Sonic Economics

Photo by Denissa Devy on UnsplashPhoto by Denissa Devy on Unsplash

I’ve been writing recently about my new appreciation for physical media for my music collection. I’ve hit a few snags, though. As the absolute cost of obtaining music goes down in that you can get almost anything included as part of your all-you-can-eat streaming music plan, the cost of physical copies of that same music keeps increasing.1

Just today, I received a CD I ordered from Bandcamp. When I opened the package, I couldn’t help but feel a bit left down. I had been waiting for two weeks, just to receive a slightly bent cardboard envelope sleeve with a CD in it. The packaging is so minimal, that I won’t even be able to find the CD in my storage solutions because there is no spine from which to read the band name and album title. It feels like the presentation of the CD was done as cheaply as possible, even though CDs are already very inexpensive to manufacture, and their margins are high. The only bonus is that it includes a lyric sheet folded four ways. For this, I paid about $18 more than what I had been paying when I was listening to the album on Apple Music. I’m happy to be paying the artist for their music, but it feels like I’m getting the short end of the stick here.

After getting the CD in the mail, I went to preorder another CD on Bandcamp. It’s an EP from one of my favorite bands, so it was a foregone conclusion that I was going to buy it on physical media. Something happened at the virtual checkout counter, though. I looked at the total cost (CD + shipping + tax). To buy the CD and get it shipped to me was $22.50. That is for a package of 6 songs. It seemed pretty high to me given the incremental cost of that listening experience on top of my monthly streaming cost (which I’m not likely to give up) is nothing.

Packaging

Then there is the matter of packaging, which is essentially — with digital music on a compact disc — what you are paying for. It’s rarely advertised how the CD is packaged, so you could get almost anything now that there is no standard presentation for that format. I have recent CDs of all different shapes and sizes. Even multiple releases from the same band on the same label, like older Metallica albums, have different sized cardboard sleeves. I’ve had to buy various sizes of plastic covers for the sleeves on these albums. As I mentioned before, there is no way of knowing what you are going to get until your music arrives in the mail. I just got a Mudhoney CD in wallet style cardboard packaging, and it’s inexplicably wider than other similar two CD sets. I can’t even fit it in my storage containers, so it has to go with my box sets. It makes me miss when everything came in jewel cases or at least digipaks.

Vinyl

Vinyl has fairly standard packaging, and a differentiator from digital music you can find online is that it sounds analog. You are actually engaging in a changed experience with the music. It’s also usually nicely packaged because the record companies and artists view it as the premium way of releasing music, as opposed to CDs, which seemed to be viewed as an afterthought. However, you pay for that premium. The 6-song EP I mentioned earlier is $37.51 to purchase on vinyl (I hesitate to mention that it’s almost sold out). I predicted, sometime around the mid-aughts, that vinyl would become the premium way to distribute music, but that it would continue to cost more and more.2 Boy was I on the money.

The Right Thing

I’m all about paying musicians for their work. It feels like it keeps becoming difficult to do in a realistic way and the returns are either cost prohibitive or mysteriously poorly done. I’m getting to the point where I might just start building a digital library through Qobuz, which offers both streaming and the ability to purchase lossless and hi-res music. Or I may just buy the releases I really care about digitally on Bandcamp. Currently, all I know for sure is that I’m frustrated with the options for physical media.


  1. With the rise of hi-res streaming on Tidal, Qobuz and Apple Music, the quality can actually be better through your streaming plan.↩︎

  2. This was on Livejournal, so unfortunately, I can’t point to the post where I made the prediction.↩︎

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