CD vs. Vinyl: For the Sake of the Ritual
September 26, 2019 6:10 PM   Subscribe

I've recently decided to build up a physical music collection for the sake of the "ritual" and "archive". Naturally, I went the vinyl route. However, seeing cassettes make a trendy comeback similar to vinyl, I wonder if going with CDs would have been the better route. For the purposes of ownership and ritual what are the merits of using CDs as your primary medium over vinyl?

I feel like the auditory pros and cons of CD vs vinyl have been beaten to death, so I'm less interested in entertaining that topic. What I'm more interested is the merits of either in terms of:

Longevity of the mediums and the equiment used to play them
The concept of ownership and archiving of either medium (if CDs are "digital", is there potential for someone to restrict how you listen to it, a la country codes on DVD players)
Where artists are investing in, especially in terms of the packaging, and when it makes sense for an artist to invest in a CD release vs a vinyl release
If an artists' approach vinyl recording / pressing is different than a CD redoing
Financial sustainability (buying them, potentially reselling them?)
Personal experiences in creating a listening ritual with vinyl vs CDs (the user experience)
The experience of the "dig": the market for used vinyl vs used CDs

Part of me admittedly wants to see if going hard of CDs will allow me to hop on a potential trend train before it goes the expensive way of vinyl. However, I've noticed I'm personally missing some things on vinyl that I didn't anticipate (like vinyl pressings of certain albums or mixes unavailable, the vinyl version not having certain songs than on the CD release, etc.). I'm not too deep into it that switching or incorporating both would be insurmountable.

I'm concerned more about the state as it relates to current artists releasing music, but collecting past records is also definitely of interest.
posted by galleta monster to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Longevity: Both CDs and vinyl seem equally brittle to me. I think the cases for CDs do a better job of protection than vinyl sleeves would, and stamped/printed CDs -- the official kind -- have a longer shelf life than a CD-R under the same conditions.

Ownership: I do not believe anyone could ship a CD with restrictions on how/where it could be played, such a device would have to be so heavily modified it would barely count as a CD player anymore. There have been attempts to copy-proof CDs to prevent computer drives from reading them, but AFAIK those attempts have fallen by the wayside.

The other topics seem to vary heavily depending on the genre and artist. Just to put my own perspective out there, I'm a person whose aware that some of the music I'm interested in was released on vinyl and never been reissued on CD or digital markets, and my feeling is that I permit myself to download such albums from websites where people post such things without asking for money.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 6:58 PM on September 26, 2019

Best answer: I've worked at record and CD stores, and honestly, I think both formats have their pluses and minuses.

In terms of longevity, vinyl wins. I've seen some of the very early "target disc" CDs from the early 80s, and almost all of them have little pinholes in them. This is called disc rot. Data on a CD is recorded on a thin piece of metal foil, and over time, that can and will break down. Vinyl is a much better storage medium.

That said, vinyl can also be tetchy: it can warp if it's stored wrong, it can get scratched, and if it's played with a worn or dirty needle, you can ruin it just by listening to your music. That said, if vinyl records are stored properly, cleaned when needed, and played with a good needle, they'll last a very long time. A vinyl record in storage under good conditions will last practically forever, while a CD can and probably will get disc rot over time no matter what.

Fortunately, audio CDs can be played in any country, so there's no need to worry about international format. They're digital, but the players all have built-in digital-to-audio converters, so I really can't think of a way that some company would suddenly decide to lock certain regions or whatever.

In terms of ownership, some people are drawn to vinyl because the artwork is bigger, there can be cool inserts and things, and sometimes even cool quirks on the record itself (the vinyl can be made from different colors, or have patterns on it, or pictures, or what have you). Depending on what it is, you may also like having a pressing of something from back when it was released, which may give you a greater sense of ownership.

I can't speak to the relative costs of an artist to invest in one format over another, but I can say that CDs are generally much cheaper to produce. To my knowledge, there are simply fewer vinyl pressing plants than there used to be, and I guess logistically it can get more complicated to get stuff pressed on vinyl. However, I personally know a bunch of musicians who have gotten pressings of their albums, so it's certainly doable. I don't know that they're mastered all that differently, but that really depends on the release. If I have noticed a difference between CD and vinyl releases, it was because something might have been "remastered" for the CD release in a way that sounded terrible. And sometimes a CD release sounds better! I don't personally think there's any overall rule here. I honestly don't think you really need to worry about one format sounding significantly better than the other unless you're putting many thousands of dollars into your stereo setup.

Having recently worked at a record store, I noticed that an overwhelming majority of younger customers seemed to prefer vinyl, if they were going to be purchasing something at all. I can't think of anything I've listened to in ages that wasn't available on a vinyl release, but I also have the music tastes of a goddamn hipster, so I'm not representative of all genres. Some are still more CD-focused. If you're a fan of new, high quality classical releases, for example, you're almost certainly going to find those on CD rather than vinyl. You're always going to find obscure things on one medium that won't be available on any other.

I think in terms of reselling things, vinyl wins out over CDs. There's just not the market for used CDs that there used to be. At my record store, we would frequently have to turn away people selling CDs because we just didn't have enough of a demand for them. Certain vinyl releases can definitely grow in value, especially newish things with somewhat limited pressings. Record flippers are a thing, and they kind of suck, but they exist because there's a market for used records in good condition.

The album Rumours, by Fleetwood Mac, is one of the best-selling albums of all time, and it still routinely sells for $20 used because there's such a demand for it (which blows my mind). Or, for an example of a new thing, the newest album by the band Sleep was sold at a few locations with a limited edition pressing for $50, and without even checking I'd guess you could still find copies for a few hundred. This can be a real pain if you want an album that came out 10 years ago (I really want a Pagan Altar album, but it can't be had for less than $150 these days). But again, this means records are going to be a kind of investment in a way that CDs currently are not (although I wouldn't sink my life savings into vinyl -- I mean, I would, but I wouldn't do it as an investment strategy unless I really knew the market).

In terms of personal experience, that's, well, personal. Some people love the act of taking the record out of the sleeve, putting the needle on, and knowing that it's this physical process to produce the sound. Some people, on the other hand, hate having to get up to flip sides, and would rather just put a CD on and hang out for the next 45-70 minutes. It's all personal, and you can only know how you feel about it if you go in for it. I personally like records and can sometimes be annoyed that I need to get up again. But I still like records.

Finally, the dig. Things have changed a lot from where they were 15 years ago. You're pretty unlikely to dig for a while and stumble across a rare and valuable find, although that does still happen sometimes. But everyone knows vinyl is worth something. Sometimes you can find great stuff at a thrift store, but you probably won't be the only one looking, and it's only worth doing that if you enjoy it. Plus, I've seen many thrift stores charging outrageous prices for boring stuff in terrible shape.

Pretty much any used record store you go to will have looked things up online before pricing them. Some stores will try to rip you off (special "fuck you" shoutout to Smash Records in DC, for recently pricing a "sealed!" copy of George Strait's Greatest Hits at $51.99, which is insane). But the longer you shop for records, the more you get a sense of what stuff is worth, and what you're willing to pay for something (like, if you see a particular record all the time, but then you see something you've wanted for a while at a decent price, go for it!). I personally enjoy that, but I can imagine it might suck the fun out of it for some people. You can still find really cool records, and it can be really great to find something you've been looking for, or something cool and totally unexpected. Browsing is still fun, but it's not digging.

Unfortunately, some areas just have shitty-ass record stores, which brings me to Discogs and eBay. You can still find stuff at decent prices online, and if you really want something, those sites can be a great way to shop. I have a friend who has said she hates shopping in record stores (because unfortunately, some record stores can still be full of sexist guys) and only buys her records -- of which she probably has several hundred thousand dollars' worth -- online.

But then again, if you really get into it, it can still be fun to go to record swaps and visit new stores. I personally love it, but I'm also a super chatty person (if you can't tell) and I love meeting people and talking about music. It's not going to be for everyone, but record shopping has its charms.

One advantage of the weaker market for CDs is that they do often tend to be cheaper. Some especially rare releases can be worth some money, but in general I think CDs will be cheaper. A lot of stores simply don't carry them, though. I bet thrift stores still have them for cheap. I don't know for sure if the market for CDs will pick up, and I doubt it will.

Personally, I buy both (I'm broke, so I'm not currently buying anything, but I'm speaking generally here). I'd say about 98% of my music purchases in the last few years have been records, but I also tend to like older stuff anyway. I think CDs have their place for sure, and I don't think it hurts to have both. I mean, some stuff from the 90s is super expensive on vinyl, and I'm not about to spend $200 or something on a Soundgarden album just because there were only 500 pressings when it first came out. New stuff, I prefer buying vinyl, because I like the bigger artwork and I already have a record collection. A lot of new releases are simply not available on CD anyway.

This got very, very long, and I want to be clear that this is all obviously just one person's experience. I do think I have something of a perspective on things having been a collector and worked at CD and record stores, but if there's one thing I'm trying to get across in my tome of a comment, it's that everything has its pluses and minuses, but I really don't think you can go too wrong here.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 7:20 PM on September 26, 2019 [21 favorites]

In my opinion records and cassettes suck due to the physical effort you have to put into them to playing them out of order. Cassettes especially have to be flipped and the dead space at the end of each side is just terrible. Records aren't quite as bad as cassettes but they are flipping huge, can't be played in the car or mobile, and it's so much more difficult to rip them for archiving or mobile uses. Cassettes also have horrible tape his and background noise, and aren't very durable.

Records are better, but I'd still put CDs above both. As to quality, I can't really say. I borrowed some of my parents records when I was a kid - they were a bit scratchy 20 years later but mostly ok. I don't know what shape they are in now. I just busted out my first CD I ever bought, used in 1992, and it sounds great. It's about 30 years old.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:34 PM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

BTW, I also have my $90 at WalMart RCA 5 disc cd changer I got my freshman year in college, and the display no longer works but the cd player (and tape deck, no record players then - they were almost extinct) works great. It's more than 25 years old.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:39 PM on September 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I grew up before cassettes and CDs existed. The problem with vinyl was always scratches and skips. An old hack was to put a few coins on the cartridge holding the needle. If the scratches weren’t too bad, this would “fix” them so the records would play through. If it wasn’t working, you’d add another coin. I’m sure that was bad for the records, but they were wrecked anyway.

A big complaint about CDs when they came out was that their size destroyed the concept of album art. So if you consider the art part of your experience, that’s something to think about. There’s also an old joke that you can’t roll a joint on a CD cover.

Many of the old record players allowed you to stack several records. When one finished playing, the next one would drop. So you could just set up your records and not have to get up to change anything for a long time. I’m sure you can still find those players on eBay. You can tell them because the post in the center is tall and there’s an arm to hold the records. Here’s one.
posted by FencingGal at 4:17 AM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Which to collect depends where you come down on the analog vs. digital war.

However, once you go digital the CDs themselves are sort of just tokens as the information can be ripped (and should be, if you really want to take an archival approach that guards against corruption or degradation). Indeed, that you can make perfect back-up copies is an advantage of the digital route. If you like the physical aspect of collecting, record sleeves and liner notes are by far more interesting, satisfying and likely to hold their own value for collectors beside the recoding than is a jewel case and its insert.

Collecting cassettes is the worst of both worlds, and is truly a fad. Bootlegs or recordings unavailable in any other format are one thing, as are mixtapes which are a class of outsider objets d'art, but collecting commercial cassette releases that are available either on vinyl or digitally is peak hipster and already fading (like the sound on the tape).

Do not get an autoloading record player, imo. Too much to go wrong and not good for the records. Having to be more engaged with listening is a feature, not a bug, if you're a typical LP devotee.
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:04 AM on September 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

If it wasn’t working, you’d add another coin. I’m sure that was bad for the records, but they were wrecked anyway.

Bad for the record, bad for the cartridge, bad for the arm. You're bearing down on the needle so it cuts through the surface defects, or at least doesn't bounce off of them, with predictable damage to the record's surface (that is used to reproduce the music) and stress to the tonearm's suspension and tracking.

We totally did it too.
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:11 AM on September 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

If collecting and potentially reselling is your thing, I would look to vinyl. I don't see CDs making a comeback as a hot item, and the cassette thing is a fad that's going to die soon if it hasn't already.

You are not limited to one or the other, though. I collect both, for different reasons. I've collected CDs since the late 80s, and I rip those to FLAC now to archive them. I keep hearing that CDs will degrade over time, but I haven't found one yet that has - but, then again, I rarely play the physical media.

A lot of newer music comes out in vinyl + digital download. When that's an option, I buy vinyl. The vinyl record is more likely to have a resale value and I can play it or digitize it (even though there would be some loss) in a pinch, if I lose my digital copy and the upstream vendor (usually Bandcamp) goes out of business.

But there's a ton of music that's never been released on CD, and I also do a fair amount of crate digging and such to see if I can find rarities or interesting stuff that never made it. Collecting vinyl is great for that.
posted by jzb at 5:22 AM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I love my vinyl and I'm one of those who thinks they sound way better than CDs, and way better than cassette.
I love the ritual of "playing a record": finding it, dusting it, putting it on the turntable and enjoying the hell out of it.
I've been buying LPs longer than most of you have been alive. My collection is huge, 1/2 classical, the rest of mix of folk, blue grass, rock, progressive and god only knows what else. I'm so happy that a lot of newer stuff is coming out on vinyl so I can continue to collect for the rest of my life. Pity the person who has to get rid of the collection once I'm gone.

So Mr. galleta monster, go the vinyl route.
posted by james33 at 7:32 AM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

CD is objectively better on sound, and the device itself is significantly more robust than a record, but here's the thing:

Vinyl's more fun. It just is. Since in either case my assumption is that you can also get a digital version (either by ripping or via a download code, which most modern vinyl comes with), I'd go with vinyl for that reason.

(As others have noted, both formats are truly yours. No post-purchase chicanery is possible.)
(special "fuck you" shoutout to Smash Records in DC, for recently pricing a "sealed!" copy of George Strait's Greatest Hits at $51.99,
Talk about adding insult to injury!
posted by uberchet at 9:25 AM on September 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

For ritual, I mean, we put a record player in our dining room and everyone in my family, including my five year old, loves picking out an album and putting it on. Yes, you have to turn it over, but that creates a different formal experience than one continuous CD--there's both the experience of an album and of a side of an album. In terms of archive, all of my albums from highschool fifteen years ago still play and many were old and used when I bought them. Few of my CDs do.

In terms of ownership: my parents' vinyl collection was something I coveted, and have mourned since I've gone no contact with my mother. My own CDs are not something I would dream of surviving long enough to give to my daughter. Many haven't even survived to my own adulthood.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:53 AM on September 27, 2019

People tend to assume there is no ritual involved with playing music on silver discs (CD, DVD, DVD-A, SACD, SHM-CD, SHM-SACD, Blu-Ray, Blu-Spec, etc. and so on), but I beg to differ.

Some examples of silver disc rituals include: preparing the disc for play by demagnetizing it, or truing its edges and balancing it with an AudioDesk CD lathe, or coloring its edges with markers. There is also the practice of using anti-vibration mats during playback. My friends and I happen to enjoy doing those things, and I disagree that vinyl is always more fun.

I have been a vinyl enthusiast for over forty years as well, and love everything about it. I enjoy tweaking my playback systems and mediums, in an effort to get as much musical information out of them as possible. Horses for courses.
posted by the matching mole at 10:40 AM on September 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

If ritual is part pf your plan, vinyl wins that game hands-down. Pulling the record from the sleeve, removing it from the inner sleeve, placing the record on the turntable, placing a few drops of Discwasher fluid on the Discwasher brush, spreading the fluid out with the butt of the bottle, spinning the record around as you place the Discwasher brush on the record, slowly rocking the brush from the wet edge to the dry edge, using the little cleaning brush to clean off the Discwasher brush, turning on the turntable, using the strobe knobs to dial-in the correct speed, pulling up on the tonearm lever to gently lift the arm from its rest, moving the tonearm over to the edge of the record, pushing down on the lever to gently lower the needle to the record, enjoy that puh-pop-shhhhhh sound as the needle finds the lead-in groove, smile, drop back down on the couch, take a hit off the bong, smile again.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:29 PM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

...preparing the disc for play by demagnetizing it...

Wait...what??? The metal layer of a CD is aluminum.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:34 PM on September 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

Some examples of silver disc rituals include: preparing the disc for play by demagnetizing it, or truing its edges and balancing it with an AudioDesk CD lathe, or coloring its edges with markers. There is also the practice of using anti-vibration mats during playback. My friends and I happen to enjoy doing those things, and I disagree that vinyl is always more fun.

While those are certainly rituals, and if you enjoy doing them, more power to you, you should probably know that absolutely none of those are necessary to play an audio CD with the highest quality sound it's capable of reproducing.

- CDs are made with non-magnetic material, usually aluminum, rarely gold.
- The laser light only needs to differentiate between pits and lands, and any diffused light that doesn't hit the sensor won't factor into that detection. If the light reaches the edge of the disc, it's already not useful.
- An out-of-balance CD can potentially affect the tracking of the sensor, but sensors already have circuitry to maintain tracking within a certain tolerance, and a CD that is far enough out of balance just won't play or will skip a lot. Similarly, vibrations that are strong enough to affect playback will cause obvious dropouts or skipping. Neither of these affect the 1s and 0s that get read off the disc. A lathe sounds like it has the potential to damage the CD.
posted by Aleyn at 3:12 PM on September 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

(if CDs are "digital", is there potential for someone to restrict how you listen to it, a la country codes on DVD players)

No. It's far too late for anything like that to happen.

If an artists' approach vinyl recording / pressing is different than a CD redoing

For the primary recording and mixing, almost certainly not. Mastering for vinyl is slightly different, though. Vinyl Mastering tips from Gotta Groove pressing plant.

the vinyl version not having certain songs than on the CD release,

The vinyl format does put practical limits on the total time of the material.

when it makes sense for an artist to invest in a CD release vs a vinyl release

This depends on your "target market"/potential audience. CD is still common enough for it to be the "default" physical release, for the most part. Vinyl is aimed a bit more at collectors and, well, hipsters and indie music folks.

CD's are still slightly cheaper to produce, but the physical size of vinyl means you can do fun things with artwork (and colored vinyl or picture vinyl). Neither are so expensive that a band with $1000 in the piggy bank couldn't put out one, the other, or both.

(Also side note is that the artist may not have final say on what formats get produced, it would be the record label making that decision.)
posted by soundguy99 at 3:33 PM on September 27, 2019

AudioDesk CD lathe

People, don't shave your CDs.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:59 PM on September 27, 2019

One thing about vinyl is that it's heavy (in aggregate). If you're anticipating a move or three, that could be a consideration.
posted by Standard Orange at 9:34 PM on September 27, 2019

Response by poster: Thank you for the help, everyone; a lot stuff that I wouldn't have even begun to consider about either format!

I'll probably continue with my focus on vinyl, and fill in the last 20% that doesn't appear to be on vinyl (special pop releases, mixtapes, and hip-hop releases) with a decent CD player. I'm already a thrift store fiend when it comes to clothes, electronics, and furniture, so I'll have to add vinyl to the list too!
posted by galleta monster at 9:06 PM on September 28, 2019

I make my living selling vinyl and for about 5 years also made my living selling CDs. To me, though, they're all widgets, and I really have no preference. (My actual preferences is nothing or streamed music, because I think there's enough crap in the world and we don't need more of it.)

I will say that the vinyl market (thanks to discogs) is becoming untennable. The used market (the only market I deal in) is ridiculous. For many, many years, I would sell Rumours, Dark Side of the Moon, Harvest, Blue, and countless other records that sold bazillions in their day, for around $5 Canadian. In Toronto (where I live) there are stores that now sell Rumours for $50+ and tell me they can't keep it in stock. New records are also pricey.

I sold an original Canadian mono copy of Blonde on Blonde for $60 4 years ago. The exact same copy (self-link) was sold back to me by the buyer a couple weeks ago and it sold instantly from my shop for $240. This is not sustainable growth and I suspect true music lovers will bail on the format if it keeps up -- then the bottom will fall out and vinyl will be back to 90s prices. I have numerous customers who've been buying from me for more than a decade who are absolutely pissed at vinyl's comeback.

We're also at a point where many boomers and genXers are getting so old they're entering homes and can't take their records with them -- or they're passing on and leaving their loved ones with burdens of record collections you wouldn't believe. For the most part, these inheritors know nothing of vinyl or its value and they're being screwed by unscrupulous dealers (which, in Toronto, are the majority of them). I have one customer who's told his wife that this one shelf of his jazz records (it's about 5 feet long) will pay for his son's university (his son is 7 now)... if the market holds.

But, this year I've also seen an uptick in the number of collections offered to me from people who got into records in the past 5 years and have simply found it unaffordable to continue. The ship hasn't yet started sinking, but the rats are starting to look around curiously.

My advice to anyone who hasn't yet started collecting is simple: don't.
posted by dobbs at 5:54 AM on September 29, 2019 [5 favorites]

If Rumors is selling for $50+, I'm shocked they aren't just pressing more like they have with earlier material before.

We probably have two copies of Blonde on Blonde — my Mom's and my Dad's.

The points made upthread about weight are good. Physical size, too. I can't see the vinyl tread continuing forever because people just won't have the room for it. I wonder if some of the prices are not as much driven by younger trend followers as retired boomers with money to burn, time on their hands and nostalgia. Who then leave the collections to their hapless families to sell to dealers too low, as above, and circle tightens.

Kind of like those crazy book prices on Amazon that result from bots' algorithmic frontrunning of each other's listings.
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:48 PM on October 1, 2019

I'm already a thrift store fiend when it comes to clothes, electronics, and furniture, so I'll have to add vinyl to the list too!

In that case, if you don't already have a nice turntable, keep an eye out for any flavor of Technics 1200 or SP10 (in good condition), or maybe a Dual (701, 704 or 1229) or a NAD.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:00 PM on October 1, 2019

If Rumors is selling for $50+, I'm shocked they aren't just pressing more

They have, but new copies are $30 to $40 so "what's another $10 or so for an original is the argument." The new industry now lives in a "what the market will bear" world instead of a "what's a reasonable return" that the original industry functioned on due to supply/demand.

We probably have two copies of Blonde on Blonde — my Mom's and my Dad's.

It's only the first Mono copies that I was talking about. Stereo copies (which are 99% of the copies available) are more reasonable. That title also had an artwork change due to a copyright issue. Original mono copies predate the threat of suit so have different interior artwork.
posted by dobbs at 3:52 PM on October 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

« Older Pronouncing ‘jojoba’   |   What's a reasonable frequency to pick up dog poop... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.