In the past decade, music has almost reached a zenith of accessibility. The internet has all but unshackled the industry from the grubby hands of executives and allowed for a much more direct interaction between artist and consumer. While the big record labels still have their claws dug into major artists and genres, the average music listener is no longer beholden to industry big shots to decide what they can listen to.
Imagine the days before the internet. Your three options for listening to music were catching live shows, catching songs on the radio, and buying physical copies of music. There was no free, on-demand music listening. Today, anyone, anywhere can listen to almost every song made by just about every artist and band for free. It doesn’t matter how small or how far from your hometown an act is. If they have recorded music on the internet, it’s almost a certainty that you can stream it for free. While the freedom to listen to all music for free is ridiculously empowering, it has a sad side effect: most people don’t have music collections that they can call their own.
It’s certainly a pretentious thing to complain about. Physical music collections, and even downloaded music collections, cost time and money to obtain and aren’t guaranteed to last forever. They are impractical and probably excessive, but man are they fun. There’s an undeniable charm to holding a record and its accompanying packaging in your hand and nerding out over it. Album covers take on a whole new life when they are printed out onto a vinyl case.
Additionally, most bands reward their customers who buy physical copies with bonus materials like exclusive posters, extra artwork, or photo booklets. It’s excessive to care about any of that stuff too much, but those little bonus items go a long way to making physical copies of music have their own personality.
A friend recently mentioned that he digitally downloads about two albums a day to his computer because of his voracious listening habits and desire to have some sort of ownership over his music. But I think downloading is a shallow substitute for something physical.
Whatever little charms a particular vinyl package has, the entire package itself is a physical connection to a band or artist, which is a rare thing to have in an era where a lot of people technically don’t own any music.
It’s no surprise, then, that vinyl sales have rebounded from their steep downfall during the CD and early digital era. According to Slate, in 2013, digital album sales declined for the first time since 2003, when the iTunes store opened. Vinyl, on the other hand, has gradually resurrected itself as the CD has fallen by the wayside. Between 2002 and 2012, vinyl LP sales in the U.S. increased by 250 percent, while total recorded music shipments were nearly cut in half.
Nevertheless, vinyl is still a miniscule portion of the music market and remains stigmatized as an over-the-top, hipster hobby. In 2013, vinyl LP sales accounted for only two percent of total album sales in the U.S. There should be some sort of middle ground between the simple digital download and the full-blown, exclusive-packed vinyl purchase. The digital download is too bare-bones and the vinyl LP is too overblown for all but a small sect of listeners.For one thing, digital album prices should be brought down in many cases. A lot of single digital tracks are $1.29 on iTunes right now, with many albums costing $15 or $20. That’s outrageous. I much prefer the Bandcamp model where bands usually sell albums for $5 or $7. Cheaper prices allow bands to broaden their customer base and earn more listeners and dedicated fans, who will go on to buy merchandise or tickets to shows.
But more important than cost is the product being offered. Digital albums would be much more enjoyable if they came with download exclusives of photos or behind-the-scenes videos of the artist or band. Many bands already do this, but this should be the norm. It would be great if it could go even further, with digital album sales guaranteeing a customer some physical token to be delivered in the mail.
Listening to music is too easy nowadays for artists and bands to rely solely on their music to drive music downloads. And it’s pretty hard to get really excited about an MP3.