There’s something to be said for vinyl and cassettes, that much we could never deny. The warm sounds of records and the tactile pleasure of tapes can’t be ignored, but they’re also not enough to win them a continued place in most of our homes. Instead, it’s newer digital technology that comes out as the superior choice for many reasons, after a hard-won battle fought for generations.
Though early steps might have stumbled, music’s move to digital ended up being a complete game changer. More than that, music’s integration with digital systems can be even better than that of film and television. Taking a look back at the road traveled, and comparisons to other modern digital forms of entertainment, we want to explore how far this latest generation has come, and what makes it a standout among its media contemporaries.
A Look at the Past
Reproductions in recorded music for the masses are separated into four main periods. These are the Acoustic era (1877-1925), the Electrical era (1925-1945), the Magnetic era (1945-1975), and the Digital era (1975-present). Significant overlap exists between the technologies for this time, but for the most contemporarily relevant demonstrations of generational upgrades, we have to look at vinyl and cassette tapes.
These were both revelations at the time, but each was extremely limited, and both faced problems that stop them from being the perfect platform for music reproduction. Vinyl sees its problems in a lack of dynamic range, frequency range, and recorded time length. Cassette sees a greater possible output range but also has profound limitations on storage capacity. These options also see roadblocks through errors that occur in the printing process. These errors occur naturally due to the analog nature of these mediums, limiting maximum copy potential. People love vinyl because of the warmer sound especially, but in an objective sense, the quality is lacking.
Modern music stored in digital formats features few of the limitations which held back older generations, while offering additional advantages that place it above even TV and film counterparts. Though most music today is compressed into MP3 format, even harsh compression maintains much higher quality than anything the Magnetic era offered. Plus, since digital copies are perfect representations, music can be copied indefinitely without compromise.
Many of these advantages can also apply to television and film, but it’s not always the case. This is because music reproductions have met the upper limits of production accuracy some time ago. Most listeners’ ears can only absorb so much information, and fulfilling our hearing potential was achieved way back when CDs were the norm. In television and film, however, the extra sensitivity of our eyes has continually asked for higher resolutions, which continues to drive up storage concerns, processing issues, and online data requirements.
“02Aug09 ~ CD Collection” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by grace_kat
For a more appropriate comparison, a single vinyl, even rereleases of original studio recordings with new tech, can hold around 24 minutes of music per side, in a format that isn’t easy to carry. A single high-quality movie can be stored on a tiny storage device like a Micro-SD card, but at a modern standard of 4K resolution, this file would be around 20 gigabytes in size. Modern music can both fit and play on a tiny device, which is infinitely more friendly than lugging around vinyls and a record player. Additionally, in the space it takes to store a single 4K movie, around 4,000 MP3s (around 5 Mb each) could be carried.
Smaller size goes on to offer enhanced integration with modern standards of online connectivity. As of 2023, a report on the state of US broadband found that 4G networks reached 99.9% of the American population. Thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones, and the lowering costs of mobile internet plans, it’s easier than ever for users to access music on platforms like Spotify and YouTube on the go. Such a strong level of integration also means that save for headphones, there aren’t any additional costs associated with listening to modern music. It’s still possible to watch movies and TV in the same way, but greater bandwidth costs and more limited quality through smaller screens mean that these approaches again come up short.
“Spotify App” (Public Domain) by freestocks.org
Music play and acquisition seeing so much success through digital avenues might be rare, but it’s not unique in the entertainment landscape. Another industry similarly revolutionized by the arrival of the new world can be seen in the iGaming sector. New services like no deposit online casinos offering free spins exist thanks to the lower costs of software and websites over hardware and physical locations. Services such as SpinYoo and 888 Casino leverage these lower operating costs to deliver more to the users, just as new music platforms like Spotify do. Similarly, online casinos require little processing power, and little storage and bandwidth, making them one of the only other ecosystems to access so many of the advantages digital expansion offers that the music industry utilizes.
Finally, we also have to take into account just how much music production has grown thanks to the success of digital avenues. Software and digital recordings are far cheaper than any traditional recording studio. Combined with platforms like Twitch offering live support, jumping in offers fewer barriers. A more competitive market can make it more difficult to get ahead, but for those working from a position of passion and not driven by fame, this is a small concern.
“Homemade music studio interior with drum” (CC BY 2.0) by shixart1985
Though by accident rather than intentional trajectory, music is the entertainment industry not founded in the digital that looks to benefit the most from the digital age. From quality to playback, storage, and creation, every side of the equation has experienced fundamental shifts from the old world. It’s easy to take for granted, so take a step back now and then, and you’ll be better able to appreciate just how far we’ve come. And no, we’re not encouraging anyone to throw out their vinyls. We’ll still collect them, just like anyone else.