On The Side has been abuzz this week with blogs about music, CDs and DVDs. Sam, Trev, Sam and Mike have all chimed in with their personal opinions, dividing the community on how physical media is appreciated in a digital culture. Here are my thoughts…
As a millennial (just about), I grew up with vinyl, cassettes and CDs to consume music (let’s not talk radio or TV – that’s a whole other debate). My parents collected their own music libraries across all formats; dad with his rock and electronic music, mum with her pop, disco and soul.
I have fond memories of my dad’s first portable Kenwood CD player sent from his brother in Japan along with Eurythmics, Fine Young Cannibals and Status Quo as a starting collection. It plugged into his Kenwood stack hifi he meticulously looked after, along with the delightfully clear speaker system he’d spent months shopping around for and fine-tuning (”don’t touch that equaliser, Simon!”)
The weekends were the time we’d all listen along to one of their albums from the collection; mum screaming along to Whitney tunes, dad head-bopping along to the bass lines of his deeper selection. We’d also spend many road trips heading up and down the M1 to Derby playing cassettes on loop. Carribean Queen is a distinct memory in Mum’s car along with Bomb The Bass in dad’s.
We’d sing or hum along knowing the words after learning them from the album liners, playing them relentlessly, almost rote learning every lyric written in sequential order.
These were the days of well crafted albums, when you KNEW what was coming next from the artist’s (or producers’) compilation.
Music was treated as the craft it deserves by the listeners.
As I grew older and started earning an income, this love and passion for music continued when I’d spend most my money in HMV and Virgin Megastore. Many a weekend would be spent in Northampton shopping centre, flipping through aisles of CDs and vinyl, selecting the most valuable choice with my limited funds. (These were the days when singles would range from 99p to £3.99 on CD, some limited edition vinyl could cost over £10).
I grew my collection over years of browsing the stores, often spending hours alone hogging one of the record players, trying to find THAT track that captured me to be repeated endlessly on loop.
This hobby continued as I went to university, often spending my menial student loan (and overdraft) on records over decent food – beans on toast was substantial enough to allow for another record. I used to jump in the car with my (employed) DJ friends, head up to Leeds or other nearby cities to pull apart HMV’s biggest record collections for that one-in-a-thousand tune to play at our next gig.
I’m hopefully painting a romantic picture here, a true love for music that was tangible, unique, a real craft of art.
Then MP3s came along.
Now don’t get me wrong. The digital revolution was a game-changer in many ways. With the internet came access to content that was typically inaccessible to most (thanks Tim). Obviously piracy was a serious issue, really challenging the music industry to adapt quickly and maintain control/income of their productions for their artist’s royalties. Mass produced music was feeling the pain when MP3s were gaining popularity, with early MP3 players quickly filling up with multiple albums.
Back in our university dorms, we’d use Napster or Kazaa quickly downloading the biggest hits for our parties, burning collections to CD for others to enjoy later. It was terrible looking back but with little-to-no income and students need to “live life to the full”, it became common practice for many to abuse this new-found access to music.
But whilst the masses enjoyed popular music, I was also spending many evenings browsing specialist directories and forums for my favourite genre: house music. This was an opportunity for aspiring DJs and producers to share their creations with dedicated fans, getting immediate feedback without the high cost and commitment of record presses or label distribution contracts.
Digital music enabled artists with rapid distribution & faster feedback whilst listeners had immediate easy access to endless choices across the globe.
As I graduated from university and found a job, online stores were starting to provide more platforms for DJs to browse new music and reward artists with a suitable income. Granted, most tracks ranged from 79p to £2.99, pennies compared to the physical media equivalent, but I assumed this was due to reduced production and distribution costs – royalties were the same.
During this time, I was now producing my own DJ mixes for podcast distribution, generally featuring the latest house and dance tracks to promote them to masses. At it’s peak, I got regular thanks and feedback from artists, producers and labels for growing their listener base and giving them the recognition they often deserved.
Because of the volume of music featured and regular frequency, I’d spend hours every week scouring the specialist online stores for the right 15 tracks – reminiscent of those crate-digging days of the 90s but, instead, scrolling through webpages of music to handpick a larger selection.
But I still felt like I “owned” that download, even if it wasn’t a tangible product I could hold.
I’d often burn a monthly selection to CD for listening in the car, especially when I’d typically spend a few hours every day driving to and from work with a reasonable-quality hifi system for appreciation the full audio range of heavy bass-lines and beats. This gave me something more tangible to own, and I’d familiarise with the curation of that playlist, typically taking the listener on an acoustic journey through the many sub-genres I personally selected.
Let’s come back to modern day. I’ve continued to purchase musical downloads from the likes of Traxsource, Beatport, Bandcamp and occasionally Apple. I still prefer to possess a copy of the music I enjoy, and reward artists with the (minuscule) royalties they collect from distributors and labels.
However, over the past few years, I’ve rekindled my love for physical media and vinyl. As the pandemic hit, I decided to get my old decks out the loft (inspired by all the superstar DJ’s broadcasting from their homes) and flip through my old vinyl stored in the loft. I did consider all the boxes full of CD’s as well but decided to leave them for another rainy day.
Since getting the bug, I then took to eBay, Discogs and local charity shops to build up my collection again. This has resulted in another side project known as The Archive Collection where I post my records (mostly 12” and 7” vinyl) to an Instagram account. Initially, this was for my own benefit as a way to catalogue my collection in a convenient way but it also provides an opportunity to engage with fellow vinyl fans or even the featured artists. Where possible, I namecheck artists, producers or labels who are on Instagram and they regularly get a reaction which brings another joy to me – connecting with the original artists and community who share the love for similar music tastes.
When this conversation started in our community, I had plenty thoughts and opinions on music in digital or physical form. I’m not sure how to conclude but I’ve enjoyed reminiscing over my musical journey so far, reflecting on feelings and motions and sharing for anyone else to compare.
I guess my overall opinion is both formats have their place; digital music is convenient for instant access of infinite content but physical music provides the full story, a romantic link back to the origins of the art form and a respectable hat-tip back to the artist’s intentions.
They can both live in harmony in a modern world.