On Collecting Music

Last week, I spent $11.72 to purchase a CD and have it mailed to my house. Here, I'm writing down some thoughts on why I collect music and why, in 2022, I still buy CDs.

To start, three verifiable facts about myself.

  1. I enjoy music. I find joy in music.
  2. I have small children and want to share music with them.
  3. I live a privileged life that includes a bit of disposable time and income, which I can use to do things like collect music and write about it.

Ok, but why buy music?

Yes, we could stream it. Our family shares an Apple Music subscription and it's fine. But, purchasing a physical CD helps me accomplish three things that streaming music does not.

1. To Support the Artist

Buying a physical copy of music is an effective and straightforward way to support a musician.

There are not always simple ways to support creative work, but buying it is usually a good bet. With direct economic support, we can reward artists for making the art that we love.

Money for joy, seems a fair transaction.

The economics of streaming services are not as clear. They may be good for the music industry, are probably not great for individual artists, and seem especially bad for artists with smaller followings.

Tiny thoughts on streaming: Streaming music subscriptions are wonderful for discovering music and for making it portable and convenient. I found an appreciation for subscription music after I stopped viewing it as an alternative to collecting, but as a complementary tool.

Stream first and widely, collect sparingly.

2. To Own the Music

It's probably obvious that we do not own the music that we stream from Spotify, Apple Music, or wherever else. Cancel that subscription and watch the music evaporate from your phones and devices.

What's not as obvious, is that we don't own the music that we purchase digitally, either.

Purchasing and owning a digital good is precarious, at best. Often, as consumers, we make these purchases that would be better described as complex licensing agreements that can be ended, unilaterally, by the licenser.

Examples of poor behavior involving digital purchases: Amazon can remove "your books" from "your Kindle," Google Play Music no longer allows downloads of "your music," and you never really owned "your movies" from Vudu. All of these large companies routinely lose interest in selling digital goods or supporting the ones they've already sold.

Our shared understanding of ownership just doesn't transfer honestly to digital purchases.

For certain records, I want more than that conditional, temporary access.

Owning a physical copy of music provides privileges that streaming does not. I can listen to a CD indefinitely, with no Internet connection, and without a monthly cost. I can make a copy of it. I can sell it. I can donate it. My children can inherit it, have a quick laugh, and then donate it themselves.

For the records that bring me joy, I want to live with them, find them space on our shelf, and share them with my family.

3. To Collect Artifacts

Also, owning a physical piece of music is fun!

I can hold an object in my hand that was made by another person. There is an emotional heft to that connection.

I love the simple, tactile ritual of opening the digipak, removing the disc, placing it on the tray, watching it disappear into the machine, hearing the mechanical whirl of motor, and waiting for the laser to assemble the song from the landscape of the plastic and push it through the speakers.

How CDs work, kind of: CDs are made by encoding music into digital data and physically pressing that data into the plastic disc. The data is arranged in a single line that begins in the center of the disc and spirals out toward the edge.

To play the music back, the disc is rotated and those indentations (called pits) are read by a laser and a lens to reconstruct the original data. That data is then handed it off to a DAC (digital-to-analog converter), which converts it to an analog waveform, which is sent to an amplifier, and finally to a speaker.

Music becomes data written onto a disc, the data is read back and becomes the music again.

Read a lot more at Wikipedia

And this physical experience is easily shared with my children. They regard CDs with wonder and interest that aren't present when they're poking at shapes on a screen. Humans understand physical objects.

Why not vinyl?

The large, round elephant in the room at this point is: why not collect vinyl records?

A few years ago when I decided to return to CDs, I did spend some time considering vinyl. Below is my personal reasoning for choosing CDs and not an argument against vinyl.

Regardless, I am happy that vinyl is finding more popularity in recent years. Yay for supporting artists, owning music, collecting artifacts, and having choices!

1. Vinyl records are less robust than CDs

Vinyl records require more care and more careful handling, which just isn't possible to explain to my 3-year-old son. For us, taking care of vinyl doesn't seem like a good use of our energy.

2. CD production is more reliable

Read enough reviews of vinyl records online and you will find more than a few complaints about the "pressing." The vinyl manufacturing process seems prone to inconsistency that isn't as common with CDs.

3. CDs are cheaper than vinyl

I just paid $11.72 for a brand new CD and used CDs are easy to find and cheaper still. Most new vinyl records go for $20 to $25 and are often priced even higher.

This price difference amplifies concerns about the robustness and reliability of vinyl. It also illustrates the clear value of the next point.

4. CDs are user-replaceable

If I break or lose a CD, I can produce a new, perfect copy of it in my own home, for very little money.

This is an absolutely beautiful accident of capitalism. CDs are a well-supported, high-quality digital media format that manage to retain a lot of the freedom of simpler analog formats. We were lucky to have this!

How CDs happened: Sony and Philips jointly developed the format so that they could sell CD players. Record labels embraced CDs to monetize their back catalogs. Later, personal computers and cheap hardware allowed consumers to pull high-quality music files from purchased discs and then make their own copies and mixes.

In 2022, it's unlikely that a new physical music format will be developed. Even if it were, would we ever get another universal format supported by plentiful and cheap hardware, embraced by record labels, and endowed with as much freedom and utility as CDs?

More thoughts on this below.

5. CD players are cheap and sound great

The CD player in our home was purchased a few years ago for less than the cost of a good Bluetooth speaker. It has AM and FM tuners, Bluetooth, analog input and output, and two very nice stereo speaker boxes made of real wood. It also has a large volume dial, clicky buttons for most functions, and even came with a remote.

A comparable quality record player, with an amp, and a pair of bookshelf speakers would almost certainly cost quite a bit more. And it might, on occasion, need a new stylus.

6. CDs are smaller

CDs take up less space on the shelf, and they're easier for young children to handle.

7. CDs offer instant seeking and other song navigation features

This was a big deal when CDs were released and positioned as an improvement on cassette tapes. No more fast-forwarding.

Plus, kids love to put songs on repeat. Just try to stop them.

Why vinyl?

Vinyl is popular and it's not without reason. For folks choosing it, a few points stand out to me:

  • That big, beautiful, best-in-class album art
  • The undeniable romance of placing the record on the turntable and carefully dropping the arm
  • That warm, weathered sound profile that many people just prefer over digital music
  • Some folks enjoy the experience of only listening to entire albums, no skips

Also, maybe cassettes!

Cassette tapes are also, oddly, available again from a lot of independent sellers, often as a limited run or special release. This strikes me as mostly nostalgia?

But, cassettes did have some nice characteristics. They are smaller and more portable than CDs. Mixtapes were really fun. And golly, that Sony Walkman was an iconic piece of design.

An Ideal Format

I'm happy to have CDs, and they fit my needs well, but they are surely not perfect. My ideal music format might be something like a large, ultra-durable SD card. An unbreakable, game cartridge-sized music whatsit that can be packaged alongside album art and other niceties.

A great, modern physical music format might have these attributes:

  • Lossless music encoding
  • Robust and durable
  • Small and portable
  • Unencrypted and accessible data
  • Easy to copy, reproduce, and make your own
  • Attractive and beautiful as an object
  • No reliance on the Internet or a cloud service

Wait. Am I just describing Sony MiniDisc? Maybe I'm sad that MiniDisc never found its market. Yes, I am sad about that.

There are some folks working on things like this, but nothing that I found looked very promising.

  • There are some neat DIY projects using a Raspberry Pi and an NFC reader. This one looks nice. But, a DIY solution isn't accessible to very many people.
  • Muse Blocks are NFC music cards that look nice, but they're just a link to streaming services.
  • Sharetapes, also, look like an NFC card that links to streaming services.
  • TrackRhino is an NFC card and maybe allows music file downloads, but it's linked to a cloud service.
  • USB Music Cards (which really need a better name) look OK, but they're selling an analytics product along with it. "Know when (day, month, year) and where (City, State, Country) your fans are listening to your music." Yuck and no, thank you.

So, for the foreseeable future, collecting music means CDs on our shelf.