Digital Music Manifesto

Why collect digital music? Why make a website about it?

There's a sense among many music collectors that only music products you can hold in your hand are worthy of collection. This includes mostly CDs, vinyl and increasingly a resurgence of cassettes. There's a collective bemoaning of music's transition to digital formats and distribution models and what that means for collectors and how we relate to music in general. It's an important topic that warrants careful consideration. But I reject the assertion that digital music inherently suffers in quality, robs artists of compensation or is somehow inferior to a music collection comprised of traditional formats. There is great joy, satisfaction and benefit to choosing digital as a primary music collection vehicle.

Digital Music and Audio Quality

Audiophiles will forever debate the merits of analog vs. digital sound. This topic has been written about at length so I won't repeat the technical details here. Amazingly, nobody appears to have ever studied this with a significantly large group of people, but my money is on the vast majority of people not being able to tell the difference between high quality digital and analog music reproduction. And if there is a notable difference, which one is "better" is purely subjective based on qualities of sound imparted on the music by analog or digital interference. I won't argue with someone who believes that vinyl categorically sounds better no more than I will argue with a religious zealot.

photo of man with headphones

However, you may have noticed that the collective moaning of golden-eared audiophiles who insist digital music is by definition sub par didn't really get loud until digital music moved from Compact Disc to network transmission. Casual music listeners may not realize that the Compact Disc is a digital format, and was hailed as a major breakthrough by audiophiles at the time. But the shift from digital music on CD to transmission over the Internet in MP3 and similar formats changed the perception of digital music from a breakthrough in superior quality to a reviled loss of quality.

About Compression

Music digitized at Compact Disc quality (two-channel 16-bit PCM encoding at a 44.1 kHz sampling rate per channel) results in a digital file size of about 10.3 MB per minute, or 41.2 MB for a typical 4 minute pop song. Back in the 1990s, when people were connecting to the Internet over phone lines and computers were shipping with 400 MB hard drives, that was an untenably huge size for a single song. The solution was audio compression and the age of MP3. By selectively removing data from a digital recording, the size of the file can be dramatically reduced. The impact to quality of this data removal depends on the amount of data removed, ranging from not noticeable at all to audio that sounds like a walkie-talkie.

screen shot of Winamp

You can't talk about digital audio quality without talking about compression. It's the main reason digital audio has gotten a bad rap. But let's be sure to assign that blame on the compression, not the digital format itself. The amount of compression that you can hear depends a lot on your ears and audio equipment, but most people agree that compression with bitrates north of 256 kbps are not noticeable, and that cuts a 41.3 MB song down to just 7.5 MB. At 128 kbps, the compression rate most commonly used on the Internet, some people (me among them) will hear a difference and some won't. At just 3.8 MB for a 4 minute song, you can see why its popular. I definitely wouldn't aim for 128 kbps in my digital music collection, but it's good enough for listening in the car or streaming over a slower connection.

Putting aside the horrors of over-compression that leads to warbly and narrow sounding music (I'm looking at you, Sirius XM, streaming a pathetic 39 kbps), most digital music we listen to is at or near CD quality. So then, is the grasping onto physical music formats really about quality?

Something to have and to hold...

It's clear that music lovers today miss the act and process of collecting music. Making a playlist in Spotify is fun, but it lacks the soul of a mixed tape. Adding a favorite new artist's release to your library with a mouse click lacks the rush of buying it at your favorite record store. Viewing an album cover as a 300x300 pixel image on your computer lacks the fun of opening a gatefold record sleeve and studying the inserts. I won't argue with any of that.

man browing records

Reverting to (or for those my age, holding onto) legacy formats like vinyl and cassette - even compact discs - gives people a reason to collect again. But why aren't we collecting digital music? Many people in the 90s and early 2000's amassed huge MP3 collections, but with the wide adoption of subscription streaming services like Spotify, people aren't buying (or downloading) MP3s like they used to. That isn't to say they're not still very much for sale. Amazon, for example, provides high quality MP3 downloads of most new CDs they sell, and also offers MP3 only sales for a huge catalog.

The Act of Digital Music Collecting

A common practice for many music collectors is to buy a CD or vinyl recording of an album and convert it to a high quality digital file for their collection. More and more albums are being released every day that are only available in digital format from sites like Bandcamp and CD Baby. As of this writing, fans have spent $7.3 million on digital music at Bandcamp in just the last 30 days. MP3s from these sites are typically in a high quality 320 kbps format and are often available in lossless formats like FLAC, resulting in true CD quality or better.

Fans have spent $7.3 million on digital music at Bandcamp in just the last 30 days

Similarly, I do buy records and CDs. Picking up an old 80's album for $3 at a flea market is a ton of fun. Buying an LP from the hands of an artist at the merch table after a show is amazing. But when I get it home, I rip it to MP3 and add it to my digital collection.

screen shot of foobar 2000 playing Paul's Boutique

Can having audio files collected on a digital device be just as gratifying as a wall of CDs? Certainly not for everyone. But for me, at least, the answer is yes - even more so. In fact, keeping a music collection like this introduces elements not available in physical music collection that provide their own joys and challenges. Maintaining a large collection of digital music draws the collector into activities that organize, catalog, curate, grow, improve, and distribute the collection. Here are some of the many fun tasks that keep a digital music collector busy:

  • Defining and maintaining a consistent folder structure
  • Defining a taxonomy for genre tags
  • Achieving complete tag coverage using a consistent format and methodology
  • How and where to store the files
  • Running regular backups and testing them
  • Selecting audio equipment for indoor, outdoor, automobile and portable use
  • Improving quality of lower bitrate files accumulated over time

Why not just use Spotify?

I remember when I first signed up for Spotify back in 2010 or thereabouts, I was like a kid in a candy store. To this day, the idea of having such an enormous and complete collection of music at my listening disposal for under $10/mo blows my mind. It's one of the many things that feels completely magic and amazing to me but that my daughter takes completely for granted. I'm currently a subscriber of the mess that has become both Google Music and YouTube Music, but I used Spotify for years before that. I have tons of playlists, hundreds of albums in my library, and have carefully curated a thumbs up list. But - at least for me - this is in no way a replacement for the collection of music I "actually own".

YouTube Music top charts screen shot

These services are like the public library. You can go and borrow and read what you want for little to no investment. The only catch is that you have to return it. There will always be those books that a reader finds themselves buying even if they read it on a Kindle or borrowed it from the library. My music collection is like that. Music services are best at being inexhaustible sources for music discovery.

When I find an album that I love, I will eventually purchase it from the artist - directly or indirectly - and add it to my permanent collection. I don't want a collection of 35 million songs streamed over the Internet. It's great to have access to that, but my collection is much much more selective than that. I want to have complete control over what's in it and how I consume it without having to pay any monthly fee for that privilege, and without having to worry about the company behind it changing things up or going out of business.

The Many Benefits of Digital Music

Last, but certainly not least among the reasons already given, there are some very unique benefits to maintaining a digital music collection. I don't have a record player in my car. Or at work. Or in my back yard. Digital music brings us freedom, flexibility and - yes - quality and durability that that physical formats cannot touch.

Here are just a few to ponder...

  • Listen wireless when your collection is across the living room or across the country.
  • Easily keep multiple backups of your collection to avoid losing it to fire or theft.
  • Effortless and zero-cost playlist creation and editing.
  • Only buy the good songs on an album, whether they were released as singles or not.
  • No need to dedicate an entire room of your house to storing your music collection.
  • You can carry an enormous digital music collection in your back pocket.
  • Your digital music collection will never lose quality over time.
  • You can effortlessly share a special song or album with a friend without worrying about whether they'll return it.
  • Shuffle! I freaking love shuffle.
  • You can't accidently step on or melt digital files on your dashboard.
  • The same music can be listened to in so many ways: on a home stereo, over a Smart Speaker in your kitchen, on your phone, in your car, in your back yard...

Hopefully this will open some eyes on just how good we have it with digital music, and that collecting music can be just as rich and rewarding as its ever been. If you agree, subscribe for a lot more on these and related topics of interest to digital music collectors.

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