Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Vinyl + Free Downloads = Way to Go

I read this morning on Digital Music News that Elvis Costello will release his upcoming album, Momofuku, on vinyl and digital download only. DMN points out, apparently with some surprise, that a free download code comes with each album.

To anyone who's bought vinyl over the last couple of years, getting a free download of the album is nothing new and, in my opinion, is a brilliant idea. It provides the best of both worlds - highest-possible quality plus portability. I get the vinyl for my home and the free download for my iPod.

I've always been a proponent of highest quality audio, which is why I still loathe the MP3 format, and all "lossy" formats generally. However, if I'm only listening to it in my car or with earbuds then sometimes I'm willing to accept lesser quality. If it's a particularly special album, one that might highlight the imperfections in digital compression, then I'll rip the album to digital on my own, using my own settings and file formats.

The label's strategy for vinyl + download, however, satisfies the wants and needs of 99.99% of the population. As I've written on several other occasions, vinyl is the wise and relevant answer to the music industry's woes - it gives consumers a physical product with better sound quality than any download, and it even comes with artwork, liner notes, and sometimes even lyrics. Best of all, it is valuable and it cannot be duplicated.

CDs succeeded over vinyl not because of sound quality but because of convenience (portability, durability, ability to easily jump to tracks). Virtually all popular digital formats are successful over CDs because of even greater convenience (even more portable, even more durable, even greater flexibility in song selection). However, most MP3s sound considerably worse than CDs and CDs, while nice, still do not sound as good as vinyl.

Vinyl is not nostalgia. Vinyl is simply a better medium for delivering music. The only thing it lacks is convenience, a problem easily solved with free digital downloads.

Since a download is virtually free to distribute (bandwidth notwithstanding), and since a downloaded track provides all the things that vinyl lacks, it makes complete sense to offer downloads together with vinyl. As I pointed out before, cutting CDs out of the distribution picture is all but inevitable because the fidelity is gotten from the record and the convenience from the download; the CD offers nothing over these two formats and is likely to go the way of the 8-track.

Way to go, Elvis Costello.