I want to ask you a question: Should we make Compact Discs?
In the last ten years or so, I've gone from being an avid CD collector, to being a not-so-avid CD avoider. In 2012 I bought maybe five all year, all of them purchased at shows that I attended. I acquired many more as gifts from those who made them. And I am thankful for these artists sharing their work with me via CD.
I gradually stopped shopping for CDs a few years ago as my iTunes collection became a more prominent feature of my life. At first I was concerned about the sound quality of the digital (as in iTunes/iPod etc) version being lower, but I can't honestly say I notice a difference. Perhaps if I did an A/B comparison I would notice something, but I never find myself thinking the quality is lacking when I'm listening digitally. Besides, many of my favorite historic recordings have crappy sound to begin with, and that's never bothered me.
What I do notice a difference in is the packaging. Obviously, we don't get anything but a picture of the cover in the computer version. CD artwork is nothing special when compared to vinyl, but as a jazz collector, the liner notes and credits are nice to have. My students who are checking out jazz records often have no idea who the side players are on the records they're hearing. But there are websites such as allmusic.com that are good for getting this information.
To me the biggest drawback to digital music collecting and Spotify, etc is the rate at which we acquire the stuff. Now if I discover a new musician or band, it's really easy to suddenly hear everything they've released. This can make it really hard to digest. I've made a conscious effort for myself to acquire an artist's work slowly. I even noticed this problem back in my CD buying days, when I'd buy a box set. The larger the amount, the harder to digest it seems.
I actually went through a vinyl phase two or three years ago. This was done in effort to feel the tangible object fully, and to force myself into a more interactive form of listening. Vinyl is not portable, it needs to be flipped over, the artwork is large, it smells great. One Saturday morning I found a great collection of contemporary classical vinyl that a street vendor had tossed in the trash can. It was amazing.
The vinyl period was fun while it lasted, and I still play vinyl at home occasionally, but there is one thing that killed it for me. It's called Spotify. There is plenty debated about Spotify, which you can find all over the Internet, but for me it comes down to two things: convenience, and no risk.
I subscribe to Spotify's premium service which means I pay $10 a month and that allows me to listen commercial free at supposedly a higher quality, and download music to my phone. Needless to say that this is very convenient. No trip to the store, no shopping online, no waiting. Just search and play. I connect to a wireless speaker in the house, so when I want the volume up or down, or I want to change songs, I just reach into my pocket and take action. I feel somewhat guilty that I often listen to records I own streaming on Spotify, while the CD version sits on the shelf. It's also very handy for teaching. If a student needs to hear a recording, I most likely have it with me in my pocket.
Even more influential than conveniences is the no risk factor. I can listen to anything on Spotify without buying it. This means if it sucks, I can simply stop listening to it, and it didn't cost me a thing, and it won't be taking up space on my shelf or on my hard drive. How am I supposed to take the $15 risk of buying a CD that I might end up not liking, when the free version is right there in my pocket already? Mind you that this is written by an independent musician who would benefit from people buying CDs. If I feel like the risk is not worth taking, there's no way the average listener will take it.
I would like to note that I still believe in albums. I listen to albums on Spotify. I enjoy the arc of a good album. I am not suggesting we should stop making albums and put out singles, although occasional singles wouldn't be a bad thing. And other ways of putting material out there are great as well. YouTube, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, etc are fast and efficient ways to share one's work.
Anyway, back to my original question. Should we make CDs?
Right now I see only two arguments for making CDs. 1.) They allow an artist to mail a physical object to a writer or venue. 2.) It might be advisable to be on every possible format, to meet the buyer wherever he or she may be.
I originally had a third argument in mind, which was having CDs to sell to your fans at shows. This is a nice thing to have, but on further thought, I've concluded that I'd prefer to buy vinyl that comes with a download coupon for the digital version. A 10" vinyl with great artwork and a handful of songs from the full record is something I'd much rather go home with than a CD.
I put out a couple of records in 2012, and I was actually surprised that most critics still wanted physical CDs. It seems like a horrible inconvenience to me. All this packaging and junk for something that might get listened to once or twice and then either take up space or have to be thrown away. Plus postage seems to be getting mor expensive - I actually lost money selling a CD to someone in Spain via my website a couple weeks ago! It seems like a digital version via email would be much easier for critics to deal with. But, I suppose we need to offer any format that they want. And perhaps a physical object is more difficult to forget about or ignore, than a digital copy.
The same goes for the listener. As hard as it may be to convince people to listen to our stuff, we should get rid of as many barriers as possible, including not being on the format that a listener prefers. With that in mind we should be on CD, vinyl, and all forms of digital and be selling in every place possible. If CD listeners are two percent or five percent of our audience, it might still be worth it to make CDs. This I think is the strongest argument to continue making them. But I'm not sure it's a winning argument. How important is the CD collecting minority to our cause?
What do you think? Artists and listeners, should we keep making CDs?