How do you like your music to be served when listening at home?
The one answer that’s true for everyone is, via some sound reproducing means, from headphones to speakers. But where the music starts from, how the audio information is held before you press any kind of play button, is what I’m interested in here. How do you prefer to keep your music? Do you like to rent access to it from a streaming service (in which case it’s not really yours), or keep digital files on a hard drive? Do you have CDs, vinyl LPs, cassettes, DVDs, USB drives, any number of archaic audio technologies?
I’m surprised we’re still in the format wars. For a while, during the first decade of this century, I thought that they had concluded. It was a given that compressed mp3 files were atrocious, CDs were better but vinyl was best, and that cassettes were some kind of Jurassic technology, better left on the sidewalk in hipster fun boxes. Of course, the middle part of this was wrong, but that wasn’t about sound.
LPs hip consumerism, and the hipster was nothing but the end-stage of consumer capitalism. The notion that they had the best sound quality was received wisdom unsupported by fact. There has been some pernicious hangover from the earliest days of digital recordings on CD, which were thin and harsh, leading to a vague notion that since those CDs sounded bad, all CDs sound bad. Since the first CDs came out in the mid-1980s, it’s strange that so many music consumers born since then still think this way, even as they never heard things like Ornette Coleman’s Of Human Feelings.
CDs sound better, period. They have greater frequency response and are not subject to the external stimulus and interference as is a turntable needle. This is not to say LPs don’t sound good, many of them do, but they sound different. CDs sound better. Cassettes come in a distant third, unless you like noise and distortion, which is fair enough. Cassettes are in the middle of an extended comeback, one driven in great part because they have been economical for individual musicians and small labels to produce in small quantities, and are a popular medium at Bandcamp. Each format has it’s own qualities, and of course the crackle of an LP or the stuffiness of a cassette may be appealing, bu in terms of audio quality, CDs are the best.
The Stuff We Are Made Of
Beyond sound, there’s the question of stuff. We like stuff! LPs and cassettes are more seductive than CDs, but I think that is all about the package. A CD jewel case is awkward and ugly, and most boxes are just plain, well, boxes. The tiny slipcases that some CDs come in are nothing compared to classic album sleeves, with pictures, notes, other album covers, and all sorts of things on them. A record jacket is a nice format for great graphic design. Cassettes don’t have that visual real estate, but they feel great in the hand, and there’s something about the “snunk” sound of putting the tape back in and flipping it closed that’s satisfying, the same with putting a cassette in a tape player and closing that door.
But stuff has its drawbacks. The immediate one is that vinyl is now in such demand that there’s a backlog at pressing plants (not many of those around) and prices, which used to be economical, are now borderline offensive—new LPs are regularly priced at $32, and shipping costs from outside the US often double this. That’s prohibitive for many people, and paying that also means paying for delays. I have a turntable now, after being without one for about 15 years, and there is enough music out there that I need to engage with that is only on LP that it is valuable to me. An example is this album:
This, and Oppenheim, is something that I want to explore in writing. Yet earlier this week, I got a notice from the label that the LP, which had an official issue date of May 21, is now delayed until “sometime in March,” 2022. ¯_(ツ)/¯.
I was already thinking of cutting off my already infrequent LP buying, and that cemented it for me. The marketplace is screwed up right now in so many ways—too much demand for a certain kind of object, too many bottlenecks in production (with new ones this week, including the fact that Adele’s new album is pushing to the production front at pressing plants, leaving bands that were hoping to bring vinyl with them on tour to sell, and make money, in the lurch—and that’s a whole other issue, about the economics of playing music and selling merchandise at shows). It turns out that the difficulty of getting enough wood for home construction means contractors are putting in vinyl floors, and so there’s not enough vinyl pellets for LPs.
Cassettes too—as much as I am personally fond of them (I’m guilty of stuff), each one I’ve gotten on Bandcamp comes with a digital version (like everything on the site) and I admit the latter sounds much better. Can I do without watching the reels spin as the tape is drawn across the play head? Yes, because as much as I like my stuff, all this stuff takes up space, and as of now, when the Kristin Oppenheim LP comes in the mail, I’m not sure even where I’ll be.
Mediums and formats are all a series of compromises, not just about sound quality, and even mundane issues like, do you actually have enough room in your home for a turntable, or does only a bookshelf sized CD player/speakers system fit? And what about the ecological costs of music consumption, because that’s a thing—streaming services require server support and the concomittant use of electricity, how is that generated? There’s a healthy used marked in LPs, they’re not so hard to get rid of, but even though CDs are more economical to manufacture, what happens to them when you want to get rid of them? Because let me tell you, it is not easy to get rid of CDs you don’t want in a sustainable way. And cassettes? On man, they are a mess of plastic, but at least that can be recycled (this is a deep and complex topic, and there’s a book to match).
And with that introduction, here are my recommendations for today’s Bandcamp Friday, in all formats, because what you like and desire is your own thing.
In the spirit of the topic, here’s recommended music on Bandcamp that comes in unusual, and worthwhile, packages:
From one of my favorite “bands.” The special edition CD comes with an artificial skin cover (zombies!) and a download code for a whole second CD’s worth of bonus music.
Josh Mason’s set of modular synthesizer etudes comes with a small paperback book that describes and explains that patches he uses.
This is an exquisite record. The music is deeply evocative, and comes with photographs, vintage prints, an old 45, all in a waxed, sealed paper bags. Like discovering something magical in an old attic.
Marina Rosenfeld’s album is made with other albums. She uses LPs that have music/sound on them (she calls them “dub plates”) as instrumental elements. That media can be heard on this CD, which also comes with a book of photographs and other archival material.
This is the kind of thing that turns me on: experimental, contemporary music made for the possibilities of an archaic instrument, in this case the clavichord. This is one of the notable sets of actual New Music this century, and it comes in a cassette case built as a miniature model of the keyboard instrument.
Something of a cheat, I admit, as the only physical media left for the release is a CD (one left as of this writing)—it came originally on a USB flash drive cradled inside a metal box. But like all the above, what makes this one worthwhile is how it sounds, and this field recording along the Seine, near a nuclear power plant, is one of my favorite such releases.
In My Cart
Still working out what I can afford…
Bargains Bargains Bargains
No Rent Records: “bdoubleedoublerun” for %30 off physical today only.
Room40: 30% off everything, use the code “almostdusted” at check out.
Neologist productions: enjoy 25% off all orders with code “vvvvv”.
Improved Sequence: Just insert ‘improvedday’ at checkout for a 25% discount.
SN Variations: discount code “snvnov”.
Home Normal is discounting their stock and you can use code “hnautumnal50” on checkout for 50% off anything in store.
This release has the same manner of lovely packaging as smlsmd above, and the artist is offering 50% off with the code “fluidflower”.
For those who might have enjoyed the previous public newsletter, the November issue of the Brooklyn Rail is now out, and here’s the editorial I wrote for it that was part of the wrangling in that particular newsletter issue.
I also got to write for VAN again, about the greatness of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9, and how you shouldn’t be a hater.