(This guest opinion piece was written by musician Robert Hunter O.)
Batman, starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, came to theaters one day before my eighth birthday, in 1989. With it came my first cassette, the eponymous soundtrack and eleventh album by Prince. Over the next few years, I stumbled my way through a variety of genres, before purchasing Alice in Chain’s Dirt. It has been nearly 20 years since I laid down $16 for my first CD, and I have spent tens of thousands of dollars on a wide variety of artists and genres, across formats as diverse as vinyl, CD, cassette, Mini-CD, business card CD-r, and paper (Especially Likely Sloth!). No matter what format, the artwork and layout have always been essential to the kind of immersion I prefer as part of my music-listening experience.
Recently, as my free time has decreased, I have been making more digital purchases. Sites like Amazon and CDBaby give me access to mainstream artists, while Bandcamp has made smaller artists and their releases more accessible than ever, with full album streams and a platform that gives artists the majority of money from purchases. Despite the ease with which I can acquire new music, there is one thing which I have really been missing with digital downloads: the artwork. Of my recent online purchases, most did not come with more than an album cover relegated to 300 pixels. Where are the lyrics? What happened to the 8-page booklet with artwork tying together the concept of the album? Who was the producer? Are the engineers not important? Where are the “thank you” lists that used to provide me new artists to check out?
Of the digital albums I have recently purchased from Amazon including Evoken, Mike Keneally, Edison’s Children, Down, and Rush, the only artist to include a digital booklet was the latter. This is irritating for a couple of reasons, chief among them that the price of digital downloads is typically only a few dollars less than buying the physical product.
Artists on Bandcamp, those who are more in tune with their fan base, seem better about including the extras I crave. The Gathering’s new album, Disclosure, comes with a booklet, music video, and wallpaper. The incredible Snowtorch by Phideaux has a less impressive digital booklet, but it is still nice to be able to read through the lyrics as I listen. English Electric (part one) by Big Big Train has what is at this point the most inclusive digital booklet I have encountered.
Perhaps the most common complaint of digital download naysayers is that new listeners are missing out on the ritual they once experienced when opening a new vinyl and placing it on the turntable. They could pour over the artwork, lyrics, and super-detailed double gatefold layouts. The artwork was the physical embodiment of the din escaping their sound systems. Not too long ago I loaded my Nexus 7 tablet with the artwork of a couple of albums I had recently purchased digitally. I read along with the lyrics as I listened through and checked out the “thank you” lists and album notes. There were no smudges left on black paper sleeves, nor did I accidentally tear or bend a booklet as I have done so many times in the past. Best of all, I didn’t have to get up, cross the room, and flip the record over.
As physical and cloud storage prices continue to decline, my hope is that artists and the platforms through which they choose to release their music will embrace higher quality file formats such as FLAC and WAV, while including the complete product that many digital fans want and deserve. With some exceptions, I am done collecting physical media. I’ve grown tired of the shelf and closet space that CDs, books and movies take. Now I just need the media world to catch up.