Robert Hampton

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27th May 2011

To MP3 or not to MP3, that is the question

As a gay, I am legally obliged to adore Lady Gaga*. Her new album Born This Way has just come out and naturally I made a beeline to my computer to buy it. Actually that was a lie – I was already at my computer, because as well as being gay, I am a total nerd.

Where was I? Oh yes, the album and such. I was about to click to buy the CD, when I spied that Amazon were selling the MP3 download for just £3.99, saving me seven or eight quid over the physical copy. How could I say no to an offer like that? Quite easily, in fact.

You see, I actually quite like CDs. You would think that I — being a child of the microcomputer revolution — would embrace the future like [NAME REDACTED] embraces Big Brother contestants. But there’s something about CDs that is lost in MP3 format, which means I’ll be sticking to CDs for now, thanks.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the early objections to digital music no longer apply. MP3 downloads are now ridiculously cheap — often significantly cheaper than CD. They are also, for the most part, free of that annoying Digital Rights Management which requires you to continually prove to your computer that you are legally entitled to play the music you’ve already paid for.

Of course there are many advantages to MP3 downloads. The music is instantly available as soon as you’ve handed over your credit card details. You can keep your entire music collection in something the size of a matchbox and take it with you wherever you want – I have an iPod, and my first action when I get a new CD is to rip it into iTunes. For new and struggling musicians, the lower distribution costs of MP3 can offer big cost savings over the traditional methods of music distribution.

But there’s just something about actually holding a shiny, tangible CD that the MP3 experience can’t replicate. As an example, let’s compare what people who bought Patrick Wolf’s The Magic Position on CD got compared to MP3 downloaders:-

Picture of Windows Explorer showing a folder of MP3 files Picture of Patrick Wolf CD and sleeve notes

For those who took the trouble to get a CD, a pretty inlay sheet with lovely artwork and sleeve notes. For MP3 downloaders? A folder full of icons in Windows Explorer. Yes, you see the CD cover art in iTunes or Windows Media Player, but it’s NOT THE SAME.

I’m fully aware that I’m sounding like an old man complaining about how things were much better in “the good old days”. For the record, here are some other obsolete technologies which I wish were still current: Ceefax, BSB squarials, Acorn computers, Class 101 DMUs.

* This is of course not true, I just wanted an attention-grabbing opening paragraph.