Craving the physical: why I still buy CD's

As a Computer Scientist by education, an advocate of digital technology in the cultural sector and a life long techie, people always tend to look at me oddly when I confess to still buying most of my music on CD. The position seems somewhat strange in the current environment. After all, in today’s world of instant digital provision, where a click of a button can download an album to the device of your choosing in a matter of minutes, or stream it instantaneously, why persist with a medium that is at best inconvenient/at worse an epic quest to procure?

A CD being held up to the camera

Having recently gone through a house move, where said CD collection had to be transferred provided a reason to reflect on this very question: after all, a hard drive of digital audio files is far easier to shift, so why stick with the hoard of CD’s? For me, it essentially comes down to three things:

1. Economics

Given the amount of money spent each year by consumers purchasing music, its reasonable to consider that a music collection could and should be treated as an asset. However, with a digital collection, this concept goes out of the window; with users right to resell digital music legally ambiguous at present. Furthermore, if you choose to subscribe to a streaming service rather than download outright, the loss of control is total; the provider having sole right to remove and replace recordings as they see fit.

The concept of digital media as property is simply not catered for at present and despite patents for digital reseller markets being held by Amazon and Apple since 2013, I can’t see such a service emerging anytime soon. Whilst I have little desire to sell any part of my CD collection, it’s still nice to have the option.

2. Quality of Sound:

This is one of the more contentious issues that comes up when talking about digital music. Debate has, and will continue to rage on over the merits of mp3, CD, vinyl and 24-bit Studio Masters (to name but some of the contenders) and if people can really, tell the difference between them. My personal experience tells me that CD’s as a trade off between vinyl and digital provides a strong offer, especially when you’re using decent equipment. I grew up in a house that had an amazing sound system and was exposed to music in a wide range of formats. Alas, my current listening methods are somewhat more modest, but I maintain that when I am able to get some decent audio equipment, it will be so much the better for having CD’s to play on it.

3. Experience:

The most abstract concept of the three, the idea of listening to a CD as an “experience” is probably the factor which holds the most influence. In his 2011 book The Future of Looking Back, interaction designer Richard Banks talked about the human need for the “ritual of the physical”; that is, the validation that a physical interaction provides to an activity. For me, there is something incredibly therapeutic about looking at the shelves of cases, which can be artworks themselves. You then select the album of choice, holding it in your hand and loading the disc into the tray as opposed to flicking through a list of squares on my laptop screen or iPod. It’s simply a nicer feeling and a more “authentic” experience.

A screen grab of an iTunes window

The iTunes library window

There is also the joy in the experience of going into a shop and browsing through the selection to find a new discovery or a recommendation from a staff member, something which is invaluable when making new discoveries.

I admit that this latter concept has for the most part been largely wiped out, with good music shops few and far between (I only hope my local classical music shop, McAlister Mathesons forever endures despite this change). Yet, you can still buy CD’s from online retailers.

With digital revenues surpassing physical sales since 2014, the swing away from the physical seems inevitable. However, with the younger generations attraction to what Banks calls the “imperfection of the physical”, expressed through reboots of analogue mediums (think Lomography cameras and retro styled record players) and digital attempts to recreate it (Instagram and every photo filter site going) I remain hopeful that the physical experience will remain valuable enough to younger audiences so that the CD continues to persist for a while yet.

Otherwise, my only comfort in future will be that my collection will survive regardless, safely digitised and securely stored. The question would then be, do I keep them all on my shelves anyway?

A shelf filled with CD cases, stacked vertically

The answer to that would most likely be yes. A hard disk just won’t have the same aesthetic appeal in the end.