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Back to the Future

Date: 22nd January 2016

Back to the Future

Imagine warping back in time thirty years to 1986. Stepping out of your DeLorean, blurry eyed and somewhat slightly dazed, you’re greeted by an audience of eighties music fans desperate to know what the world’s highest selling recording artists are from ‘the new era’. If you replied that AC/DC, Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd were in the top ten, would they believe you?

It’s true though. Joining Taylor Swift, One Direction, Ed Sheeran and Coldplay are some real blasts from the past. It only goes to show that music buying is no longer the province of one generation – it’s now two, or even three. Also, there’s a good deal of crossover going on between the generations. Many of those Floyd album sales will be eighteen year old boys getting up to speed on the wealth of brilliant rock music made by previous generations.

The great thing about streaming of course, is that it’s a huge music library in the sky. Any music-loving kid wanting to hear AC/DC’s Back in Black a generation or so ago, would have to tune into the BBC’s Friday Rock Show, and wait for DJ Tommy Vance to play it. Either that, or wait until Saturday to go to the shops to buy it on vinyl or CD. Now, it’s there at the brush of a touchpad, or a swipe of the screen. The ability to stream almost anything is an intensely liberating thing. The downside is the amount of money getting back to the artists, which at the moment is struggling to fund people previously used to living very comfortably from their recorded music sales. In the music industry, this ‘value gap’ is a major headache for artists, record companies and publishers alike – all trying to find an answer for the question, ‘why pay for music when it’s already free’. And it’s not only free in one place, but across a variety of platforms. Google ‘Back in Black’ and you’re there watching it on your smartphone within seconds.

2016 has greeted music fans with the tragic news of the death of David Bowie, and we’ve recently seen the passing of other luminaries like BB King, Percy Sledge, Ornette Coleman, Ben E King and Lemmy Kilminster. One wonders how their careers would have gone – or indeed if they could have developed them at all – if music had been free then, and they got little remuneration from it? Whilst One Direction may be able to achieve a fleeting moment of fame from the back of streamed music and downloads, earlier generations of artists were nurtured by vast physical media sales. The millions of LP records and Compact Discs shipped from place to place made this possible – Bowie shifted 140 million discs, for example.

Perhaps then, we shouldn’t be too hasty to end our reliance on physical media? Of course, embrace that great big music cloud in the sky, but remember that artists are paid substantially more for physical disc sales (be they black or silver), thanks to long-standing contracts negotiated before the world expected great music to be free.

There are other benefits to real discs too. Buying a CD is in effect your own personal copy of the recording. We know that its 16-bit, 44.1kS/s resolution isn’t ideal, but a dCS DAC can still make it sound superb. If you follow standard CD handling procedure (don’t get fingerprints on it, or scratch it), then it should outlast you, or at least your hearing! You can rip copies (depending on your country, and also for your own personal use only of course!), and play the music off a memory stick in your car or via your smartphone. You don’t need to be online to play it, or indeed have anything associated to the brave new world of twenty first century technology near you.

Physical discs are also fun to collect. There’s something about the human condition that makes us want to squirrel away nice things – and an immaculate CD copy of your favourite album is surely that. If you’re organised, you can find all your Floyd albums next to one another in your proudly displayed disc storage rack (which is likely to be a sizeable piece of furniture), and of course it’s a way to discreetly advertise your fine music taste when friends and family come round. A virtual music collection on a NAS, accessed by a tablet with a low battery and fingermarks all over the touchscreen, doesn’t feel quite so special. Finally, there’s the chance to spin rare discs, like that Dark Side of the Moon SACD you bought a decade or so ago…

At dCS we’re passionate about hi-res digital audio – streamed or played – but still hold a candle for good old fashioned Compact Disc too. And that’s the joy of firmware-upgradable dCS DACs – you’ll always be able to do what you want to do.