I used to buy a lot of MP3s. I don’t anymore. That’s not to say I don’t listen to MP3s. I have about 10,000 of the little guys squeezed like vienna sausages into my iTunes music folder, and I listen to them a lot. But when I buy music today I buy it on vinyl. I’m no audiophile, no retro hepcat, but my ears tell me that music sounds better on vinyl - warmer, more nuanced, less shrill - and I make it a point to listen to my ears. Also, I’ve rediscovered the pleasures of looking at the art work on record jackets. Thumbnail images are pretty weak substitutes. In fact, they suck.
But the decisive factor in the transformation of my purchasing behavior, as a marketer would say, wasn’t aesthetic. It was the decision by record companies to start giving away a free digital copy of an album when you buy the vinyl version. Hidden inside the sleeve of a new record, like a Cracker Jack prize, is a little card with a code on it that let’s you download the digital files of the songs, often in a lossless format, from the record company. So I no longer have to choose between the superior sound and packaging of vinyl and the superior mobility of digital. When I’m near my turntable, I spin the platter. When I’m not, I fire up the MP3s.
Buy the atoms, get the bits free. That just feels right - in tune with the universe, somehow.
There’s a lesson here, I think, for book publishers. In fact, bundling a free electronic copy with a physical product would have a much bigger impact in the book business than in the music business. After all, in order to play vinyl you have to buy a turntable, and most people aren’t going to do that. So vinyl may be a bright spot for record companies, but it’s not likely to become an enormous bright spot. The only technology you need to read a print book is the eyes you were born with, and print continues, for the moment, to be the leading format for books. If you start giving away downloads with print copies, you shake things up in a pretty big way.