CDs or Downloads?? You Decide.

Good morning everybody,

Earlier this month I asked the good people of Twitter whether they preferred downloads or physical copies of albums. The main reason behind this is that my third solo album (#soloalbum3) is coming together nicely and will soon be ready for release. So it’s that time of year once again when I agonize over whether to get a load of CDs pressed or just stick to digital distribution.

A lot of artists and bands are struggling with this question now so I thought I’d drop a quick post here to share my thoughts and hopefully hear some of yours.

With two albums out already I have experimented with both formats. My first album Mandala was released in 2010 on CD and download. It was my first dalliance with Bandcamp and also the first time I’d been through the process of getting a physical product manufactured. So all very exciting. It was important for me to have CDs pressed for my first album, whether they sold or not, because it was something I’d always dreamed of doing. Sad but true. So I had 1000 copies made.

Which is a big issue for a lot of people. I didn’t need 1000 copies. I am well aware that if I choose to make particularly esoteric music I won’t be selling vast quantities of CDs. And given the kind of music it is (and if you haven’t heard it yet but are reading this blog post I have no idea how you got here!) a download would be preferable to most people.

Here’s the rub. It is the same price to get 1000 copies made as it is to get 500 made. And the price per unit is extortionate for anything less than 1000 copies. I have a lot left folks! Fear not if you don’t have one yet; I shan’t run out any time soon. Most people that did buy Mandala from my website (or iTunes etc) bought the download. I tend to sell the CDs on gigs but not so much online. I guess buying a CD from someone you have seen perform live is a very different and more tangible experience than going home after a show and downloading their album.

So when it was time to release my second album The Knowledge of Things To Come last year I decided to release it purely as a download. This meant that the audio quality of the music was higher across the board (24bit as opposed to 16bit squashed down for CD) and I had no production costs. I sold more digital copies of Knowledge than I did of Mandala.

But I can’t sell it on gigs. As a result I’d say that I have sold far fewer copies of the last download-only record than the one which is available on CD. After a chat with Grant Windsor on one of our long car journeys across the country with Ms Teal (#tealtour) I have been considering the idea of selling download cards at gigs instead. Now this is not a new concept. Bandcamp have been offering this facility for years and I know CD Baby also offer them to users. Basically I would be selling a little printed card with a unique download code which would enable people at gigs to go home and download the album. I like this idea because although you can tell people to go home and look at your website in nine times out of ten they won’t. Or more likely they will have forgotten the address. Having a physical thing that you have paid money for to actually take home and utilize makes a big difference. I think..

So. It’s over to you. I had a very mixed response form Twitter (@simonlittle). I was expecting the vast majority of Twitter users to prefer downloads. But a significant number of people stated they would much prefer a CD. Something to touch, keep, play in the car etc. I have started buying much more music as downloads, purely because 1. It’s normally a bit less money, 2. I have so many CDs and I have very little room and 3. I listen to virtually all my music via my iPod wherever I am anyway. I haven’t used a CD player for years so all the CDs I buy only ever get played into iTunes anyway. I do always buy CDs from certain artists. Peter Broderick, Kate Bush, Bjork and Tom Waits have all prompted instant trips to Fopp.

So which would you prefer and why? Do leave your comments here so we can have a little discussion. I’m intrigued to hear your thoughts…

6 Responses to “CDs or Downloads?? You Decide.”

  • Steve Clark Says:

    I’m a bit torn on this. I’m old-fashioned enough to like physical things to keep, but I’m running out of CD storage and don’t really want more. I’ve bought a fair few downloads lately. On Bandcamp you have the option of lossless, so don’t get lower quality than CD. I do all my listening on PC or phone, so the CDs hardly get touched once they are ripped.

    But then some CDs are works of are in themselves (e.g. Bjork’s). Having something to sell at gigs is a problem and you can’t sign an MP3.

    Although I bought the Radiohead In Rainbows LP I probably wouldn’t buy new vinyl generally. That’s a hassle to get onto the PC unless there is a matching CD or download. Various bands do fancy vinyl packages, but I think those are just for real collectors.

    Interesting times…

  • Simon Little Says:

    @steve Interesting times indeed! I totally agree regarding certain CDs being works of art in themselves. I rarely buy new CDs if they are the usual plastic jewel cased affair; I much prefer the look and feel of card sleeves and digipaks. They feel more like a proper (ie: vinyl) record. I like the way they age with use too. But like you I rarely actually play the CD and reserve buying physical copies of albums by my favourite artists.
    The live sales question is key to a lot of artists right now; especially those producing particularly ‘niche’ music like I a, at the moment. Bandcamp is a godsend for me and if the demand for CDs is as low as I expect I may well investigate the download card option…

  • Lobelia Says:

    🙂 I’d go with King’s Direct and get 100 copies of the new album made (they have great prices and really fast turnaround) and then sell the downloads at gigs on memory sticks. You can put all your albums on there for £15 or so (4g memory sticks are now about £3) We make most of our money off of memory sticks these days. You can even brand them easily by making moo stickers to add to them. x

  • Simon Little Says:

    @Lovelia I’ll investigate King’s Direct later. Am thinking of doing a short limited run if I do go down the CD route. Makes them extra special! Am also very keen to experiment with download cards to see how audiences respond. Could be interesting…

  • Brendan Says:

    I think that given the choice, I’d still always go with a cd. I’ve got loads of cds and am fast running out of space, but there’s something enjoyable about having liner notes, reading through them while listening to the album, and having something tangible to hold. Even if in reality they are copied straight on to iTunes… Though I do still have a stereo that I use fairly regularly (I have played Mandala a fair amount on it!) so my favourite albums still get spin time every now and then.

    I am uncomfortable with the idea of paying for a download when all I am getting is a lower quality version of the music, usually for the same or similar price. I tend to avoid iTunes/Amazon downloads unless that is the only place I can buy a certain track. I do, however, like Bandcamp because there’s the option to buy FLAC quality downloads. I usually convert them down, but knowing that I could burn a disc of cd quality/better tracks makes the purchase feel more worthwhile and desirable. Much more so than buying tracks already optimised for mp3 players.

    That being said, I have recently been thinking of copying the discs I’m not particularly attached to, those that I’ve not listened to recently or aren’t really favourite artists, and just keeping those as mp3. I guess if the quality/price were more reasonable I’d move to downloading my music, with a few exceptions, but at the moment I find that cds tend to be cheaper, especially if it’s an old album.

    So if cds of the new album were available, I’d definitely buy one, but if it’s download only, so long as it’s on Bandcamp, then I wouldn’t be too disappointed not to have a physical copy…

  • Simon Little Says:

    @Brendan Glad to hear Mandala still gets played at home!
    Totally agree with you about the importance of download quality. This is why Bandcamp is always my first port of call when releasing new music. I record at higher than CD quality and it does seem silly to reduce the quality when mastering for CD. The only way for me to make my music available at the highest resolution is via Bandcamp. I do also makes the albums available on iTunes etc purely to have a presence in such a widely used store. It’s always good to show your face..
    Whenever the album comes out, you can be sure it will be available from Bandcamp first 😉

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