Could you be Loved? Coveting LPs and CDs in a Dematerialized Music Age

“I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record…”

The rhetorical wail of Gordon Gano brings a smile to my face every time I hear “Kiss Off,” the second cut on side one of Violent Femmes, the self-titled debut album that the band cut on Slash Records in 1983. I love that LP. It reminds me of junior high school, being awkward with girls, and generally turning to music and books for solace as I figured out what becoming a teenager was all about.

I have an original Canadian pressing, it is in less than perfect condition. I picked it up at a record fair just off Main Street several years ago for $20, and after a cleaning on my Okki Nokki it has held a special place in my collection since. I’d like to grab another copy in better shape, as it’s a touchstone LP for me, but NM or Mint- original US or UK versions are going for well over $100 USD on Discogs. So, I’m biding my time and whenever I hit local record stores I always keep an eye open for it, along with a number of other pressings I covet.

Same goes for the Kate Bush Hounds of Love CD I’ve had since I first moved to Vancouver in the summer of 1989. It’s in a new jewel case now, and the CD itself is, miraculously, still unblemished. I can’t count how many moves that CD has made with me over the decades, or the long stretches without playing that it went though when I didn’t even have a portable CD player, but I always made sure it managed to make it into a well-packed box along with a handful of other discs for every journey to a new abode.

The connection with physical media. Is there a difference?

My point is that physical media, be it LP, CD, or cassette (reel-to-reel is just too dear and niche for me to really touch on), can be a vessel for memories and points in time to collect within. Can you say the same for a high-resolution digital download or a TIDAL playlist? ”Oh man, remember that day when I charged $24 via Apple Pay and downloaded that 24-bit/96kHz Leon Bridges EP?” Of course you don’t, because you don’t hold a hard drive in your hand while listening to music. You access downloads like you access the dematerialized music you stream off Qobuz, Amazon, TIDAL or Spotify – from the display of a smart phone, tablet, laptop or Mac/PC. You interface with a screen, not a record/CD sleeve or accordion-folded cassette insert.

An LP that you’ve had for years, or just recently re-purchased after losing or wrecking the first copy you had – because you want to reconnect with the songs contained on the album, and want to hold the album itself – allows you to time travel back to when you first heard it. First held that LP sleeve in your hand or poured over the liner notes as the plastic slab that was contained therein made its countless revolutions on your turntable years ago. Does anybody want to buy a high-res download of Moby’s Play to reconnect with the mp3 version they pirated off Napster in the late ’90s? I doubt it. But, the inherent nostalgia and precious nature of physical recorded-music objects have real value attached to them just like a vintage watch, original painting or antique chair does. It’s because they’re real objects that we not only imbue them with certain emotional and intellectual properties, but also the same reason we can’t feel the same away about non-physical media or objects. They have no corporeal substance for us to attach to them. A copied existence on a hard drive, ripped to the cloud 4,000 miles away that you access off your iPad isn’t the same as an 1841 Broadway, Robert Ludwig-mastered copy of Houses of the Holy sitting on your coffee table. Is it?

Making the intangible as tangible as ones and zeroes can be.

While I have listened to certain Qobuz 24-bit/192kHz files and TIDAL MQA Masters that I actually think sound better than the vinyl copies I have on hand, and while I truly appreciate and heartily enjoy playing them again and again, I don’t have the same emotional connection with those streaming versions that the LP or CD versions I own elicit. This isn’t about saying one is better than the other, it’s about the difference between the tangible and the intangible and how they both trigger a different set of specific explosions in the billions of firing (and misfiring) neurons that make up the complex chemical dance steps which define my brain’s relationship with how I experience the playback of recorded music.

I’ve got dozens of LPs and CDs that I’d never sell or give up for any reason I can think of because they mean something important to me. Time capsules if you will. I also wouldn’t ever want to give up the ability to stream millions of songs in Redbook or higher resolution because that’s the way I access more than 80 per cent of my music now, and it sounds just incredible through a HQ server/streamer/DAC that speaks to me. In the coming years and decades could the way I interact with dematerialized music change? Could I become more emotionally connected just to the music, as opposed to what that music is being played back from? I certainly think that’s a realistic possibility. It could make sense that the more I listen to streamed music, the way my mind perceives its listening relationship to music could adjust over time. But, I don’t think that the act of pulling out a favorite LP, CD or treasured cassette, loading it onto a turntable or transport, sitting back with the sleeve or case and physically engaging with them can ever be replaced by a software interface. Is there room for both in my life? Absolutely. I wouldn’t want it any other way – streaming music has become critical to my relationship with music, new music in particular. Just don’t expect me to get a faraway look in my eyes and wax poetic with a memory when you ask me about the first time I played that Leon Bridges download.

audx's picture

I don't entirely disagree with your points about remembrance of physical objects.

One of the things I like most about iTunes is the time/date stamp for purchase/play count. I go all the way back to when iTunes was SoundJam.

I certainly recall the disappointment of CD vs album where the jewel case art and booklet were much reduced. I use a 55" monitor now so not really an issue anymore. Now the vinyl AND CD are tiny :)

It would be nice if the albums you mentioned were available in 192/24.

And I felt bad for the Violent Femmes as I saw them live after album #3 and I don't recall them playing a single track from it. It was always about the first album and the fans then and now seem to have made that choice.

Topher's picture

The streaming vs physical media argument is as old as streaming itself, but I kind of think it's a non-argument in that I don't know anyone who prefers streaming to CDs and LPs *who can actually afford to buy CDs and LPs on a regular basis*. I usually listen to 30 albums a month on Tidal, for which I pay $20. To buy those on CD would cost ~ $300, and on LP ~ $600, and maybe I could afford that if I hadn't made the mistake of majoring in Philosophy. Now I could just buy one LP a month and listen to it every day - and no kidding, that would be a cool experiment, by the end you would understand it at a really deep level. But having a voracious appetite for music is good, too!

audx's picture

For me, opera and box sets really complicate it. I couldn't punch through 30 of those in a month unless I really didn't enjoy them. And that would be a waste of time which I don't have to waste.

I guess I'm fortunate that I usually enjoy the music I choose to listen too. I get a few disappointments but most of the time it works out.

In years past, prior to streaming, yeah I might have purchased only 3-5 releases in a year. Of course, I was also listening to a lot of live music. Now with streaming, I can listen first and go from there.

Topher's picture

Oh yeah, much as I like opera, I'm not listening to Tristan and Isolde every night. I've been listening to a lot of 50s and 60s jazz records this past few months which are usually ~ 38 mins long.

I usually enjoy everything I listen to at least on some level. In fact I was just thinking about this the other day: the difference between music and tv is that when you watch bad tv you're like 'Gee I wish I hadn't wasted half an hour of my life watching that,' whereas even if I listen to a record that doesn't make my 'listen again' list (yes, I do have such a list!) I never feel like the time was wasted.