Nov 112012

(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.


  1. Unless I simply cannot find a digital version of an album, I never buy CDs and I am actually pretty happy about this development. I love that I can read about a new album on NCS, look at some other reviews on Google, check out a few samples on YouTube, and then download the whole album in less than 5 minutes–all on my goddamn phone while sitting on a train. I wouldn’t go back to CD for anything.

    While I do appreciate it when the digital downloads come with a nice cover (to look pretty on my phone when I’m browsing my music library), I don’t feel like I’m missing much by not having the whole booklet. I can very much appreciate why others do, but it’s not a concern for me.

    Though, it would nice if bands/labels would start embedding the lyrics in the files for music players that can automatically display the lyrics. Doing so would be a great way to get around some of the problems Robert mentioned with not having actual booklets anymore. (Though I’m not sure how many people know this is possible; I found out by complete accident and it blew my goddamn mind like a shotgun.)

  2. Why pay when you can get that shit for free? And while I appreciate FLAC, it no play on ipod, so it worthless

    • Actually, ALAC is the Apple equivalent to FLAC (silly that they’re not one and the same, I know). But in other words, there is a Lossless (high quality) format for iPhones/i-etc, It is indeed silly that the major online music sellers don’t make these formats available–though I appreciate that BandCamp does.

      • Does FLAC play on the ipod? No! Which was my point, so shut up

        • Let’s see here: Doesn’t support bands by pirating their music for free. Tells a kind user who informed him of another lossless format similar to FLAC availble for iDevices to “shut up”.

          Somebody call Lambgoat, I think they left a user behind. XD

  3. I stopped buying CDs when all the exposed surfaces in my home were finally completely covered by them and because my wife’s threats of physical violence were getting increasingly graphic. I do really miss the CD booklets. Sometimes I’ll get a digital promo from a band that will include jpeg’s of every page in a CD booklet. Some record labels also do this with their promos — but rarely. Of course, many DIY bands don’t have the wherewithal to create booklets even for their physical formats, and lots of smaller labels don’t spend the money on booklets either.

    I recently reviewed an album by Chicago’s Drug Honkey. They sent me a CD, and I read every line in the 8-page booklet (cool art on every page too) — with lyrics and detailed thank-you’s that were funny as well as interesting. Made me realize how much I missed that part of the album experience.

    I’ve started buying vinyl on a very selective basis, though I haven’t yet played a single record. In fact, I bought the new vinyl release of Mitochondrion’s “Parasignosis” at their show in Seattle last night. I’ve been bitten by the bug of LP album art (and visual enhancements on the records themselves).

    It would be also be cool to have lossless file formats more widely available for fans who want them, though my hearing is so fucked up that I doubt I could tell the difference in most of the metal I listen to.

  4. I used to buy Cd’s but thanks to tecnology I stoped due to 1) Are more expensive to get to due my location 2) space 3) wife. So I buy my music digitally from bancamp and Itunes. Some labels include digital booklet for the artists releases, like Nuclear Blast and other labels do it for some artist. Also there are bands like Defeated Sanity and Be’lakor that sell their records digitally with booklet and videos at their personal bandcamp.
    Also by me purchasing the music digitally, it allows me to buy more music. For example, if I were to a buy a single cd that costs let say 12 dollars plus shipping 3 dollars (in some cases) I have to add 4 dollars more to get it here where a live, So the grand total is 19 dollars for one cd from one artist, where I could for that same price buy two digital records. Plus I have Itunes Match that allows to have my library in my phone and compurter plus I have it all backed up in a memory just in case. Anyways I think that things are shifting towards the digital era and more people should embrace this instead of saying “That they only way to support the artist is to buy physical copies” like someone said to me once.

  5. I think Islander already touched on this, but a big reason you don’t see digital booklets, particularly with smaller bands on Bandcamp: money. It costs a helluva lot of money just to get an artist to design a front cover, let a lone a full 8 page layout. While bands save money by not having to print them, half the cost is in the design work itself, something most bands and startup labels simply don’t have the cash for. Not enough people buy music to recoup the price of that. I’d say roughly 10% or less of listeners actually pay for a band’s music, based on the stats and analytics from the bad I work with.

    • For sure lack of money for artwork is the reason some bands don’t include digital booklets. But as I mentioned above, bands like Evoken and Down didn’t include digital booklets with their new releases either. I can’t imagine the physical releases didn’t include a booklet.
      As Phro… mentioned above, artists including lyrics embedded in the music file would be a step in the right direction.

  6. I too wish more artists and labels would take the time to include more than the songs from an album or, at the very least, provide a higher quality and higher resolution copy of the album’s cover. There are a still a lot of people who do care about these things, even if a lot of the extra materials aren’t used every time one listens to the music.

    Sure, it’s not as difficult these days to make a quality recording without extra help. The cost of making home studios or simply buying affordable, quality equipment and software make it possible for a band or artist to make an album on their own and craft it however they want. Even so, there are still a lot of people involved in making an album and they do deserve the recognition for the time and effort they’ve put in. Plus, as you’ve pointed out, there may be other things that a band may want to put in, including lyrics, notes, pictures, thanks and other information. For releases from bands that don’t undertake everything themselves, there are even more people involved that deserve credit, from those who helped the band to record the album itself to the artist(s) involved, management, promoters, friends and more.

    While there is some overhead with digital versions of albums, it still requires less resources than with physical releases, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense that so few take the time to include digital versions of the artwork and booklet. It may not be the same as having it in your hands, but something does feel missing, nonetheless. I have noticed that more and more new releases on iTunes or Amazon do include digital booklets (or more, like videos), but they are vastly outnumbered by those that don’t.

    On a related note, more digital promos need to come with some of this stuff. Sometimes a label will have an info sheet available alongside the album if they use something like iPool, but these don’t usually offer much information and some even have the wrong info. For direct downloads, you’re reliant on what’s sent to you. It would help to have more than the songs and the cover art when reviewing an album, just as it would be nice to occasionally have some of the extra songs that some versions get that others don’t.

    Moving on beyond the artwork, there are a couple other problems with digital releases that I haven’t seen mentioned.

    Someone needs to check the tracks before they go live to make sure they haven’t been corrupted, are tagged properly (at least have the basics right) and simply are the right tracks. Depending on the source and version, some albums have incorrect track listings or are in the wrong order. One of the best bad examples I can think of is Comecon’s Megatrends In Brutality, which has an incorrect track order that has been duplicated for its digital copy (unless someone wised up and fixed it sometime over the past couple years or so). There are others that cut out certain tracks because of extra songs, hidden tracks, or the occasional mastering trick (negative tracks, indexing). Cross-fading also presents some problems, with songs starting and ending at the wrong time.

    One more issue to bring up is the ability to pick and choose whatever songs you want from an album, which has changed the album experience; some albums really should be taken as a whole. As it is, iTunes and Amazon do restrict some songs to “album only” (usually longer songs), but I do believe that some albums should be sold as a complete copy only; some artists have been reluctant to put their material on iTunes or Amazon because of this.

    There are also certain albums that present some problems because of their length or their intent. Look at Edge Of Sanity’s Crimson and Crimson II.

    “Crimson” was meant to be a single, album length song and that’s how it originally was. However, it was later chopped into separate tracks as the urging of Black Mark. The same was done to “Crimson II”, which should also be taken the same way, even if it does have identifiable sections that could be separated. Still, by cutting these two songs into portions, it introduced gaps and awkward fade-ins and fade-outs. On the other hand, iTunes does present Green Carnation’s Light Of Day, Day Of Darkness as a single track even though there is some silence in the middle which would make a good point to break it in two (which may have been done with the vinyl release in mind).

    Physical media is far from dead, but the digital landscape has changed things, some for the better, some for the worse. With digital purchases, you’re usually not getting the same kind of experience and having only the songs and a jpeg copy of the album cover is not all that makes an album. There’s no one standard to follow, but it’d be nice if there was some more consistency with digital copies, regardless of where you get the album from, be it iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp, direct from bands or labels or any of the other online stores you can get music from.

    • Interesting point about the digital world resulting in album-length or “side length” songs being divided into shorter tracks. I’ve seen that happen, too, and I wonder who’s responsible for that kind of decision. I can’t imagine the artists want that since it undermines their intent. I don’t think it really helps the listener either.

      • Probably the label’s decision in most cases.

        Aside from the longer tracks, shorter tracks also pose a problem and are another case for having certain albums being sold as a whole, rather than have several normal length songs and a bunch of songs less than a minute (just as an example), all available individually. Hell, let’s go further and explore grind for a moment.

        Wormrot’s albums have a lot of songs, including those that are only a few seconds in length. And how much are these songs on iTunes? $0.99 each, whereas you get the album for $9.99 (unless it’s Noise, then it’s $4.99 for six songs). Priced similarly over at Amazon.

        True, we’re talking about something that people are going to end up buying as an album, unless there are only a couple tracks you’re ever going to be interested in – and don’t mind that it’s a buck a pop (or sometimes less). Grind may not be the best example to use in a song vs. album discussion, but it illustrates the point rather well; you could also look at S.O.D.’s Speak English Or Die or The Residents’ Commercial Album for further examples.

        • It might be the label’s work, but it could also even be the handywork of Amazon and iTunes themselves, forcing a band or label to split up their albums into multiple tracks. Could be the mastering engineer who puts the final touches on the album and is the one who actually splits up the album into their respective tracks (usually at the artist or label’s direction though). I also wouldn’t put it past the artist’s as well, depending on who it is. Dumb isn’t exclusive to executives.

  7. Praising WAV and FLAC formats is starting to get old. 99% of people do not have the proper equipment, or ears for that matter, to notice any difference between an uncompressed file and a 320kbps mp3. Yes, it’s great that Bandcamp offers those formats but they never, ever need to become mainstream.

    • Agreed. Some albums I really like, I will go for the FLAC option if available for later burning, but it’s not a deal breaker. Most other digital copies are encoded at a decent bitrate and they sound fine to me – maybe if I played my music through a high end system would I notice any difference. Even then, the sound you get is also going to dependent on the recording, not just what was used to encode the music.

      Truth be told, some places do still use 128, 160 or 192 kbps, including streaming or promo copies, but thankfully 128 is long away from its day as the usual bit rate you get. I like that Amazon has 320 kbps for most of its purchases and iTunes is at a higher comparative bit rate, both without DRM (which isn’t the same as the identifiers that are in songs from iTunes and some from Amazon).

    • Well that’s incorrect. Anyone with headphones can easily tell the difference. Caring about the difference is a different story. I personally will continue buying CDs, until everything I want is available in lossless.

      • There is a small yet noticeable difference between high quality MP3 and FLAC/WAV when listening on my very affordable monitoring headphones or speakers. Artists can and should make these formats available for listeners that can hear the differences. Using the Bandcamp platform, you upload the master and it is converted into FLAC/WAV/ALAC/MP3 320/MP3 VBR (V0)/Ogg Vorbis – free of charge. Unfortunately, when I go to Amazon for a new release, these options are not available.

  8. Count me in as another that no longer buys cd’s and does almost all of my buying via iTunes/Amazon MP3 downloads. The breaking point came when I ordered a cd, tried to put it into my computer to burn it in my iTunes library, and for reasons I don’t fully understand, the computer refused to burn, play, or even recognize the cd. Given that I no longer own a cd player and simply plug my iPod into my stereo, I’m now left with that particular cd that I can only listen to in my truck. I felt even stupider when I realized that between shipping and handling and waiting for it to arrive, I could have just downloaded it for literally half the price and had it immediately. Not to mention that every other time I’ve bought a cd in the last 4 years or so, all I’ve done is give the booklet a once over, burn the cd into iTunes, and placed it in a box to be forgotten about. Compact discs are a rapidly dying format, in my opinion.

  9. It would be a rare person who has the equipment, hearing, and “ear” (by that I mean the learned skill for noticing subtleties) who can actually tell the difference between a 320 kbps MP3 and FLAC, and the rare music where it makes an appreciable difference. HOWEVER, I think quite a few people won’t “notice” it consciously while at the same time they will enjoy the higher-quality recording more.

    I personally don’t care to read lyrics ever, liner notes very rarely. But I definitely appreciate having album art at high enough resolution that I can bring it up in my iTunes and it looks good.

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