May 25, 2007

Thinking Out Loud: Physical vs. Digital

Thinking Out Loud developed from a series of open-ended email conversations and ruminations between Beatz staff members. In this article, Michael F. Gill and Peter Chambers discuss the merits of dance music on vinyl and MP3.

Peter Chambers: The common argument I hear is for supporting vinyl, with the main criticism being that MP3 is just data. It carries the signal (or most of it) but not much more. Certainly a bit less than all of it, and definitely no more. Vinyl, on the other hand, contains more than the signal. It carries your memories with it, and changes over time. As many people say, there’s something magical about that.

Michael F. Gill: Obviously things aren’t so black and white, but if I had to take a stance I feel going digital allows songs to have more freedom in how they fit in your memory. With the physical version, it may very well “carry your memories” around in it, and with a glance, take you back 20 years to that time you bought it, but in the same way, those memories can very well be trapped within the vinyl sleeve. How many new memories can you get out of a physical object that is likely going to spend 90% of its time in storage, out of your view? Kirk Degiorgio may have a Herbie Hancock record on his person at all times, but the rest of us have to be a bit more sensible!

PC: Maybe we should refer to a piece I wrote on Resident Advisor about this.

It’s there though. To me it’s the auratics of the object that are hard to move away from. That’s why, in my view, the recording industry should start selling something that’s “beautiful” and “worth buying”. Jewel cases are just awful, and digipak is only a little bit better. And the thing is, with my little Edirol R-09, it’s now just as easy for me to rip vinyl to digital, so now I have both…and yes, you’re right about records. They’re cumbersome. But they need our care, our love, our attention. They have a world. They age.

MFG: Maybe I should provide some background too, as I do have a love of first and second-hand vinyl, and the emotional connections it can have with your life.

In regards to your linked article, you do bring up a number of points that come up often, namely the lack of sacrifice involved for the neophyte digital DJ, the idea that a greater number of choices makes it harder to make an “interesting” choice, and the question if one can really “love” a digital interface or hard drive as much a set of Technics.

I don’t disagree that these can be valid problems, but I see them more as “coming with the territory” than “the major flaws” of digital music. No matter the medium, there’s always going to be bandwagon jumpers, as well as people with less talent and/or drive than others. I think it’s unfair to really “size up” the digital DJ scene just yet, because there aren’t any veterans yet. There will be ones in the future, and they will have probably earned their respect as much as any traditional jock.

To nitpick the “interesting choices” point, I’m betting digital DJs will have to be making exclusionary choices soon enough. I don’t think their entire musical catalogue will fit on one 100 GB hard drive forever. Perhaps a rule of thumb for future digital DJs will be “never completely fill up your hard drive before you play out.”

As for the idea that one could never love a hard drive, I agree! But I would stretch that to say I could never really love CDs, tapes, or vinyl. I do have affectation and care for them, but in the end, I personally want to have as little attachment to physical objects as I can. It might not be a realistic belief, but it’s one I’ve always kept with me.

Also, I’m going to bet this piece will soon be the number one Google hit for “auratics.”

PC: A guy (an artist) I was drinking with the other day said:

“What the fuck?! My housemate’s a singer/songwriter and he gets totally fucking raw at the idea of people downloading his shit without paying - and even getting into gigs for free. And he basically demands I go see him and pay ten bucks for the privilege - but then he and his will come to my opening (which is free) and drink all the booze, and that’s *fine* with him.”

He’s got a point. I mean so much of this is discursively produced, or just habit. It’s too easy to naturalise the contingent conditions of “how things are”, how we relate to music. It’s also easy to forget that there were musicians and music before there was a recording industry. Recorded music as a mass phenomena only emerged after WWII, and home listening only became viable with the development of hi-fi (and its associated quest for fidelity) in the 70s. What was interesting was that (and I read this in an interview with the guy from Stax headphones) people don’t care too much about fidelity, so long as it’s sufficiently good. This point was proven by the success of Sony’s walkman - what most people want is accessibility - music on the move. Hence the iPod (other reasons notwithstanding). You or I or my hi-fi obsessed baby-boomer father might care about fidelity, but most people couldn’t give a rats. So this whole argument (and I’m undermining myself here) is an enthusiast’s argument, really. A fetishist’s argument, for those “caretakers of the archive”.

MFG: As a person who has worked in archives, the fidelity of audio and video is always of extreme importance, and rightly so. But even as a person with this experience, I have to agree with the general consensus: I don’t need super hi-end sound when I’m working, travelling, exercising, or even relaxing at home.

PC: I think that because the LP/CD/tape is a fetishised commodity that can be collected, bought, sold, and so forth, it’s hard to think of it (and thus music) outside those commodified relations. Not to mention the desirability of records that are scarce or brand new.

MFG: “Don’t think, just buy.” Sometimes I think a big part of the appeal of collecting is that it gives us the illusion we can conquer a genre, an artist, a record label, one disc at a time. But obviously music is much more than what’s on the record.

PC: I think that’s a really good point, about mastery. My girlfriend’s uncle is obsessed with acquiring status through goods (and he’s not Robinson Crusoe in that) and to him, you get the sense that in acquiring (for example) the bike that Lance Armstrong rides, a little bit of that “magic dust” will rub off on him AND get in the eyes of the beholder. This is the essence of dilletantism, isn’t it. That by acquiring the equipment you become the thing.

MFG: When you put it that way, it really seems silly, bordering on idiotic.

PC: I think photographers are the worst in this regard. I knew a guy in Tokyo who read the Wire religiously (and I don’t use that adverb accidentally). He would also spend 30,000 yen a week on records ($250 US) without fail. And he’d been doing it for ten years. He must have had about 10,000 records, and his collection was canonical. Ordered alphabetically, he had everything you “should” have in a great collection. But it was about having a great collection. The music itself was secondary. But he was really smug about it. Me being at his place, ooohing and ahhing over all his rare EPs, you could tell it made his year. And there’s something a bit skewie about that.

MFG: Ha, I might actually give him a pass because he’s from Japan. Talking with friends who go vinyl-digging or Ebay-hunting, I’ve come across many tales of how that elusive piece of vinyl slipped through their fingers because of a fanatic Japanese collector.

PC: So, getting back to the previous point, is it a question about the artist being able to make a living doing what they do?

Or is it something intrinsic - like, if I sing to you that’s just lovely, but if I make a recording, then that somehow alters BOTH the music AND how we relate to it? Something strange, more than the recording, has happened when the vibrations become objectified and reproducible via the “disc” or whatever. And what about second hand records? There’s this (quite strange when you consider it) idea that if it’s been sold once, then it’s been sold enough (ie, that it’s no longer the artist’s property/can’t be stolen) yet second-hand record stores directly contribute nothing to the artist’s ability to reproduce their lives as an artist. So why isn’t that theft, or parasitism? How come that’s “just good business” owning and selling second hand records, BUT sharing a “file”, which is hardly an object (a quasi object?), which you’re not profiting from… *that’s* stealing?!

Basically, you’re de-commodifying a commodity and re-placing it outside the way people, objects, and money under capitalism “socialise” with each other, and so (if you think within cap’s logic) that’s maddening, isn’t it. They’re losing profit. It’s debatable that artists lose out. It’s almost a given that the record labels will, won’t they? How can they justify their existence? (I feel they are actually far more parasitic than even the most heinous second-hand record-store owner)

MFG: It’s almost like the cries of sheet music publishers when radio was introduced: “what will we do now that songs can be heard for free?!” But in the end their songs were heard by more people, and a new era started.

PC: Yes, but let’s not romanticise digital at the expense of the enabling industry of people (especially record store owners and smaller distributors, promoters and so on) who are going to suffer because of this.

Anyway, I think that the record companies should do two things:

1) acknowledge that we have found a vastly superior method of distribution of information (remember that when vinyl/CDs were released it was the best/only way to distribute worldwide because radio waves don’t stretch far enough and so on), deal with this reality and try to find their place in the new space

2) offer consumers something worth buying (CDs are a fucking jip – 20 to 30 bucks for a piece of aluminium and plastic that I can buy for 50c, put data on, and make my own CD with that’s nearly as good. What they’re asking is that we pay $29.50 for the honour of having professionally printed liner notes and slightly better sound quality. You do the maths.

MFG: Ah, but that sounds too logical! I think record companies are really going to squeeze every penny they can until the physical product just doesn’t sell anymore.

PC: They’d be better off offering something that you “can’t get” without buying it. Take DVDs - people are inclined to buy ‘em because of the perceived value. Like, I bought the Brass Eye DVD or The Office - now, I get the whole season, and I know I’m going to watch it repeatedly (nature of comedy). I’ll also still be watching it in five years time. It’s really worth it. But (for example) what about the new Bloc Party or Maximo Park albums - are these guys really going to become canonical? Am I contributing to my own valuable archive, or just a culture of consumption, disposability? If I just “need to know” about their music in order to participate in the grander conversation of pop/culture, then I can make do with mp3, listen to it, get the gist, then make an informed decision. None of the big record stores in Oz will even let you listen to CDs before you buy it, unless it’s on a listening stand. Then again, my local record store has got a copy of the Flaming Lips Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in orange vinyl, full gatefold, great cover art. It’s AU $50, and I’m not going to buy it because I’m an impoverished student, but if I was a wage earner, I would. And with good reason, I think.

MFG: I’m not sure if I completely buy into your comparison between DVDs and CDs - who knows what you will be listening to/watching in five years time? But I think you might be on to something with the “full season” approach to DVD and the “single album” approach to CDs. Perhaps the future is in the shrinking box set, where one is able to get the complete works of an artist/band in one fell swoop, or a small series of volumes.

This reminds that I want to comment on something that struck me when you mentioned your Japanese friend. I’m a little disturbed by how many times people (especially young people) stress that they love the physical product, they love to hold it in their hands, they love the feeling it gives them when they look at it on the shelf, they love the liner notes, the smell of the sleeve, the gloriously enlarged artwork. Nevermind the gluttonous and egotistical aspects, it almost seems like the music itself is an afterthought! Some people complain about downloading 5000 MP3s and then having no time to listen to all of them. I think this is a better problem than having 5000 CDs or vinyl pieces with no place to put them.

PC: Even David Bowie admitted this was his contemporary musical problem. It’s a matter of being an effective filter. And good filters don’t clench. You’ve just got to relax, and stop worrying about not having heard it all.

But I don’t think you can just separate music from its embodied state (or you can, but not without “removing” something). So much of our imagination of music is bound up with its embodied forms. Music is physical, and I can’t separate the medium from the message. The medium is the message, as McLuhan might say. To me, DJing inheres in vinyl, simply because of how I imagine the action. That’s why I’m much more drawn to Final Scratch. I think - don’t underestimate the powerful appeal of a sensual engagement with the world, and it’s capacity to enchant. Wasn’t this always the problem with laptop performances? Isn’t there something amazing about seeing/hearing someone go bonkers on the drums? Or the full embodiment of an orchestra?

MFG: I’m not so sure I agree! For live music, the sensual aspect you mention is definitely key. Going to see a show of “dualing laptops” sounds a lot like boredom incarnate. But when I’m listening to a DJ play, I frankly don’t give a shit if he/she’s playing from a laptop or turntables, I just want them to play a great set! I don’t disregard the medium, but when the music starts playing I’m more enveloped in the actual sound of things. I don’t really have this inherent connection you mention, where you are imagining the action of a DJ playing, touching, and selecting vinyl. And if you are going to have a “sensual engagement with the world,” have it with the dancers/crowd, not the vinyl!

I know that might sound haughty and/or ridiculous, but music is physical for me in the visceral way, not so much in its embodied forms. I did grow up buying tapes, CDs, and later on, vinyl, but I don’t feel any type of allegiance to it.

PC: That’s interesting. Read this, and tell me what you think.

MFG: I love most of that article! Especially all the little nostalgic points of how you listen to music growing up, and those first memories. I can even relate to it.

So yes, we are all dependent on the technology to listen to music. But I still don’t feel any “unsurmountable” bond between me and CD, cassette, mp3, or vinyl. I love my memories with my first boombox, walkman, CD player, and I still occasionally find some creative inspiration there, but no strong sense of attachment.

That said, I don’t think I’ll ever completely stop buying physical product. But the reasons I buy it have definitely changed. Here’s how I current justify a physical purchase:

1) There is still so much music (new, old, obscure) out there that is just not available in digital form. You might go to a club or record shop where they are selling something you just can’t get anywhere else. You might read about a new release online but never be able to find an MP3 of it, legally or illegally.

2) Sound quality. While some of the legal MP3 shops offer high quality (256-320k) MP3s, as well as WAVs/AIFFs, the majority is at 128k and 192k, which just don’t cut it if I ever wanted to DJ with these tracks or put them in a mix. And I won’t even begin to mention how dodgy rips can be if you are getting them illegally.

PC: MP3 has “sound qualities” of its own though, and a high-grade mp3 sometimes foregrounds the whole composition because of the crisp, compressed sound. A friend’s father says that he much prefers the Rolling Stones in the versions he’s got ‘em in (320kbps mp3 rips from HDCD). With things like the new Xerrox by Alva Noto, or the new Amon Tobin, CD is undeniably better. But techno, with its big bottom end, works better on vinyl. Smooth, rich, effortless liquid bass.

MFG: MP3 is the most popular/accessible distribution method at the moment, so we’re going to have to deal with its shortcomings. I agree techno is at a bigger disadvantage than rock or sound design-ish stuff like Amon Tobin, but it’s not unlistenable. Anyway, continuing on with my justifications…

3) Liner Notes/Artwork. This shit should be online! If I buy a Miles Davis MP3, shouldn’t I be entitled to know who wrote the song, who produced it, and who played drums on it, without buying the record? Apparantly not.

4) Hard Drives have not been proven to be as stable as CDs (yet.)

PC: Oh yeah. And you only truly realise this when your drive crashes. And they do. So back up your data. Or suffer.

MFG: But I have to say, the music that meets these justifications is getting smaller by the year.

PC: I will continue to purchase new and second-hand records for as long as I’m able to, and deal with the cumbersome consequences. And I will continue to use MP3. As a data format. Which is all it is. Think about it: vinyl remains the only dedicated MUSIC format. The horse bolted the moment the industry plumped for CD. Then it was just a matter of time and convergence.

MFG: I’ll continue buying as well, and although I agree vinyl is a format that belies a strong dedication to music, in the U.S. it doesn’t make as much financial sense as it does nearly everywhere else in the world.

Anyway, to sort of sum things up for me, if I could hold my entire music collection in a WAV or lossless format, with complete liner notes, on a stable digital storage system, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But we’re not there just yet.


  1. The RA link is broken

    “But when I’m listening to a DJ play, I frankly don’t give a shit if he/she’s playing from a laptop or turntables, I just want them to play a great set!”

    “I’ll continue buying as well, and although I agree vinyl is a format that belies a strong dedication to music, in the U.S. it doesn’t make as much financial sense as it does nearly everywhere else in the world.”


    -- peter
  2. Thanks for the catch, links should be working now.

    -- Michael F. Gill
  3. Very well-thought out piece! I was raking the Net for articles and discussions on ‘vinyl vs digital’ and this is one of the best ones out there. Good job in laying down the ‘pros and cons’ (if that’s the way to put it). A very, very entertaining read.

    -- Sookjin Ong

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