Digital or physical? Why we still love products we can actually hold in

How do you listen to your music?

Do you stream it?

Maybe you’re one of the millions out there now enjoying your music on vinyl, sales of which have surged over the past decade as people hark back to a time when music was something you held in your hands and gripped tight. A single from the hit parade you just couldn’t get enough of, and that meant actually having a copy that was your own, rather than looking on YouTube or Spotify or Deezer.

Does a physical product mean more to you? If so, why? If not, what does that say about our relationship with ‘things’? Is it going the way of the Dodo or are we going to be seeing more and more physical products around the house over the next few years?

Let’s take a closer look by examining how our relationship with music, which is something that in itself is pretty intangible (as something physical), and how the way we enjoy music has changed, is changing and may change in future.

Play it, Sam.

The revolution will be digitised

During the late 90s and early 00s the music industry underwent an extremely pronounced transition. As more and more people began to share music online, thanks to their swanky new home computers and their fancy, if unreliable, dial-up internet connection, fewer people were buying CDs and tape cassettes.

A common observation in the tech sector is that iTunes killed off the CD. The Buggles argued video did something similar to the Radio Star.

However, iTunes still meant you had to actually pay full price for an album or single. Sure, it’d go on your iPod or your laptop and in a sense you still possessed it, for want of a better word. But it was a different kind of ownership, one that the new MySpace generation got used to fast.

In 2007 Radiohead released ‘In Rainbows’, an album you could download from their website and which you could download for as little as a penny. It was a pay-what-you-want service. It was also revolutionary, and a potential harbinger of what was just around the corner: streaming.

We don’t need no limitations, we don’t need no capped control

Around the same time Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’ was making music fans everywhere question whether or not they really wanted to pay a set price every time they bought an album, Spotify came along to make the decision even easier.

Spotify meant unlimited music across devices, streamed via the internet with even the option of saving some songs for offline streaming. There was (and is) a set fee and users can listen to as much music as they want.

This has meant in the past couple of years Apple launched Apple Music, their own streaming platform.

It fits a pattern that has seen emerging digital media reach millions of new users thanks to its instant availability, relatively low cost and thanks to advances and improvements in internet download speeds which means people are happier to stream and the experience is much more akin to that of, say, listening to a CD or watching a DVD.

Services like Netflix and BBC iPlayer have meant it’s not just the way we enjoy music has changed, either; it’s TV, films and thanks to Amazon’s Kindle, Kindle Unlimited and Prime services, even the way we read books.

But whilst whilst this ongoing digital revolution has been happening, a new kind of consumer has emerged…

It’s my music and I’ll own a physical copy (if I want to)

Spotify has dominated online streaming over the past 9 years, something some have even said is basically “Spotify doing to iTunes what iTunes did to CDs.” Digital music sales, then, have fallen drastically, but as recently as January of this year it’s been announced that tape cassette sales in the US have risen by 74%.

As acknowledged in WhatHifi, “cassettes have seen a mini resurgence,” with classic albums being rereleased on the format in the same way they have been on vinyl, which continues to thrive.

Could it keep going? And if so, where will it end?

Will we see CDs in our stores before too long? And will it mean new business opportunities for investors and previously fledgling stores?

Final thoughts

What does it say about us that tape cassettes, in a similar vain to vinyl, once deemed an ancient format, is seeing a revival?

Generally technology goes one way - smaller, more compact, leaving more space in your home. The computer became the laptop, then the tablet, and the smartphone can do almost as much as those two. But cassettes and vinyl imply that as consumers, there are some things we don’t want disappearing. We’re happy for them to take up the space.

Or maybe it’s just that we quite like nostalgia.

Here’s what Mad Men protagonist and would-be anthropologist Don Draper says about nostalgia:

So perhaps nostalgia will keep physical sales, be them of music, or of films and our favourite TV shows, alive and kicking.

We’ll just have to wait and see, and who knows? By that point something else might be back from the proverbial ‘dead’.

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