Digital revolution or digital devolution?

The discussion on Erik’s recent blog post about promo CDs made me start thinking about a prospect that I find very troubling. The discussion came down to the way that younger fans consume music, and whether or not the physical product matters. I grew up in the 1980s. I’m a material guy, for lack of […]

by Fred Phillips

The discussion on Erik’s recent blog post about promo CDs made me start thinking about a prospect that I find very troubling. The discussion came down to the way that younger fans consume music, and whether or not the physical product matters.

I grew up in the 1980s. I’m a material guy, for lack of a better phrase. I enjoy having physical manifestations of the things that I love. It’s why I have two walls covered with CDs, an entertainment center full of DVDs a huge shelf full of books in the house and at least a dozen more boxes in storage. Heck, it’s why I have a box tucked away in my closet with about 500 cassettes from my teenage years in it. Even though they’re useless these days (I don’t even think I own a working cassette player anymore), I can’t let them go because there are some great memories in there.

Don’t get me wrong, I love digital media. I can load hours of music onto a device that fits in the palm of my hand, and I don’t have to lug a clunky CD player and case around when I’m out working in the yard. When I’m working on a writing project, I can program hours of music on my computer that fit the mood of the project, so I can write undisturbed and get lost in my work without having to stop and change CDs. It’s great for those mainstream CDs so you can get the one or two decent tracks without having to buy the rest of the crap. It’s versatile, and it’s convenient. I get it.

But, for me, there’s still nothing like holding that CD in your hand, flipping through the booklet, checking out the artwork, lyrics, even the liner notes. A great personal example is Iced Earth. I’ve gotten a slipcard promo of every Iced Earth record since Horror Show, but I also have retail copies of all of those records because I know that package is going to give me more. I can’t help it, I like having things, and when the day comes that the CD becomes obsolete, it will be a sad one for me because much of the experience will be lost. Am I going to ever open a .pdf of the cover art and liner notes and look at them? Probably not. It’s a pain, and it’s just not the same.

The biggest objection that I have to full digital delivery of music is the same objection that I’ve raised to ebooks when writer friends of mine have tried to convince me to adopt the technology. The digital format, with no physical representation, to me, makes music or books seem impermanent, disposable, unimportant. As someone with a great passion for both, there’s a wrongness about that idea that offends me deeply.

If you’re like me, when you look at a CD case, you’re really looking at a musical story of your life. You can relive good times and bad thinking about the music that you were listening to at the time. I can even sometimes revisit those moments by pulling out one of those CDs and listening to it, catching the memory of a feeling, state of mind or even occasionally something as tangible as a scent from an important time in my life when I was listening to that record. It’s powerful, and it’s something that you don’t get with a bunch of jumbled up files on your hard drive.

I often find myself perusing my CD case and having my eye land on a record that I really liked that I haven’t listened to in a long time, or one that maybe I didn’t like so much at the time, but want to revisit it to see if my opinion has changed. Often, it has. I can’t see myself opening a folder on my computer and browsing files in that way, and I can’t see myself hanging on to a digital file that I don’t think is that great on the off-chance that I might rediscover it and have a better appreciation for it a few years from now. A digital download for me is like music for the moment, to be listened to until you get tired of it and then forgotten about, and that bothers me. I often wonder if, in the new digital age, we will have a legacy of great music and writers, or if it will all become cheap, disposable, hit and run entertainment with no lasting impact on the world.

So, I guess I’m asking if I’m just an old fart who is behind the times and in danger of being mowed down by the new wave of technology. Are there more people out there who have the same kind of connection to music that I do, or am I a dying breed? Does having a physical manifestation of the things you enjoy matter anymore or is it enough to have an impermanent, intangible set of 1s and 0s that represent that thing? For me, it’s definitely not.



  1. Commented by: Dan

    Mr. Phillips,
    You are not an old fart. I am 22 years old. I only really started listening to metal when I was 15 or 16. By then the digital revolution was well under way but I still bought all of my albums in physical form. The booklet, the cover art; its all part of the experience for me. Though I only just recently (after years of pestering from my friends) got an iPod, I still buy CD’s and upload them onto my computer. I know it’s an expensive hobby, but I guess in some ways, for me, that financial commitment represents my emotional commitment to metal as well.
    I have an enormous box of CD’s in my closet and I love to browse through it and find old albums I forgot about. I feel safe knowing that my music collection, the physical manifestation of my greatest passion, won’t disappear with my next lap top upgrade.
    It’s also a way for me to stay invested in the music I buy. People today download tens of thousands of songs and listen to almost none of them. How can we expect artists to commit themselves to their art if they think no one else is.
    Fuck. I love CD’s.

  2. Commented by: Fred Phillips

    Then don’t call me mister … makes me feel like an old fart. >=)

    Seriously, I’m glad to know that some of the younger crowd still cares about having the real deal. You made some very good points there. I couldn’t agree with them more.

  3. Commented by: Apollyon

    I don’t want to think about days of not having a physical copy in my hands. Nothing beats going through the album and packaging if it’s an album you’ve been waiting for a long time. The effort put into the album shines through.

    Then again, I’m not sure if it’s going to be that way. I think we’ll continue to have a physical product; at least for a while. From what I gather vinyl sales have been going up and their magnificence is valued more and more.

  4. Commented by: Morb

    I am really not looking forward to an all digital world. Fuck that.

    There is nothing wrong with physical reality. I’m scared of the people who think there is.

  5. Commented by: Fred Phillips

    I think most of the folks like me are heading in the direction of vinyl again these days. I may do that at some point, but I doubt I’ll ever fully convert. It’s been almost 20 years, and I still haven’t made the complete transition from cassette to CD. There are still a whole bunch of records I like that I had on cassette that I’m yet to replace on CD, and I’ve got a lot more CDs than I ever had cassette. I can’t even think about converting to a new format.

    Morb, I’m in full agreement.

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