I’ve never been much for 8-track tapes. I grew up listening to my parents’ records, then graduated to recordings of those records on cassettes. Eventually I was buying my own Christian music tapes and then CDs (both Christian and *gasp* non-). I amassed quite a collection of CDs in the last twelve years. Right now, I’ve probably got somewhere around 500 CDs, give or take.
I love albums as an object. I see music as an objet d’art, encompassing the music, the album artwork, the (sometimes) printed lyrics, and the notes on the production. It’s a great joy to sit and listen to an album while looking through the art and getting a feel for the concept.
One thing I’ve learned since getting married, and especially after having a child, is that the space one has for objects is finite. And sure, one CD doesn’t take up too much room. But 500 CDs? Even if I only buy 2 a month, that’s 24 in a year–another 5% added on to my collection. Also, CDs are expensive. Because of the physical product (the jewel case or digipak, the printing, the disc itself), CDs can’t drop below a certain price without literally losing money for their publishers (and eventually the label and the band). Those jewel cases break like bottles in a TV bar fight. And that’s not to mention scratches.
Now, digital files are inferior to CDs in almost every way. They’re lower quality, and if they’re mp3s–the most common format–they’re actually less sonic data than a CD. (MP3s are considered a “lossy” format because they lose data compared to the CD.) They typically lack anything more than a 300 x 300 pixel representation of the artwork. They’re easily attained, but equally easy to accidentally delete or otherwise lose. Some companies sell you files but limit your rights to reproduce and back up your purchased files. But, mp3s and other digital files (aac/m4a, ogg, *shudder* wma) can be cheaper, since there is no manufacturing overhead. I argue, actually, that they should be cheaper. There is real no reason at all (besides greed) that mp3s on iTunes are the same price as an actual physical product in a store. (There is no reason (except greed again) that the legal penalty for stealing the freely reproduced files is so much higher than for stealing an actual physical product, either. But that’s an argument for another time.)
The benefits for mp3s are bountiful–they’re easy to carry, store, and share. While having a giant CD collection is a great way to maintain a physical backup of all the mp3s on your computer, so is buying a 500GB external hard drive from Costco and backing up your library regularly. A huge amount of the liner note information can be found online, be it on the artists’ sites or Amazon or Wikipedia. The loss of the art is a frustration, but how often do you read the liner notes to Kind of Blue, anyway?
Thankfully, not all mp3 stores are tyrannical with prices like iTunes. While Lala.com and Amazon MP3 both have relatively CD-like pricing structures, both offer regular deals (like @amazonmp3‘s deal of the day–usually great albums for anywhere from $0.99 to $3.99) which make the digital files incredibly reasonably priced. Then there’s online subscriptions like Emusic. While Emusic has lost some members over a price hike and addition of thousands of albums to their catalog (can’t win with some people), it’s still a fantastic deal. I currently pay $20 a month (the price of maybe two CDs) for 50 downloads. With their structure, 50 downloads can equal 50 individual songs or I can buy packaged albums that are 12+ songs for the equivalent of 12 downloads (Recently I got Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-sounds & Nigerian Blues and Kris Menace’s Idiosyncrasies, respectively 27 and 26 tracks, for 12 downloads each.) That works out to roughly $0.40 a song–definitely a steal compared to iTunes and others. Also, all of Emusic’s files are 100% DRM (Digital Rights Management)-free mp3s, compatible with all our mp3 players and both our car CD players. While it’s not perfect–there’s still a lot of labels they don’t have, so I have to keep an eye on new releases to know where I’ll be able to get them–Emusic is the best bang for the buck in terms of music purchases.
Before I started buying mp3s, I probably bought 20-30 CDs a year. Since then, I have been able to almost double that number, saving money in the process. And I’m no longer a slave to what’s in stock or how much for shipping. If you’re still a CD junkie, I highly recommend switching to mp3s. You probably already listen to all your music on mp3 anyway. Save room in your life for other things–like comic books, which are far superior as a phyiscal object–and start paying smaller amounts for just the ones and zeroes. But, for goodness’ sake, backup your mp3 collection. And if you miss the artwork that much, buy the vinyl.