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The Advantages of Owning the Physical Album


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Obviously we live in the age where we can access absurd amounts of music at the click of a button with youtube and other online services. I recognise the great advantage that this brings (try before you buy/finally hearing that classic that you've always missed), but it also brings significant drawbacks. This post seeks to address these shortcomings and explain why owning the CD/vinyl/cassette of a release is still the best way to experience a band's album.  

Here is why I believe digital-only versions of albums are deficient. 

1. The theme and idea of a song can be lost. Each song of Rotting Christ's 'Rituals' takes a different culture and its deathcult for each track on the album. The language is different in nearly every track, as they move through Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Portuguese etc. With the actual album notes, you're not just hearing fantastic atmospheric black metal songs, but you're understanding the reason behind the music and the historical context of each song. There is a connection to a deeper cultural experience that transcends music. Once that understanding occurs, the songs take on a new meaning. This is the case for many albums that I own, be it Rhapsody's fantasy plotlines or Marduk's WWII slaughter-poems in 'Frontschwein'. Or an Amorphis album that takes actual lyrics from medieval Finnish folk stories. This changes the listener's experience significantly. 

2. Creative context is elusive. Sometimes it's useful to realise that Dimmu Borgir's 'Spiritual Black Dimensions' was recorded at Abyss Studios, and their much better produced follow-up, 'Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia' was recorded at Studio Fredman. Or that the female vocalist Birgit Zacher from Moonspell's 'Irrelgious' also sings on some tracks by Sentenced and Tiamat. Or that Fed Estby was involved in several seminal Swedish death metal albums behind the scenes. This adds a richness to the experience of the albums. 

3. Imagery and art remains obscure. Cover art by Travis Smith adorns Katatonia, Opeth and Novembre albums - knowing this, can you see similarities and differences? The artwork you really don't like on Moonspell and Septicflesh albums was done by the same guy. That Dave McKean created masterpieces for The Sandman graphic novels as well as Paradise Lost's 'Shades of God'. More singularly, did you see the centre-fold of the 'x' booklet? Or the band pictures in 'y'? Or how the imagery develops throughout the booklet along with the songs, adding a new flavour to the whole?

4. Lyrics are never known. There are whole threads on this. While everyone has their own value placed on lyrics, the plain fact is that some bands rely strongly on their lyrical content to communicate the impact of their songs. Without the lyrics printed in the booklet I would never know that Septicflesh's 'War in Heaven' was about black holes, and that the narrative in Cradle of Filth's 'A Gothic Romance' plays out on the lawns of a manor house as well as a very special portrait, and that Iron Maiden's 'Empire of the Clouds' is about a real-life airship crash that ended the zeppelin phase of air travel. Yes, lyrics are available online, but with so many other distractions it seems unlikely that individuals will pour over them regularly, getting to know them like a kid sitting on his bed reading a booklet over and over again. The plain fact is that some bands' music gains significant meaning once the words/story/message is understood. 

5. The significance of tactile experience. Children today live largely through digital portals: ipads, television, movies, touch screens. We use them too, and I'm not demonising technology (I'm using it right now to type this, right). However, I believe there is something healthy and natural in being able to hold a book, picture or CD in one's hands. Holding the album, turning it over, feeling its weight. Looking at the artwork printed on paper rather than a screen. Putting the music in the CD player's tray/vinyl turntable/cassette player. These are physical acts - small rituals that precede the aural experience of music. The placing of the needle on 'The Number of the Beast'. The clicking of play on your copy of 'Rust in Peace'. 

And so much more. For me, the booklets/liner notes/credit lists are of profound importance, and the generation who owns nothing but digital files has a wonderful experience of incredible music - but nothing more than that. And metal music has more to offer than simply great tunes. 

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For me, the biggest advantages of physical media (aside from how cool it is on a material level to have an album on my shelf) are sound quality (CD quality wav vs. streaming or mp3 compression) and a more focused listening experience. Having music coming off an internet-connected computer or phone makes it more likely that I'll be distracted by something while I'm listening - I glance down at the phone, notice someone sent me an email, respond, habitually check my other messages, check in here, and then realize that three songs have blown by without me realizing. Listening to music used to be a meditative act for me, and I still take that when I can get it, but it's a rare luxury now.

I maintain that all of the experiential stuff I value is possible with purely digital media - it's just a bit harder for me. I don't deny that reading the actual liner notes makes for a richer experience than looking them up online, but reading the lyrics and/or notes isn't something I enjoy doing while I'm listening - I find it just as distracting as any other communication. As far as cover art goes, you can't beat a nice vinyl package, but it's not like that's totally missing from the digital experience either - most music player apps for mobile and desktop display the art while you're listening. Again I'm not arguing that it's the same, it's just not "music - but nothing more than that", as you put it.

A bigger distinction for me exists between streaming and paid downloads. I'm a big fan of paid downloads from Bandcamp; you can get them in any file format you might want, at any quality, copy the files to back them up, and even download them again for free whenever you want, if you've suffered hard drive failure. I'd rather have local storage any day than pay a subscription fee for "access" to some company's music library, on top of whatever we dole out monthly for internet access.

I can't agree with the "kids these days don't know what they're missing" component of your argument; physical media are coming back more than ever, and (mostly vinyl) sales actually outstripped paid downloads last year in this country. I'm connected with a large number of avid music fans in various FB groups who insist on physical copies. A lot of them are younger. The kids aren't missing anything.

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The reason that I prefer physical media over digital is that when I am listening to a cd, I am forced to focus on only the cd.  When I listen to music online, I always know in the back of my mind that I could be listening to any other song in the world.  That makes it difficult for me to focus on the music itself.  This is especially true for me when listening to long or more ambient songs (that's why I am willing to pay a lot of money to internationally order Paysage d'Hiver cds).

However, I value how the internet has allowed me to discover new music easily.  Having access to the music of almost any band lets me immediately find out if I like it or not.  But if it is something that I truly like, I will order a physical copy.

32 minutes ago, FatherAlabaster said:

I can't agree with the "kids these days don't know what they're missing" component of your argument; physical media are coming back more than ever, and (mostly vinyl) sales actually outstripped paid downloads last year in this country. I'm connected with a large number of avid music fans in various FB groups who insist on physical copies. A lot of them are younger. The kids aren't missing anything.

Vinyl outsold digital last year?  Even in regards to hip hop/rap etc.?

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8 minutes ago, Balor said:

The reason that I prefer physical media over digital is that when I am listening to a cd, I am forced to focus on only the cd.  When I listen to music online, I always know in the back of my mind that I could be listening to any other song in the world.  That makes it difficult for me to focus on the music itself.  This is especially true for me when listening to long or more ambient songs (that's why I am willing to pay a lot of money to internationally order Paysage d'Hiver cds).

However, I value how the internet has allowed me to discover new music easily.  Having access to the music of almost any band lets me immediately find out if I like it or not.  But if it is something that I truly like, I will order a physical copy.

Vinyl outsold digital last year?  Even in regards to hip hop/rap etc.?

Huh, being distracted by other internet tasks (like I am right now) is always a problem for me, but I don't think I've ever felt distracted by the possibility of other music.

I order physical copies when I can afford them, but I don't even have a standalone CD player or turntable, so all of my listening is done via computer regardless.

I didn't see a breakdown by genre, but the article I read claimed that while streaming still has the majority of the market share, physical media sold more than paid downloads specifically last year, mostly due to the strength of vinyl sales. This adds some weight (in my mind) to the anecdotal evidence of my own experiences interacting with other music fans online.

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26 minutes ago, FatherAlabaster said:

I didn't see a breakdown by genre, but the article I read claimed that while streaming still has the majority of the market share, physical media sold more than paid downloads specifically last year, mostly due to the strength of vinyl sales. This adds some weight (in my mind) to the anecdotal evidence of my own experiences interacting with other music fans online.

I get it now.  I thought that you meant that physical sales represented the largest share of total music sales, not that they only outsold digital downloads.

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As I'm sure everyone knows by now, I'm all about the physical format. There are multiple reasons that have already been stated here, all I can do is reinforce them. The best sound quality, a professional package, something tangible, it all adds up to the best way to listen and experience the album. Even without reading the lyrics much, I still value the booklet for the extended artwork, liner notes, and the interesting little tidbits of info they contain. The few times I have downloaded something, I lose track of it. I'm never at the computer for long, all of my online activity is on my phone, so they don't do me much good. Phone speakers suck, and when you're busy with kids, it's tough to put on headphones and be in any way effective as a parent. I don't get much time to myself to listen to music, but when I do, I want the full experience, ritual included.

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I recently got stung badly by Amazon in terms of my digital library leaving me with several key records “lost”.   Until this point Digital releases made far too much sense to me as I spend significant amounts of time on the road.  Still make use of streaming as it has much value for my lifestyle but am now more determined than ever to own a physical format of the records that have and continue to shape my listening habits.

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So true.  Knowing I have music coming for me in the mail helps me to get through my week.
I like that feeling, but nothing truly compares to the excitement of pulling cool shit off the shelf at a record store. That feeling is nice by itself, but when you unearth that gem that you've been after for a while, it's just incredible.

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5 hours ago, Natassja7 said:

Physical format for me all the way, can't beat getting that vinyl/cassette/cd in the mail!

This is an aspect that I overlooked in my initial post, but you’re 100% right. The experience of receiving a package in the mail is another benefit. 

8 hours ago, FatherAlabaster said:

For me, the biggest advantages of physical media (aside from how cool it is on a material level to have an album on my shelf) are sound quality (CD quality wav vs. streaming or mp3 compression) and a more focused listening experience. Having music coming off an internet-connected computer or phone makes it more likely that I'll be distracted by something while I'm listening - I glance down at the phone, notice someone sent me an email, respond, habitually check my other messages, check in here, and then realize that three songs have blown by without me realizing. Listening to music used to be a meditative act for me, and I still take that when I can get it, but it's a rare luxury now.

I maintain that all of the experiential stuff I value is possible with purely digital media - it's just a bit harder for me. I don't deny that reading the actual liner notes makes for a richer experience than looking them up online, but reading the lyrics and/or notes isn't something I enjoy doing while I'm listening - I find it just as distracting as any other communication. As far as cover art goes, you can't beat a nice vinyl package, but it's not like that's totally missing from the digital experience either - most music player apps for mobile and desktop display the art while you're listening. Again I'm not arguing that it's the same, it's just not "music - but nothing more than that", as you put it.

A bigger distinction for me exists between streaming and paid downloads. I'm a big fan of paid downloads from Bandcamp; you can get them in any file format you might want, at any quality, copy the files to back them up, and even download them again for free whenever you want, if you've suffered hard drive failure. I'd rather have local storage any day than pay a subscription fee for "access" to some company's music library, on top of whatever we dole out monthly for internet access.

I can't agree with the "kids these days don't know what they're missing" component of your argument; physical media are coming back more than ever, and (mostly vinyl) sales actually outstripped paid downloads last year in this country. I'm connected with a large number of avid music fans in various FB groups who insist on physical copies. A lot of them are younger. The kids aren't missing anything.

I’ve heard this statistic regarding vinyl sales, and that’s great news; however, comparing them to paid downloads isn’t as compelling as it seems.

Streaming on YouTube and sites like Bandcamp account for a significantly more common experience of music. Illegal downloads would also far outstrip paid ones.

Rotting Christ’s ‘Rituals’ album has over a million plays on YouTube, as does Eldamar’s ‘The Force of Ancient Land’. Neither paid downloads nor vinyl sales come close to these figures where 95% of people at least who experience these albums are doing so purely based on a YouTube stream. 

Also, it’s fantastic that you know of people on line who value physical copies - you’re talking to one right now - but as for kids more broadly, I think it’s clear that the majority are indeed ‘missing out’ on the experiences I’ve listed above. For many, paying for music in any format makes no sense, and the idea of having a physical collection is anathema to many of them. I can attest to this from my own anecdotal evidence as someone who works with large numbers of young people. 

8 minutes ago, BlutAusNerd said:

I like that feeling, but nothing truly compares to the excitement of pulling cool shit off the shelf at a record store. That feeling is nice by itself, but when you unearth that gem that you've been after for a while, it's just incredible.

Sent from my HTCD160LVW using Tapatalk
 

I forgot about this too. Also, taking that chance and buying something that has a great cover, or a cool sounding name. A very inexact science, but a very enjoyable experience. 

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1 hour ago, BlutAusNerd said:

I like that feeling, but nothing truly compares to the excitement of pulling cool shit off the shelf at a record store. That feeling is nice by itself, but when you unearth that gem that you've been after for a while, it's just incredible.

Sent from my HTCD160LVW using Tapatalk
 

In the last few months I found some really great cds at a local record store.  To come across something really cool, especially when it is unexpected is very exciting.

1 hour ago, Requiem said:

I forgot about this too. Also, taking that chance and buying something that has a great cover, or a cool sounding name. A very inexact science, but a very enjoyable experience. 

That's one of the problems with the internet - you can look up and listen to anything on demand.  It can take the risk/excitement out of a purchase of something that is new to you.

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33 minutes ago, Balor said:

In the last few months I found some really great cds at a local record store.  To come across something really cool, especially when it is unexpected is very exciting.

That's one of the problems with the internet - you can look up and listen to anything on demand.  It can take the risk/excitement out of a purchase of something that is new to you.

A downside to this is that sometimes I can't judge the greatness of an album simply by giving it one or two listens on youtube. Some of my favourite albums actually took quite a few spins before they sunk in and clicked. And I gave them those extra spins because, well, I've paid for the CD and here it is in front of me, gazing at me from the CD rack, plus the booklet's cool and I want to see those pictures/read those lyrics/check songwriting credits again...

As a kid this was a particularly useful way of getting to know really cool albums because I could only afford maybe an album a month back in the 90s, so each one was precious and most hadn't been heard prior to owning it. Receiving an album was like a gift from god or something.

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The most significant reason for me prefering CD's instead of downloading music is that most of the times I simply do not feel like being online when listening to music. The reasons for this is numerous, but even a lit screen from a smartphone can be damn distracting.

Also I am terrible at multi tasking online: I do not know why but I just cannot write/read and listen to music at the same time.

But it is not because that I am techno shy. I love using YouTube to discover/rediscover music and bands or to use it as a substitue when my CD player or a CD has worn down and needs to be replaced. 

Vinyls however, I do not really miss them. Fragile things that would scratch just by looking at them. I did like the covers however, I have been known to buy a record based on the cover alone...that is how I discovered W.A.S.P back in the day :grin:

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There is also something compelling about 'owning' the album.

It's not just something that you've tapped into online when your computer's on, heard at a party or on the radio: it's yours. You own it. It's in your house and you can put it on, wave the case around, and tell your friends not to hold the booklet quite so tight - you're creasing it! And that has a profound effect on how you perceive and experience the music. 

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On 4/5/2018 at 8:18 PM, Requiem said:

There is also something compelling about 'owning' the album.

It's not just something that you've tapped into online when your computer's on, heard at a party or on the radio: it's yours. You own it. It's in your house and you can put it on, wave the case around, and tell your friends not to hold the booklet quite so tight - you're creasing it! And that has a profound effect on how you perceive and experience the music. 

I still get this feeling from a paid-for download.

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On 07/04/2018 at 12:16 PM, Will said:

I still get this feeling from a paid-for download.

That’s awesome, Will. It’s a great feeling however you come by it. 

I was looking at one of my two copies of ‘Like Gods of the Sun’ by MDB the other day - the actual case, inlay and disk that I used to take to parties 22 years ago when I was 16. It’s a little cracked and worn, but not too bad. Countless were the times either myself or a friend put it in the CD player during some of the best moments of my life during high school parties. 

It’s a historical document that connects me to my past. I didn’t even put the album on the other day, I was just looking at it and got a buzz. Imagine what it’s going to be like holding that in my hands in another 20 years!

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9 hours ago, Requiem said:

That’s awesome, Will. It’s a great feeling however you come by it. 

I was looking at one of my two copies of ‘Like Gods of the Sun’ by MDB the other day - the actual case, inlay and disk that I used to take to parties 22 years ago when I was 16. It’s a little cracked and worn, but not too bad. Countless were the times either myself or a friend put it in the CD player during some of the best moments of my life during high school parties. 

It’s a historical document that connects me to my past. I didn’t even put the album on the other day, I was just looking at it and got a buzz. Imagine what it’s going to be like holding that in my hands in another 20 years!

You know, this post actually helps me to make more sense of your focus on the album as an object. Up to this point I've seen it as overly materialistic and a little perverse. I don't attach the same significance to the albums in my collection, or see anything particularly profound about listening to them as physical copies vs. digital files, but I can understand caring about something in that way - it's how I feel about my two favorite guitars, and in a more personal way it's similar to how I feel about my paintings, or the few things I have that my mother and father made.

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On 4/7/2018 at 1:12 PM, Balor said:

Really?  To me, the feeling of owning a file is not the same as a physical thing.

I still get the feeling of owning it. Having legally purchased it, I could choose to put in on a USB, hard drive or CD for private use. Then I would have a more physical thing.

As a millennial, CDs end up usually being imported into my iTunes library anyway. So I guess to me a CD is just a bunch of files with a physical backup.

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13 hours ago, Will said:

I still get the feeling of owning it. Having legally purchased it, I could choose to put in on a USB, hard drive or CD for private use. Then I would have a more physical thing.

As a millennial, CDs end up usually being imported into my iTunes library anyway. So I guess to me a CD is just a bunch of files with a physical backup.

From a purely utilitarian perspective you are completely right.  I guess that I just tend to think (for many of the reasons stated above) that actually owning a physical copy of an album is more interesting.

To add to the conversation, I think that this interview with the guy behind Paysage d'Hiver is really interesting.  In the very end, he described the importance of a holistic view on music production, in which the artist treats the music, associated visuals, logo, and other aspects of production as all being important.  I think that solely relying on digital downloads would cause much of this art to be lost.  Thus, I think that physical products are not only better for fans, but for musicians as well.

http://www.invisibleoranges.com/paysage-d-hiver-interview/

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I really don't prefer one or the other when it comes to physical vs. digital. I own plenty of both, and use Youtube and Spotify often. Generally I use streaming services like those to find new music or stuff that I can't get physically. When it comes down to it, there are just certain albums or bands that I would rather listen to physically so that I'm not distracted. I rarely listen to "Pleiades' Dust" digitally, but I throw the CD in my stereo at home semi often and just sit in fascination. However, I don't mind getting distracted while listening to something digitally. Sometimes I just want to throw on a playlist and rock out in the shower or while I cook breakfast or what have you. And I've found the distractions of listening to music online to be somewhat of an advantage when discovering new music. If I'm pissing around on my phone while trying out a new release and it doesn't catch my ear then it probably just isn't my vibe, but if I'm able to stop what I'm doing and say oh shit that's a sick ass riff or damn this drummer has some fucking chops, then I'll know that this is something I could listen to more in the long run. 

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