With a digital music file you lose the extra experience that used to come with purchased music: the cover, lyrics, liner notes and photos. The pitifully small, single image of embedded cover art is in no way a replacement for this. I’m actually amazed that the only real efforts at replicating the experience so far have been proprietary formats such as Apple’s ‘iAlbum’ (or whatever they call it – I refuse to use iTunes unless at the gunpoint of absolute necessity). Some standard JPEGs of the album art as part of the downloaded folder would be a start, and should be the standard.
But even that could not replicate the immediacy that having to actually take the vinyl or polycarbonate disc carrying the music data out of the cover and insert it into a playback device every time you want to listen to a record has. And there’s certainly no way to replicate the patina that these physical data carriers and their enclosures accrue over time. I own a second-hand copy of Neil Young’s “Harvest”, slightly yellowed with age, well-taken care of, not a scratch on the disc, but played so often by the first owner that the grooves are worn out and the sound has changed quite noticeably. It is a testament to the importance the album had for that person, and so to me gives it meaning beyond that which the industrially manufactured product initially had. CDs already don’t do anything comparable – but I at least have a couple with interesting stickers that attest to their provenance. Digital goods don’t age or otherwise change at all. The files on my hard drive are the same as those on all the other hard drives out there. A hard drive crash just means restoring from backup, or copying from somewhere else, without any loss or gain in what I have.
Maybe this contributes to why digital releases of forgotten tapes, lost treasures and obscure home recordings from past decades fascinate me so much when I come across them. They have the same non-surface as all the other music files on my hard drive, but the recordings themselves have a history. Their being lost and found imbues them with a personality that the common digital file lacks. The mere fact that I’m able to listen to the music, which is a given with ordinary recordings, is special already. While there is no less scarcity here than with any digital good, the backstory makes them appear scarce. That is the only patina that digital goods can have – more information, which changes how the user experiences them.
I almost wanted to write above that digital goods don’t age, but just become obsolete. Now almost nobody I know owns a functioning record player anymore, CD players are starting to become rare, and CD-ROM drives are also about to go the way of the dodo. I guess I’ll take the problem of finding an MP3, ogg, WAV or AAC codec in a decade or two to play back my current music collection over the challenge of finding a hardware player to read a physical format any day. After all, there are even players for something as obscure as C64 .SID music files, and there are orders of magnitudes more users for the current music files formats.