A love letter to physical music releases

IT’S NOT NEWS that the music industry is changing. The identity crisis of music labels is perfectly symptomatic of an alteration in the business, and their adaption for survival is a story that is still playing out. Other shifting trends include artists ever relying on ticket and merchandise sales at live shows to sustain a career, and download sales steadily increasing- but, again, this isn’t news. On the other hand, what constantly seems to baffle the general public is that in this app-filled, ever tweeting, digital age there’s still a demand for physical releases.

You can’t deny that vinyl has been rising in popularity over the last ten years. Figures from the British Phonographic Industry for 2013 give a 101% rise in sales from 2012 and the highest sales since 1997. There’s clearly still a lot of love for buying hard copies of albums, regardless of what the digital music status quo is. Personally, I think that’s fantastic. Here I’m going to have a go at explaining why I think a loss of physical music releases would be a tragedy, even if they may have lost some of their necessity. There’s more than just nostalgia to buying CDs and records. 

Music releases from (Clockwise from top left) Mastodon, Touché Amoré, Cynic, Rush and A Silver Mt. Zion demonstrate the variety of album packaging beautifully.

More and more modern day music artists are doing more than just writing and recording music, and are pushing the boundaries of what a multi-media listening experience really means. The advance of CGI technology in the last couple of decades has revolutionised what can be achieved in a music video. In particular, the recent trend of creating interactive music videos really shows the journey that has taken place since the early promotional clips from bands such as The Beatles. This has also been the case in live shows, where technological advances have built upon the lights and video projections that have been encompassed into performances for a long time. Bearing this in mind, although it could be argued that it’s inevitable that the relevance of album art could be lost amongst the new-fangled digital options such as interactive websites, it’s also easy to see how creative packaging can be central to a cross-platform “mosaic” of art.

A perfect example of this is Noah and the Whale’s heart-breaking 2009 album, The First Days of Spring. The album release included the launch of a film of the same name, for which, the album represented the soundtrack. The music, lyrics and film all established strong themes of melancholy tinged with the hope of the future and the turn of spring (“Well the trees grow, the river flows, and it’s water will wash away my sin.”) The final piece of this artistic jigsaw was the photography included in the album release, which cemented the continuity of the project, and really allowed the release to succeed as a multi-faceted work. 

On a more practical note, I’ve not yet found a website that manages to give the lyrics, gear rigs and personal thanks from a band in one convenient place like the liner notes of an album does. Admittedly, this is a bit of a moot point when lyrics are available by a simple Google search, and crowd funding projects and video messages are making album updates and gear rig explanations more personal than they ever have been.

I’d also like to think that having a CD collection would be a great way to back up your digital music library, but with all of the alternatives that are on offer today, that just isn’t true. Even using a USB hard-drive is far more practical than re-ripping your old CDs. ‘Library back-up’ is just another of a list of arguments for preserving physical media formats that seem less like a legitimate reasons to continue releasing music physically, and more like an excuse to vent a general aversion to the dawn of the digital age.

These two last points lead on to the conclusion of the debate up nicely. On paper, physical music releases don’t make any practical sense, economical or otherwise, but who buys a vinyl because it’s cheap and convenient these days?  There’s no problem with the accessibility of instant streaming and downloads. They’re clearly a fantastic way to make music more widely available, which can only be a good thing. Though if listeners want to go out of their way to get a more extensive package of art with lots of little bonus features to get their teeth into, then that option should certainly be available where possible.

The First Days of Spring – A Film By Noah And The Whale from charlie fink on Vimeo.

Long live the physical music release!