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Does Physical Media have a Future?


Mark Gusew Thursday Feb 23, 2017 Music


Remember the time when cassettes were hot? Yep, not too long ago, cassettes and LP's were the only way to enjoy your favourite music. Then along came CD's. "Perfect sound forever" was the marketing catch cry. LP's were as dead as a dodo bird as people just gave them away.

Fast forward to today and for the vast majority, the thought of actually going to a physical store to buy a physical CD or an LP is antiquated and to some even repugnant. Why buy when you can rent? The internet can deliver me all the songs that I will ever want to listen to... for now and for ever more! The concept of ownership over physical media isn't important anymore. Many reason that the need for space and storage is a hassle and then there is the need to open the CD from the jewel case and insert into the player. "Everything that I need is on my mobile" Simples!

It's true that streaming music services like Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, Google Play, Deezer, Amazon, Soundcloud and others are growing at incredible rates as the market accepts the concept and convenience factor. Take a look at the data.

Streaming is growing and dominating, while the sales of pysical media is now only a fraction of the overall revenue.

The graph below (with the 2015 figures) clearly shows a small growth in LP sales, but it's minuscule. CD's are dwindling at a staggering rate. On-Demand Streaming is where the growth is, especially when you include Paid Subscriptions to the tally. Increasingly the public is accepting the small monthly charges for music on-demand.

RIAA music sales report. Source: RIAA

In spite of these numbers, the majority reading this post actually care about the quality of the sound. Convenience is important sure, but it has to sound right. For many, a heavily compressed MP3 quality download is unacceptable. I also note that the number of downloaded albums is dropping from its peak some years ago. These would include high-resolution downloads of 24 bit music.

So what's the take home point from this post? Well, each of us are individuals and as such have freedom of choice and answer only to ourselves. Trends and graphs are irrelevant. We have a 'line in the sand' as far as quality goes and we shop and listen according to our own dictates. For many of us, that still means using physical media. We like the look of it, the smell of it, that reassurance that it is always there and ready to be played. Internet outages and data caps are irrelevant.

I've often heard it said that there is something really nice about handling an LP, opening up the fold, reading the notes, admiring the cover artwork and gazing at the shiny black surface. A download is by comparison very unfulfilling and is incapable of lifting your spirits in the same way.

Nowadays, the second-hand market is visited by one and all, including our young, as we scour the bargain bins for lost treasures. Some who in the past gave their records away, are buying the same albums all over again. What's old is new again. And so the cycle begins again.

Sure, services like Spotify have a place in our lives. I enjoy finding new music and artists that I could not do any other way. Then go buy that album or CD, for the quality and sense of entitlement. You then own it and can enjoy all of the usual rights that go along with ownership. It can be sold, traded or passed on to the next generation. You just can't do that with streaming, because effectively your renting.

I also strongly believe that even so called lossless services like Tidal don't sound as good as the physical equivalent. It often has to do with the equipment that you own and use. I have read that using MQA makes a difference but I'm not convinced. Many are sceptical of the benefits. Even if there is an improvement, the amount of musical content available is severely restrictive. Not ideal. In almost every case the physical version still sounds better!

So if ultimate sound quality is your aim, I say: Never allow the quest for convenience overtake your standard for sound quality.

You may agree that ownership has some advantages but then again I can attest to the wide range of music that streaming can deliver, that you may not be able to experience in any other way. So, whatever you decide, just enjoy your music, no matter where it comes from.

I would love to hear from you and to learn what your thoughts are on this topic.