. Maybe CDs will eventually disappear, but physical formats won't, even if the only people that buy them are a motley collection of music nerds and elitist DJs. Perhaps that's the way it should be? I don't really care how most people get their music, as long as they don't try to play it through laptop speakers at a house party.

  6. I definitely think that digital formats and physical formats support one another, especially digital streaming platforms such as Spotify/We7/Grooveshark. It'd be sad to see it all go digital though - as poor a selection as the local HMV might have, it's still nice to go thumbing through the CD aisles rather than sitting at a keyboard checking out albums on iTunes. It's good that digital is driving down CD costs, after all they can't be very expensive to produce in bulk. Who knows, maybe if chart CDs were cheaper, people would go for those instead.

    p.s. laptop speakers at a house party is always a bad move!

  7. I've always hated CD shops. Sure, you can get "two for £10" at HMV, but many old albums are still around £15, which is a ludicrous amount. And that's assuming your album of choice is even stocked! I'd rather get a recommendation from a friend and look it up on iTunes than just browse blindly.

  8. With specific old albums you're much better off ordering online. When I browse the CD shelves I'm looking for two things: bargains and cover art. It's exciting taking something home because you liked the cover and having no idea what it sounds like. I've found that interesting cover art is a good indicator of something worth trying.


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