We Create Music Blog
July 28, 2011

Digital vs. Physical: Towards a New Album Format


Earlier this week, Music Think Tank published this article listing seven ways to improve digital music by applying lessons learned from the physical album experience. The list suggests getting creative with album art, improving metadata to make it feel more like liner notes, and writing songs that feel cohesive, the way that an album might.

These are all great suggestions, and I applaud any artist’s efforts to make the experience of listening to digital music more immersive. As a committed album collector, I mourn the multi-sensory appeal of the physical album. The transition to digital has flattened the experience of listening to music to a purely aural one. The vivid sheen of a well-made vinyl album cover, the physical rootedness of putting an album on a turntable or CD tray, the smell of the cardboard and printer’s ink – all lost when there’s nothing tangible beyond your iPod’s touchscreen.

At the same time, I recognize that most music consumers do not miss that album experience the same way that I do, if they ever cared about it in the first place. The major advantage of digital music is, of course, how seamlessly it fits into our lives. No number of digital download cards or deluxe packaging tricks are going to convince the average music listener to abandon the ability to stream anything from a mobile device in favor of an immersive experience that requires you to be sitting in front of your turntable. Granted, bands and labels that release limited vinyl and tape editions aren’t aiming towards mass markets. And they shouldn’t. My point is simply that digital and physical formats appeal for very different reasons.

So I wonder if the idea of making digital music more like physical albums, as the Music Think Tank article suggests, is missing the point a little. Let’s maximize the possibilities inherent in each format, and invent new ones, instead of trying to make one more like the other. Think about the interactive film created for Arcade Fire’s “We Used to Wait” or Björk's forthcoming album Biophilia, which will be released as a series of iPad apps. These projects stretch the notion of what an album can be, and importantly, they could not exist in the physical album realm.

It’s thrilling to think about all the formats that don’t exist yet. Now that bands are making playable records out of chocolate, we’ve finally figured out how to integrate that elusive sense of taste into the album experience. The possibilities seem endless.