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Let’s Get Physical: The Case for Music You Can Hold

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I’ll admit it. I’m somewhat old fashioned — old school if you will. I use my cellphone mainly for… well, phone calls. Sure, I know how to text, take pictures and email, but most of what my phone is capable of doing is well beyond my ability to comprehend. I guess that’s why they call it a “smartphone,” which, of course, makes me feel like a “dumb guy.” I prefer to watch television shows on a large screen TV, not on my phone. I like reading a book, not a computer or an I-pad that prevents me from actually flipping the page. And, most importantly, I like my music in physical form, not on a stream or a cloud or on Spotify where I’m simply sampling as opposed to selecting… and committing. In my world, streams are for wading, clouds are for gazing and songs aren’t samples, but part of a physical whole.

As far as I’m concerned, albums are meant to be a collection of songs carefully sequenced and arranged to fit together as a conceptual piece of work. I can’t imagine what Sgt. Pepper or the Who’s Tommy would be like if presented as unrelated pieces of music floating in the ether, offered individually without any context or concept that ties the music together. And what about the artwork, the list of credits, or, in special cases, a lyric sheet that allows the listener to ruminate of the music’s deeper meaning, craft, and concept?

There was a time when those of us of a certain generation would hotly anticipate a new album by the Beatles, the Stones or whoever else we happened to obsess over at the time. It was a physical offering, something that not only offered new sounds but also gave the opportunity to study and ruminate over every mesmerizing and meticulous additive, illustration and insight. The album was a calling card, something tangible that could be held, fondled and proudly set on a shelf along with other gems that encompassed what we once proudly designated as a “music library,” a repository of great music that accompanied life’s transitions, both good and bad, in times that were both happy and heartbreaking. It represented a special place in an ongoing trajectory and provided the soundtrack for one’s youth and well beyond.

Sadly, some of the powers-that-be in the now-defunct music industry decided that the CD ought to be made obsolete, confined to the same fate once accorded reel-to-reel tapes, 8 tracks, cassettes, and vinyl. Computers no longer come equipped with burners, cars are sold sans CD players, and publicists and pundits insist that no one wants physical discs anymore and that streams and downloads are the formats that everybody prefers. Translation: if young people opt for it, only old out-of-touch seniors ask for discs.

Of course, these are the same so-called experts who decreed that those aforementioned musical formats were no longer worthy of consumption and ought to be relegated to the same trash heap of outmoded consumerism as hula hoops, GI Joes and Pong. Yet, there are still those that hold those commodities as dear. Granted, they’re out of the mainstream, but doesn’t every river have tributaries worth exploring?

Besides, consider the comeback that vinyl, and even cassettes, have made, each an entity that was resurrected from irrelevance and given new life by those who refused to declare them dead?

So let me repeat — I consider music to be part of a total package, a physical manifestation of creativity and craft, something to admire, enjoy and ponder in the real world, not simply an object confined to cyberspace.

Related: “‘High Fidelity’ – The Hulu Reboot”

As a collector and an advocate — one who writes about music and musicians for any number of reasons —, I aim to bring those entities due recognition and, perhaps selfishly, to grow my music collection. I frequently advise artists who may be on the proverbial fence about whether or not to release their music in a physical form not to devalue and debase their efforts by relegating it to cyberspace, or wherever those streaming platforms happen to be found. And if they can’t understand the value in that, well, suffice it to say, this writer will respond with even less enthusiasm than any sunbather would likely give the aforementioned haberdasher at said nude beach.

So let’s go back to the big picture. How would music have evolved if not for the 78, the 45, the LP, and yes, for the past 40 years or so, the now-debased CD? Can popular music continue its trajectory if it exists without context, connection or a place in the physical world? I would argue no. Creativity has to be represented in a real way. Imagine a world without museums to showcase great art, libraries to house great literature, film archives to remind us of classic cinema? Shouldn’t recorded music be given the same representation?

Frankly, I can’t imagine a world where the answer to that question is simply no.

-Lee Zimmerman

Image by Alan Levine, via Wikimedia Commons

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is an accomplished writer, blogger and reviewer. A proud resident of Maryville Tennessee, he contributes to several publications, both locally and nationally. A music obsessive by definition, he owns too many albums to count and numerous musical instruments he’s still yet to learn. He’s proud to say that his first book -- Americana Music -- Voices, Visionaries & Pioneers of an Honest Sound -- was just published by Texas A&M University Press, and he’s now looking forward to hitting the New York Times Best Sellers List and winning a Pulitzer very soon! His work can also be found at https://www.storiesbeyondthemusic.com.

3 comments on “Let’s Get Physical: The Case for Music You Can Hold

  1. Avatar

    It;s amazing that CDs are now being revered instead of reviled as they were in the early 80s. I objected that the artwork was minimalistic at best, and the discs themselves were nothing special to look at – just a spinning floppy disc with basic info written on its non-play side (not even a label anymore). I’ll admit that I stream music through my smartphone – through the Google Play Music app. I treat it like the I pod I once had that has now crashed and burned after all these years. I listen to albums in their entirety, many of them I uploaded from my computer and add to my music library in the app. The Google streaming comes in handy for my 3-hour plus commute to and from work every day, plus it’s nice to listen to music when I’m at lunch or sitting at my computer desk, etc,
    Having said all this, I still love physical product, I have a generous quantity of CD’s as well as LP’s. The one format I can’t go back to would be tapes, cassette. 8-track, etc., because of all the hassles of tapes getting eaten and snagged in the heads, heads themselves wearing out, muffling the sound, and on and on.

  2. Avatar

    Thank you for your well-written article. Composer Igor Stravinsky said, “Music is a way to measure time.” One can take that literally or figuratively. Music assesses time as it happens and also marks down what happened for the future. Music is also timeless, part of history that goes beyond history. Having instant digital audio files on a gadget has advantages. A greater advantage comes from having sensory context with the physical evidence, whether it’s for personal nostalgia or for the study of great achievements.

    3 points to add if I may:

    1. The music industry is partnered with the appliance industry. The same people who control invention, distribution, and access to appliances (from household to high science) weigh in on how we consume music. One of their dictates is the Principle of Planned Obsolescence: Take away one format so consumers have to buy another format, even though the old format works just fine (and could probably even co-exist with the new format). In the late 80s, the music industry applied this Principal to cattle-call everyone into compact discs and away from vinyl and cassettes. Never mind that the old formats were not obsolete and the CD could’ve co-existed. Never mind that (at the time) CD mastering was an erratic science and the labels were cranking out bad audio reissue CDs like petri dishes. Audiophiles, collectors, and DJs held back until vinyl punched back. People still want it and it works! Now the CD is struggling for position even as CD mastering has vastly improved.

    2. Streaming now co-exists with vinyl and CD, but it’s an uneven alliance because MP3 audio is patently inferior and there’s an entire generation who’ve adjusted to it. Our ears are flesh and built for analog. Yet the entire streaming platform reduces all audio to digital code that cannot recreate the psycho-acoustics of analog. Also, the free platforms (Youtube etc.) are contaminated with distortion, dropouts, bad phasing, and other audio offenses that wouldn’t pass in the CD and vinyl realms.

    3. Music formats morph with the culture. Printed music and memory served us for centuries until the 19th Century when machines came into the equation. In 1900 John Philip Sousa worried that phonographs would drive people away from learning how to play instruments and buying sheet music. In the 1930s Stravinsky wondered if people would stop going to concerts because radio was taking off. The album format started in the 1940s but took 20 years to become the standard, only to get downsized by streaming culture in the 00s. No one wants fragile or difficult formats (I don’t expect 78s, 8-tracks, or digital cassettes to make a comeback). Some people have lifestyles that limit how much physical product they can manage. Other people have time and space and manage all they want. In the end, however, there is one rule: People choose what works for their needs and are loyal to what endures.

  3. Avatar
    Kevin Rupe

    mcnultyfarrell’s comment about “a spinning floppy disc” really caught my attention today. That may be one of the reasons CDs ended up being less pleasing as a physical experience. Part of what makes vinyl so interesting as a hobby is the revered physical manifestation of sliding the disc out, landing it on the platter…. but beyond that, watching the thing SPIN to create music was always interesting.

    A lot of cassette decks had windows that let you see the reels moving, the amount of tape left on your “side.” I wonder if CD players would’ve been more aesthetically pleasing if they’d been designed in ways that let you see the disc – fast as it really does move – rotating to create that visual element that vinyl delivers so well.

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