Digital Audio Vs Physical Audio

According to a report made by The Nielson Company and Billboard in 2010, for the first time ever, digital audio outsold physical audio. In 2013 HMV, the main supplier of physical audio in Ireland and England, closed most of their stores, due to becoming bankrupt, although one hundred and thirty nine of these stores were reopened in England, all of them remained closed in Ireland. They were able to reopen some of the stores in England because of the fact that the three main record labels in the world, Sony, Warner Music and Universal Music, made a deal with HMV to reduce the price of their physical stock, so they could compete with the likes of iTunes and streaming websites. This means financial stress is being put on record labels and therefore their musicians. These facts are significantly huge blows to the music industry and eventually physical audio may become extinct in the world of music because of this. Internet speeds are increasing, the speed of computers are increasing and the cost of the internet is decreasing, so much that downloading from iTunes, streaming from Spotify, or for some piracy has become so convenient. So convenient that you may wonder why Physical audio is so important to me and so many other music lovers. 

In 1877 the Phonograph Cylinder was invented. This was the very first device that could playback recorded audio. In 2001 the iPod was released by apple. The iPod was essentially a sleek stylish version of an mp3 player but with the iPod came iTunes. Between these two inventions there was a massive increase in audio quality, but in 1993 a digital audio format called mp3 (MPEG2 audio layer III) was invented. This is the audio format that made handheld music players such as the iPod possible, it also made streaming and downloading music over the internet so easy for the world and for some applications it is a very useful format. There are many advantages to this low memory, compressed audio format, but the thing is that this is a form of lossy data compression so a lot of audio information is lost. In mp3 formats the main harmonic frequencies are kept, but the extra ones are thrown away, this leaves a digital representation of the original audio that is not accurate. Although it is hard to notice an immediate difference between mp3’s and WAV you are missing tones that should be there, but aren’t. Luckily there are people out there who realize this problem and are doing something about it. Neil Young is in the process of setting up an audio format, download service and audio player called PONO. PONO’s aims are to create the highest quality digital audio format to represent the sound of the songs from inside the studio. This type of audio format will have a resolution of 192KHZ/24-bit which no other type of popular audio formats have. This is even greater than CD quality, therefore it will be the highest quality audio type or format available in the business, once and if it takes off. 

The other thing about buying music online is iTunes. A lot of iTunes files have a thing called Digital Rights Management (DRM) embedded into them which takes control of how you interact with the media you pay for on iTunes. DRM stops you from moving your media files to other devices. You cant transfer the audio files that you downloaded on iTunes on to another computer to pass down to somebody else. Is this true ownership? no it is not at all. This is because you don’t own the songs. You are usually paying for and buying a licensee to use the song. It sounds like an absolutely ridiculous idea seen as streaming is free and you would wonder how this has become the main seller of music world wide. Bruce Willis stood up to iTunes and was considering bringing them to court because after building up a huge audio collection, he could not pass the songs, that he bought on iTunes, down to his children. Nothing ever came of this, but his point is still extremely valid, passing on a record collection or a CD collection is like passing on a whole era of your life, the amount of time and effort spent on creating a reflection of yourself through albums, songs, genres and bands. But for the people who choose to download off of iTunes, for whatever reason, I ask, if you don’t really own the songs your listening to why not just use streaming websites such as spotify or groove shark? In this modern age its not like you cant carry the songs around in your pocket, because most of the phones being sold today have the ability to connect to the internet. So are you better off spending your money on a good internet connection and a bit of credit for your phone than a good virtual music collection that you pay for but don’t own? 

So where does this put the independent record shops? Luckily there are people out there who are keeping the quickly decreasing amounts of Independent Record shops going by purchasing CD’s and Vinyl. Vinyl sales have been increasing at a steady rate since 2004 and was up by 16.3% at the end of 2012 ,which is absolutely great news, because in my opinion this is the highest quality audio you can purchase at the moment, its a physical object and your buying a lot more for your money. There is also one day a year where we can celebrate the art of vinyl with live entreatment and great deals from your local independent record shop, Record Store Day. This is a great day for music lovers around the world as it brings together the fans the artists and the independent record shops. When you hold a vinyl it just seems like you have a lot more in your hands than a disc, its like a big piece of album art that looks so great you could nearly frame, hopefully with beautiful music that you like on the inside. The thing I love most about vinyl is the novelty of playing a record makes me concentrate on nothing other than listening to the music. The ritual of taking out a record from its sleeve and lightly blowing off the dust, carefully placing the record on top of the wheel, setting the correct speed, turning it on, lifting and finally dropping the needle just before the first song, where you can here just a second of this really warm natural white noise coming from the sound of the record spinning. When you listen to music streaming from the internet, or from the music player on your computer or even a cd there is no effort required, therefore there is no novelty whatsoever. This novelty is what makes me truly listen to music rather than click play and socialize with friends over the internet or go about your daily tasks.

It’s not just the independent record shops that are suffering, independent music itself is suffering. Bands are finding it more difficult to get signed, because record labels are more worried about selling there current popular acts’ sales decreasing. Unique selling points are running out for bands and artists. Theres hundreds of ways to sell your music, probably too much, but to be able to crack into a method that works and is reliable is not easy to do and for some people takes years. Digital audio has brought some advantages to selling your music, but it has brought an equal if not greater amount of disadvantages. Bandcamp is an example of a great medium for selling your music and I’m sure has helped lots of bands and artists make a bit of money. Theres so many different options and combinations you can have for selling your digital audio on Bandcamp. For example you can have a pay what you want setting or allow the mp3 download to be free and the WAV for money. However I have had a bad experience with Bandcamp when I bought And So I Watch You From Afar’s latest album on CD I saw a few days later that if you bought it from band camp you would get two free hidden bonus tracks. I much prefer having the physical CD than the digital audio of the album but its quite annoying to be missing out on two extra songs. Soundcloud is also a great tool for sharing your digital audio across the internet, however Soundcloud is not a platform for selling audio, just streaming, but it can be linked to your iTunes account. You can also enable free downloads on soundcloud. 

So what choice do the young people of today, who don’t have the money, but really want high quality audio files, have? Well there are some streaming web sites that stream high quality WAV files, but how can you be sure your listening to full CD quality if your ears aren’t trained for years? It’s most likely these people are going to be illegally downloading they’re favorite artists lifetimes of work. In my opinion what people should be doing is searching for new independent artists of they’re favorite genre on Bandcamp, because its most likely that these artist are going to have they’re music set at a reasonable price and these are the musicians and artists that would find it a lot harder to make a living than mainstream acts. The ones who are really suffering from the effects of piracy. It’s also a great feeling when you find new music that not many people are listening to. Theres nothing like sowing your friends a new band.

According to constant research made by the RIAA piracy effects the U.S government with an annual loss of $12.5 billion as well as more than 70,000 lost jobs and $2 billion in lost wages. These are seriously terrifying facts, but when you download a song your not just robbing the musician of their work, your stealing from the producer, the engineers, the record company, the distributer, the album art designer, and many more. If people are going to download illegally they should be warned of who they are depriving. Also because of illegal downloading its caused the prices of physical audio to decrease so the people who are being in any way effected by piracy are seriously suffering. The thing I find strange is how working in an office for a few hours a day can be such a steady job, but for people who spend a life time trying to express themselves through music struggle.

So to conclude there are many advantages and disadvantages of both digital and physical audio, but buying physical audio is by far the most superior option. It will take up more space in your living environment rather than on your hard drive, but isn’t that part of the point. It’s there to pick and choose from whenever you want. No worrying about your system’s crashing. a collection to call your own. Having something to hand down for generations and generations, slowly increasing in rarity and coolness. On the business side of things I’l try not to finish on a low, but it seems that musicians making money off of selling their music is becoming a lost art. 



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The Effect of Internet Piracy on CD Sales. (2004). [Accessed 29 April, 2013]

Should the Music Industry Sue Its Own Customers? Impacts of Music Piracy and Policy Suggestions. (2009).  [Accessed 29 April, 2013)

Digital Music Finally Outsells Physical Media. (2012). [Accessed 29 April, 2013]

Record Companies Back Bid to Save Some HMV Branches. (2013). [Accessed 29 April, 2013]

PONO. (2012) [Accessed 29 April, 2013]

Defective by Design. (2012).  [Accessed 29 April, 2013]

Digital Music News. (2012). [Accessed 29 April, 2013]

Music Biz Advice. (2010). [Accessed 29 April, 2013]

BBC News. (2013). [Accessed 29 April 2013]

RIAA. (2013). [Accessed 29 April 2013]

RIAA. (2013). [Accessed 29 April 2013]

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