Let’s Get Physical

Streaming long ago supplanted playing discs as my go-to method for listening to music. Sure, I still have stacks of LPs and CDs in my living room, but they mostly serve as quaint reminders of an earlier time when I would linger for hours in record shops. After music downloading took off almost two decades back (see Flashback 1998: A Compressed History of the Digital Music Player for an overview of downloading’s early days) and those shops began to shutter, I found myself coming to depend almost exclusively on Amazon to satisfy my physical media-collecting needs. Buying discs online was never as satisfying as visiting shops, but it was quick and Amazon always seemed to have what I wanted in stock.

Now that I’ve gone all-in with music streaming, mainly via Tidal, and now Qobuz, I rarely buy discs these days. I can’t even say that I miss the experience of handling physical media. The CD-quality and high-res tiers available on Tidal and Qobuz mean there’s no compromise in sound quality. And when they are used in tandem with music library management software like Roon, you can enjoy a rich, metadata-driven browsing experience on your phone or iPad that goes well beyond that of reading liner notes on an LP cover.

Even with these changes, I don’t expect physical media to go away any time soon. Staring at the beautiful box sets in our holiday gift guide, I can barely contain the surge of material want that The Beatles’ White Album box, or that complete library of Ingmar Bergman films, inspires. And what John Lennon fan could resist UMG’s epic Imagine: The Ultimate Edition box (watch for our review). It’s a safe bet that one or more of those will end up on my shelves.

What prompted this reflection on physical media was a recent failed attempt to do something I hadn’t done in a while: buy a CD. The disc was Woven Tide by From the Mouth of the Sun. This out-of-print release has many qualities that I appreciate in instrumental music, like a balance between electronic and acoustic elements, and a cinematic atmosphere. It sounds like a soundtrack to a movie that was never made. More important, I used to stream this album during a specific period when I was drawn to abstract, contemplative music. I wanted a talisman from that time. I wanted Woven Tide on CD.

To make a long story short, the U.S. postal service ain’t what it used to be — I never received the CD after ordering it from an independent record store that specializes in rare, OOP music. Thankfully, I can still stream Woven Tide anytime I want on Tidal, and it sounds great. But I’m sure I’ll eventually seek the CD or LP version out, as I do with other titles that have significance for me. As long as such nostalgic impulses exist, there will continue to be a thriving market for physical media.