Written by 6:00 am Audiophile • 9 Comments

Music Libraries – Physical Vs. Virtual

Steven Stone asks, are music files, by themselves, enough for us humans?

AR-KenKnaterImage1a350.jpgKen Kantor, the main creative force behind NHT audio products also happens to be a fine photographer with an eye for the quirkiness in modern life. He opined recently on Facebook that “the collapse of civilization is a gift to photographers.” The downside is there may be no humans around to look at the images…

This got me thinking about how we homo-sapiens treasure objects such as photographic prints, or LPs, CDs and tapes. As one of those “long-living audiophiles” I have all of the previously mentioned physical objects within reach.

 Gary Winogrand said, “It’s not a photograph until you make a print” at that point a potentially fleeting image becomes something tangible. The same could be said about digital music files for many audiophiles. Streaming, or for some even personally-stored data files on their own hard drives, are not the same as physical albums, be they an LP or even, gasp, a CD.

AR-MusicLib4a450.jpgArcheologists have found that even at the very earliest stages of human development various objects that were perceived to have value were collected and treasured by early humans. And it can be also be assumed that these objects had some basic survival value. Whether that value was merely aesthetic or spiritual depends on the object, of course. But even some mammals collect objects – you should see my cats’ “toy” stash spread around my home. 

So, there’s something intrinsic to our basic biological hard-wiring that pushes us to collect things. It should then be no surprise that we value objects we can hold in our hands more than those that are seemingly “virtual,” such as a music file.

Humans also react especially poorly to loss. I don’t know how your internal wiring works, but when I think I’ve lost something I have a physical reaction involving both my internal temperature and my heartbeat.


Losing stuff has a clear physical effect. And while we all occasionally (except you iron-trap mind types) lose objects, its usually just an item or two…imagine your reaction (or mine) to losing your entire music library? Hard drives fail, just as surely as humans die. And the mere fact that it COULD occur is enough to cause many audiophiles to prefer to have a physical rather than digital file or “cloud” music library. I get it.

My physical music library has many releases that I have yet to rediscover in digital form – CDs or Streaming…either they were too obscure, or they’ve fallen into legal ownership limbo where no one has any interest in seeing them rereleased. But I have physical copies, so for me, they are still very real. But if I were herded into an all-digital or all-cloud library, they would be lost to me.

AR-MusicLib1a450.jpgThis brings up one of the problems with our new digital age – much in the way of fringe art and many fringe artists have been left off the digital catalog. They have disappeared from the mix, which means that their influence on future artists and potential fans is reduced. And our cultural future is poorer because of it.

While there are Internet projects to keep some vintage music in our ears, such as the Smithsonian’s cache of Folkways recordings, the primary motivation for making stuff available through the Internet is monetary reimbursement, but when there’s no money to be gained, the incentives for adding to the Internet’s cultural richness and diversity plummet.

And that’s why we keep physical copies…

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