Opinion: The Lost Art of Physical Media

Posted on 15th December, 2019

Opinion: The Lost Art of Physical Media

A sizeable band of audiophiles just don’t seem to want to give up their silver discs. As one who’s been collecting CDs for some thirty-five years, that’s fine by me. My addiction to the format goes right back to when I was constantly being told, “why are you getting into this, it will never catch on?” A couple of years later, I found myself selling loads of the things in Virgin, and importing – for myself and others – the first presses of many classic American rock titles. Even then, I set myself some almost unobtainable goals in terms of getting obscure titles in…

A little later of course, pretty much everything you could ever think of became available on CD, which is when it fast became apparent that not all digital discs were created equal. For example, the US long-box pressing of David Lindley’s 1981 classic, El Rayo-X was the first silver disc I encountered with an authoring/mastering cock-up. One track was truncated rather than faded, and as it’s one of my all-time favourites I was forced to give it to my brother and re-order the newly mid-price version, in the hope that it had been corrected. It had.

At that time, there were numerous concerns about the use of sub-par masters, incorrect handling of Dolby A noise reduction, flaky attempts to breach the 74-minute barrier, decaying disc surfaces, and so on. Despite this, there were few truly monumental balls-ups happening – unlike now, where mistakes seem endemic…

The music industry – in an attempt to captivate the ageing but affluent demographic of which I am, and possibly you are too, an integral part – tempts us with ever more fancy and exhaustive box sets. These often contain that weird apotheosis of the hi-res surround formats, the box set-unique Blu-Ray disc. Now I love completism, and that we haven’t totally forgotten about hi-res and surround, but there are some seriously dodgy discs around. These things are expensive, and cockups get we fifty-somethings irate!

One of the biggest beasts in the ‘reissue, repackage’ market is Pink Floyd, and this Christmas brings one of their more ludicrous offerings, the Later Years set. I don’t rate the Blu-ray’s chance of survival. In Europe, we have had reports of serial early failures of the complicated discs in three different boxes, so far. In the spirit of the public service announcement, I am here to tell you we only have until January to check our Early Years BD discs for a recall. See the Pink Floyd website and social media for details.

So what’s going on? Have we lost the art of quality control, or have players that are basically computers, and media that contain Java code, just become too complex – resulting in unfixable bugs? Have we lost the art of making non-oxidising 12cm discs despite nearly four decades of getting it right? Or maybe all of these things?

You could argue that this is going to turn the purchasers of these monster boxes away because it certainly puts me off splashing my cash on them. So where do the collectors end up? In many ways, the same demographic is the natural target for some of the similarly over-the-top vinyl offerings that abound now. And these are not immune to the age of intern-led incompetence either…

The most amusing recent example was on the day of release of the second vinyl reissue batch of the fifty-somethings’ genius-pop-band-of-choice, Prefab Sprout. The first batch of LPs had – rarely for Sony – given us WAV file downloads. Joy! But when auditioning the second batch online, it was obvious that the metadata had been applied incorrectly to every single title on every single streaming service. For a major label, this was a crazy schoolboy error. Hard to imagine some sackings or demotions didn’t ensue?

The joy of digital is of course that, having deferred the use of my download cards until a fortnight later, all had been fixed. Not so easy to do with physical media without a repress! For my sins, I could even see how the mistake had been made, so perhaps I should have been involved with their quality control – or indeed anyone reading this who can also figure out what they were doing? Therein lies the rub, because when you’re selling to obsessive collectors and completists like us, there is nowhere to hide.


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Patrick Cleasby's avatar

Patrick Cleasby

Lifelong music collector and technology addict Patrick Cleasby worked in music mastering during the nineties and noughties – and has written on the subject at length ever since, tracing the rise of hi-res digital. He also spent over a decade at the BBC in a senior archiving role, where he was a behind-the-scenes tech boffin.

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