The Disc, The Tape & The Codec : Untimely Deaths & Unlikely Rebirths

I skimmed through an editorial about a certain record label today. Laying here, listening to Supreme Clientele for the umpteenth time, I can’t help but scoff. Websites like this one cultivate a music ecosystem where you’re fed the notion that music has become a listless life partner. That it’s without genetic value. It’s not being purchased, nor is it worthy of purchase. We’re told that it’s issued on dying formats, is more convenient when streamed, so on and so on. A crock of shit written by a bunch of binging journalistic understudies cranking out vapor-thin stories for traffic. I don’t even think they understand the impact of their constant needling.

Seems to be the thing now. Tossing stuff into a shallow grave even though it’s still breathing. Yes, CDs are selling less. We all know that. We also know that everything is selling less, so where’s that leave us? By the turn of the century, tapes were dead and vinyl was given an unceremonious send off shortly thereafter. Here we are though. Seeing some of the biggest music artists slinging wax and selling out of their stock. Never thought I’d see tapes again, but here they are, back in our consciousness as a fun novelty item. Limited edition cassette runs seeing frequent release across the whole of the independent music scene. Hell, I’ve released one myself.

The same cycle is befalling the download/MP3 market in the wake of streaming. Why do any of these formats have to be declared dead or dying in the first place? There’s still an audience for them. No one’s lobbying for MP3's successor. The digital marketplaces are experiencing the same ebb and flow that has always happened and will likely always happen.

So I keep seeing the same argument pop up. It goes: why would you pay $10 for an album when you can have all of them for $10 a month? The answer is obvious to me. Because a) I actually enjoy supporting an artist’s creations thereby allowing them to create more of what I love, b) I don’t want to spend $120 a year for “all” the albums. Furthermore, the crux of me downloading an album, song or buying a physical copy is ownership. I wanted to own an experience. Moreover, I wanted to have that experience even if the service I’m paying for wasn’t in place.

What if Spotify or Tidal or Apple Music decide not to carry the album I want to hear anymore? Netflix does it all the time; drop movies from the streaming service and add new ones in. What if the artist decides they don’t want certain songs on the service, or their entire catalog? I’ve bumped into this numerous times. Mouth watering to hear the song that’s been 2-stepping it’s way around my brain only to fire up Spotify and see the song is greyed out. When you can’t find what you’re looking for you’re bound to head to your physical collection, YouTube it or download it. Whether it’s downloaded legally or how the outlaws do it is a different conversation but you have options.

I guess that’s what this is all about. The responsibility a journalist has to both words and to the people reading them. As much as we’d like to think we’re only impressionable in our youth, we’re inspired and impressionable for a lifetime. If you, a writer, don’t consume music outside of what Apple Music allows, that’s fine. But there’s a wide swath of people who still scour for original pressings and vinyl rarities. Or CDs, or cassettes, or 2-inch analog reels, or flac files. Their interests don’t require a backhanded “if you’re still into that sorta thing. Har.” footnote.

Music is arguably the greatest unifying force we have, but it only works if you let it. There is no right way to consume it, no best method to experience it. All that matters is that you do experience it. We can dig holes. We can plunge all the formats and all the higher musical concepts into the soil while they’re still breathing, but we’d be ignoring the cyclical nature of the existence we populate.

Nothing stays no.1 forever, but we, being the merciful creatures we are, shouldn’t shoot the horse once it fails to place. We should let it go, free to roam the wild. Maybe find a new life as someone’s Black Beauty. The resourcefulness of a format lies, in part, in its capacity to reinvent itself after its outlived its usefulness.