Later, this summer, Rough Trade will be launching a new online retail platform that, amongst other things, shall sell the MP3 format alongside CD and vinyl. It may even offer some streaming at some stage.
This isn't an admission of retail cognitive dissonance. Up until recently, there's been little point in us selling downloads for the sake of it; the market is defined and dominated by a computing firm that brilliantly uses music as a "content driver" for their hardware. So, why have we changed our minds? Paradoxically, we believe that if done correctly, selling download files will help generate more physical format sales. This isn't as mad as it sounds, for the trend in music sales has already begun to support this instinct, with vinyl sales rising significantly over the past year, in what's now increasingly being termed as a post-digital age.
As we know, recorded music formats (including streaming) each have their own particular attributes and differing values to the individual. The values of instant access, infinite choice with no ownership responsibilities are irresistible to some, whilst the value of lavish documentation, stirring sound quality and permanence are irreplaceable to others. But as we shed our technology-smitten naivety, these values become less mutually exclusive.
Indeed, for many people with a healthily balanced diet of music formats, embracing more than one format of music has always been best practice, never substituting one entirely for another. However, partly exacerbated by the deficit in credible "multi-format" retail options to-date, partly fuelled by a particularly acute era of technology consumerism, there are always those who overzealously adopt the latest as the greatest. In this instance, we're talking about an ultra-pro-digital contingent, identifiable by their corporate-sponsored intolerance to inconvenience, duly medicated by continual mass technology updates.
These time-poor souls gorge on cheap, plentiful, easily accessed digital music (often symptomatic of a more serious digital content gluttony problem), blindly forgoing the essential cultural nutrients and rich multi-faceted ingredients that can only be found in digesting the "music dietary fibre" of physical formats.
It's physical-free music diets, where relationships with recorded music are conducted solely through a hard drive -- in what could be termed as "compulsive listening disorder" (CLD) -- which we're especially keen to reach with our forthcoming digital-physical offer. Someone suffering from CLD typically engages in frequent episodes of uncontrolled listening, downloading and streaming, often consuming music past the point of knowing what they're listening to. Their obsession is demonstrated in that they spend excessive amounts of time devoted to digital content in general.
One form of CLD treatment is the use of curators or filters to help control the intake with an edit of the mass of content available. However, now that recommendation has become common social network currency, oversharing has virtually eroded the effectiveness of casual recommendation. Now, in order to stand any chance of successfully treating CLD, authoritative recommendation is increasingly required, ideally over the counter from a trusted independent source, such as Rough Trade.
If an authoritative edit can be administered, and portions of physical formats can be reintroduced into a music diet, there are many widely acknowledged and proven benefits to be gained, chiefly the significant rise in the standard of listening. The ceremony of playing physical music (particularly vinyl) requires defined moments of dedicated listening, time aside for digesting a full album or two, being able to read supporting material, marvel at imagery, listen out for sonic qualities, lyrics and such, all otherwise lost under distraction and without well-made physical ingredients.
Make no mistake, introducing some prime physical format into a previously digital-only diet will require setting aside some time. For many, this simply may not be possible. For many others, it may turn out to be much easier than first thought. The curious and delightful thing will be discovering just how much that time can reward.
Of course, many people will feel that no matter how credibly and conveniently multi-format options are presented, physical formats and indeed music ownership itself is no longer for them, especially long-standing CLD sufferers: those fearlessly brave, indignant early adopters who've had their relationship with music gradually recalibrated so that it's no more than disposable titillation.
Even in these extreme cases, given our 35 years experience of uniting artist with listener, we still choose to put our faith in people and music above technology, believing in music's ability to remind us all that we're born free and equal, in contrast to mass exploitation technology that's reliant on having us made equal.So, there we are. However you currently choose to digest music, achieving a healthy format balance doesn't mean regression, hardship or discomfort. It simply means not succumbing to one format at the cost of missing out the unique benefits of others. Enjoying digital with physical should be a pleasure, with tangible rewards.