The future of music: pretty boxes

There are only two things in the world that give us absolute total happiness. One is seeing other people fail. The other is unwrapping a newly-bought CD.

–Armando Iannucci

In the wake of all the upheaval that the recorded music industry is facing, a lot of people have been predicting the death of the CD. After all, the very reason why music is cheap or free these days is because they don’t need to be put on a physical object which then has to be transported around the world. Surely digital downloads are the only conceivable future for music distribution.

I don’t like the idea of this. If I was five years younger it would probably make perfect sense to me. Last week’s edition of The Economist tells the story of a focus group that EMI held. It was aimed at understanding yoofs better. At the end of the meeting, the teenagers were invited to take as many free CDs from a pile on a table as they wanted. Not a single person took a CD.

It’s just the latest example of a recorded music industry that has always found it difficult to adapt to new technology. Historically, consumers have gone for the most convenient and cheapest format rather than the technically excellent one. So says Fredric Dannen if you scroll a long way down.

When the long-playing record (LP) format was introduced by Columbia Records back in the late 1940s, the industry as a whole resisted it, and many predicted it would never take off because 78s sounded better. Without question, early LPs did not sound nearly as good as 78s. But given the choice of listening to all of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on two sides of one record versus sixteen sides of eight records, the consumer opted for convenience and simplicity (not to mention less shelf space).

…You can always count on the record industry to cling to the past, and to fight innovation.

So does the arrival of MP3 mean the death of the CD? I personally hope not. I love CDs. I am of that generation, probably a small five–ten year window of people who wouldn’t consider vinyl but had no access to file sharing as they grew up. Napster came onto the scene in 2000, when I was 14 — well into my music-consuming life.

I have been collecting CDs since I was nine years old. I haven’t counted, but I must have around 600 CDs. I only bought my first vinyl records a few years ago. I bought them grudgingly, only because they were not available on CD. I reckon today I have 30 vinyl records.

I have only ever bought around a dozen MP3s — again, because they were not readily available on CD or vinyl. (I have downloaded a few dozen more because they weren’t commercially available at all — mainly live bootlegs and demos.) I would consider buying more. But although MP3 is the format du jour, there is a big block in my mind preventing me from buying something that I will never be able to see or touch.

I suppose this makes me a collector. (Yes, my collection is in alphabetical order — or it was until I ran out of space.) Collectors tend to be fans of vinyl though, which makes me an anomaly.

It would be nice to think that the CD will limp on and eventually survive another day in the MP3 era just as vinyl has done in the CD era. I have grown up with CDs and I love them. I’m not an audiophile, so the sound quality issue doesn’t worry me too much. And to be honest, I can’t be bothered with the faff of vinyl.

Whether it is CD or vinyl, there will always be people like me who treasure the physical presence of an album. It’s not just about a collection of notes. It about an event, a happening. It’s the artwork, the packaging. The sleevenotes, the lyrics. The smell of the booklet. It has an aura. When you hold a copy of a good album, you are transported to its space without even having to put it on. Could all of this really die because of the internet?

When Radiohead released In Rainbows, the pricing structure grabbed all of the headlines. But that wasn’t the interesting thing for me. The pay-what-you-want method is just a belated recognition of the fact that people could choose to pay nothing anyway.

The other aspect of the release of In Rainbows interested me much more. I didn’t pay anything for the MP3s. I downloaded them for free when they were released on 10 October. That’s because I got them as part of the £40 “discbox” set.

The discbox is a premium edition of In Rainbows. It comprises a CD of the album, an second CD with eight extra tracks and enhanced content, a 2× vinyl edition of the album, and generally all-round badass packaging.

In Rainbows discbox packaging

£40 is the most I have ever paid for an album. I hesitated before I ordered it — but not much. Although I am sort of a collector, I have never been a completist. I am usually happy to have the CD version on its own. But I couldn’t resist the awesomeness of the discbox — despite the fact that I hadn’t even heard the album.

This was largely ignored in the media coverage of the album, but to me it was the most notable aspect of the unconventional release of In Rainbows. When I first posted about In Rainbows, I neglected to even mention the fact that the MP3s were free. I didn’t find it that interesting.

People like me, who love the physical formats, will be continue to be catered for. It is easy to make money out of us. Slap a sticker saying ‘limited edition’ on a record and suddenly demand for it will become price inelastic. Suckers like me will buy premium versions of albums at higher prices than we would otherwise consider. And this will become ever more important for the record companies as physical sales continue to get eaten into by the internet, where profit seeking is impossible.

In Rainbows wasn’t the start of this. Limited edition versions of albums have been around for a very long time. But in an age where it is becoming increasingly difficult to make money out of recorded music, it is becoming more and more prevalent.

When I went shopping for Sigur Rós’s Heima DVD I thought £17 was a bit steep. Then I saw the limited edition version for £25 and bought it.

The deluxe multi-format edition seems to be becoming more common as well. Björk’s latest single, ‘Declare Independence’, is available as a deluxe edition, yours for only £19.99.

Formatted in the same extravagant packaging as the Volta double LP, this contains all conceivable formats of the single: double vinyl, CD and DVD.

Something else that is becoming more and more common is for people to automatically get the MP3 version for free when they order a physical version. For instance, Nonesuch has started doing this. You can choose between standard 128kbps MP3s or maximum quality 320kpbs at no extra cost.

It makes sense to me. Being able to have your entire music collection on a portable device is becoming an expectation these days. Since vinyl is a bit more tricky to get onto your iPod, it would be good to get the MP3s of music that you have already bought automatically for free. Hopefully more record companies will adopt this approach.

A lot of people have wondered aloud if the fact that we can now get music for free from the internet is devaluing music. But it seems to me as though the internet is not only driving the price of music down — it’s also driving the price of CDs and records up.

3 comments

  1. You really can’t beat the better quality of a CD, especially for a true audiophile. But the convenience of an MP3 really hits the spot. Buying a CD used to be an event whereas buying MP3s are about filling the void.

  2. I buy CDs when I think the music is deserving of high fidelity playback. That said, I ripped most of my CD library into MP3 files when I moved to LA and left the CDs in storage in Edinburgh. Although I’ve lost a lot in sound quality, it has opened up new avenues for discovering new music, e.g. via Last.Fm or MySpace, which feeds into buying more music from the bands I like.

    Incidentally, I’m loving the In Rainbows package too. And that’s how I see it: a package of music and images that all fit together into an … for want of a better word, “experience”.