Better Living: What is the Real Value of Physical Media?
Art and life cohabitate, informing, imitating and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.
When the finish line is in sight during a recording project, I often ask the artist what the release plans are. Very few clients have an immediate answer - this contributes to the local phenomenon of the Farewell/CD Release show. In the soil of that question is a larger one. How important is it for music to be released in a physical format?
There is a frequent debate about whether life was easier for musicians before or after the Internet domination. Disregarding the issues of oversaturation (bad) and communication (good), one aspect was certainly simpler: There was never a doubt about whether a CD or tape or record would exist. It was the carrot dangling ahead before a single note was recorded. Today, an album can be mastered before the artist has a dedicated pro- or anti-carrot stance.
Despite the shift away from physical media, there remains something romantic about even the dullest of formats. Placing a hand-scrawled CD-R of your music in another human's hands will always be more satisfying than emailing a download link. The physical release of a recording is validation, like a diploma you can sell copies of or give away at will.
The lure of records is near-obvious - it was actually the subject of the first Better Living Through Music entry a scant year ago. Compact discs are far less aesthetically pleasing, and there are two general camps of artists who still make CDs. Some do it as a gesture of their music's importance while others are oblivious to (or in denial of) the possibility of their music existing only in some mysterious Internet server. The parallel to music consumers is fairly clean.
I rarely release my own music - between running a studio, writing for RFT, teaching guitar, being a husband, having pets, and owning a house, I barely have time to keep up with the Kardashians. I can't even comprehend putting out a CD. Go big or go home, I say. Give me a gold-plated 12" with a pop-up book gatefold or give me Bandcamp. The compact disc was once touted for its convenience - small! stackable! - but now I look around my room and feel infested by these enormous flat eyeballs, stalked by their reflective green pupils.
Although my music consumption is directly related to my ability to steal wireless Internet, I keep a physical vault. In it are CDs I have played on or recorded, and a handful of discs by friends or artists who are otherwise important to me. There are at least three copies of Emergency & I inside. Of course, I never listen to these CDs; some are just empty cases, but their liner notes read like scrapbooks.
Digital-only music is convenient, but it is not permanent. A hard drive failure can drastically change a listener's habits. Yet, we still appreciate CDs - at least enough to hesitate throwing one away. And in this borderline hoarding lies the subconscious value of physical media in 2013: It is an artist's and listener's way of refusing to let their music be forgotten.
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