Sunday, February 03, 2008

Paper or plastic?

(Apologies in advance to those of you whom I have already approached privately with this questionnaire. Further apologies to those of you whose responses I haven't yet responded to.)

Here's the deal: I'm getting down to the wire with the upcoming IJG release, LEEF (I hope to have it ready in plenty of time for our upcoming California tour). But I've been pondering the mechanics of the follow-through. To wit: I'm seriously considering putting LEEF out in a CD jacket instead of a jewel case.

That's right, I'm talking about a flat cardboard CD sleeve -- either 2-panel or 4-panel. (Not a digipack. I haven't entirely dismissed digipaks as of yet, but they're not my favorite option.) I'm also looking into the possibility of putting the disc in a JakeBox, but my research on that option is still incomplete.

As I've said before, I'm not yet ready to go download-only (much as I'd like to), mostly because we actually sell CDs at gigs and I don't want to lose that income. But I like the idea of getting away from jewel cases. Here are my top three reasons:

1. CDs-in-jackets are more environmentally friendly (no plastic, aside from (optional) shrink-wrap and the plastic in the center of the disc itself),

2. they are easier to tote to gigs, and

3. they are cheaper to manufacture (in a per-panel sense).

More philosophically, there is the whole question of the CD-as-a-format's evolving place in musical culture. I wonder: are we still living in a world in which CDs function as music's "end product" -- i.e., the playback technology of choice for most users? Or are we moving into a situation in which CDs are becoming more of a "delivery medium"?

In other words: people still buy CDs, sure, but what do they do with them exactly? I suspect that most people rip their purchases to iTunes (or some other digital media player), and then primarily listen to that etherealized copy (whether it's an mp3 or something of higher quality). Maybe CDs are now to digital files as LPs were to cassettes back in the seventies and early eighties?

For me the issue at hand is this: if CDs really are becoming more of a delivery medium for most people (and I think they are), why bother with all the fancy physical packaging? Why not something simple and efficient? Why clutter up your shelves with useless plastic casing when all you really need is an envelope or a sleeve?

Actually, a number of "serious" collectors I know don't even bother with shelves anymore. They chuck the packaging outright once they have procured a given album. The CD itself gets ripped, then goes into a binder (perhaps with the liner notes), and everything else goes in the trash, the recycle bin, or a resale box.

On the other hand, there are collectors like this one (who appears in the comments of the last linked article):

As a CD collector, there's nothing that can compare to the tactile feel of a smooth-sided jewel case from an early pressing CD [...] Again, it's back to quality vs. convenience. And convenience is for amateurs.

It's a stance I don't get. Often the response to "why not dispense with jewel cases (or, ultimately, go digital altogether)?" is "because I love the tactile experience of having a collection of CDs lined up on a shelf." But then you never get an answer to the question "why do you love the tactile experience of having a collection of CDs lined up on a shelf?" Does it, like, make the music sound better?

(The psych-enthusiast in me suspects that the underlying reason for the "tactile" argument actually has more to do with questions of social display and identity -- sort of like the books you leave on your coffee table -- than with the music itself.)

Of course, you'll be hard-pressed to find a music fan (yours truly is no exception) who doesn't appreciate a carefully-crafted context (of visual art and words) for the albums they buy. But can't we continue to get a great liner notes / album art experience while simultaneously tempering the materiality of the situation somewhat? An artist can fit some basic eye-catching art and textual details on a well-designed jacket (even of the 2-panel variety). And he or she can then use that initial frame to point a fan to something much more powerful and interactive -- something like a website with in-depth liner notes, interviews, tons of pix, videos, downloadable extras... the sky's the limit. If we can agree that everyone likes a frame for their art, why not choose a frame like that?

In fact, the only serious drawback I can see with the jacket idea is that there would be no spine (or perhaps only a very thin one), which I suspect might discourage brick and mortar retailers from wanting to carry a disc that was so packaged (although indie mainstay CD Baby will indeed sell discs without a spine, as long as there is art and shrinkwrap). Beyond that, I worry too that people are basically conservative when it comes to media, and that the possibility of having to deal with a newfangled packaging format would be enough to frighten them away from a purchase.

Of course, that may just be my paranoia talking. If a music fan is afraid of the newfangled, the chances of them being drawn to an IJG record in the first place are pretty slim.

Anyway, I'm wondering... where do you fall on this question, dear reader? Would the idea that something was being released as a CD-in-a-jacket deter you as a consumer? Would it excite you? Would it matter at all (i.e., am I overthinking this)?


Steve Lawson said...

Hi Andrew,

I've released all my CDs in triple-gatefold (6 page) digifile - no plastic at all, just like a mini-vinyl sleeve.

My observation has been - people love them at gigs. C buying at gigs is often at least partly about wanting a souvenir of the night, and 'posh' packaging can really help there. The all cardboard stuff just looks a little different.

Also, as you say, they are easier to tote to gigs, and are in england are cheaper to ship (being down one weight category in the postal system)...

It has also given me some continuity between releases that makes my customers/fans feel like collectors, making them that little bit more likely to pick up the next one to keep their collection complete.

So I say go for it, maybe even market then as a new series - come up with some name for it the 'exclusive collection' or 'premium edition' or something, and market the shit out of it. :o)

Great blog!



the improvising guitarist said...

In addition to those three reasons you listed there, I may add that Jewel cases are fragile—they have a habit of cracking on the road.

“…I'm not yet ready to go download-only… mostly because we actually sell CDs at gigs and I don't want to lose that income.”

Incidentally, having recently pressed a CD with a Creative Commons Sampling License, I can confirm that people still pay for them at gigs… Of course, I seem to give more away than I sell, but that’s entirely due to my own weakness.


D0nnaTr0y said...

I must admit that I prefer plastic and get annoyed when CDs come in cardboard-only packaging.

While I do rip new CDs into my computer, I still have an old school CD alarm clock in my bedroom and another in the kitchen, so I do still use the actual CD a lot. When I'm not listening to the CD, I keep it on my one of my numerous CD shelves, much like the collector you mentioned. The cardboard sleeves are annoying to shelve, especially when they don't have a spine. I also feel like the CD is better protected in plastic when I do tote them around.

That said, if I'm gonna buy a CD, whether its paper or plastic does not factor in... at all! Despite my preference for plastic, I would certainly buy a CD in a cardboard sleeve if it was music I dug.

I think the more important issue is the aesthetic design of the packaging- cover art, liner notes, etc. I will refuse full CD digital downloads as long as I can because I really enjoy seeing how an artist dresses their work. Its fun to look at pictures, and the art work often sets the tone for what you are going to hear. To me its akin to how a person dresses. You are going to like a person for who he or she is, regardless of what they look like, but to see that personality reflected in their image is just more... fun!

You should go with your own preference. That way the product is an honest one. Your fans will appreciate that and buy the CD either way. I know I will! ;)

Anonymous said...

My husband has an extensive CD library. All the plastic jewel cases get tossed and the CDs filed in canvas zipper binders. However, the printed material that comes with the plastic jewel cases he removes and sticks into a sleeve opposite the CD.

Music that comes in cardboard cases requires an extra step of color photo-copying all the jacket information (because it's integral to the packaging and can't simply be slipped out) before it can be filed with the CD. This slows down his organizing of new CDs tremendously.

Is there a way to combine the best of both worlds? Make it cardboard but have a removable paper part that contains all the album info?

nodog said...

I used to be a huge collector of CDs, and managed to get the number up to around 1800 before I decided to convert to computer storage. I have to say that the convenience of having my music available everywhere in the house and at work, and easily backed up is GREAT and worth any loss in the tactile experience. (I don't like the music databases, though, so I snob out by keeping everything in directories sorted by category, artist, and year-album. I've even written a little program to suggest random music to me, so I don't ignore parts of my collection.)

That said, I now think of CDs that I buy at a show as a way to support the artist and carry the music home to put on my computer. I keep the CDs in one of the two huge drawered cabinets that I use to keep the 1800 CDs in, but they don't really ever get pulled out.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks, everybody, for your very thoughtful and helpful comments.

I suppose I should have admitted up front that for the longest time I have been staunchly in the "pro-artifact" camp on this issue. It's only this year that I've been shifting away from that view (possibly because my own collection has gotten so out of hand that I don't want to deal with the physicality of it anymore).

My gut feeling is to do something along the lines of what canetoad suggested: a "best of both worlds" approach. For me, that might not mean a removable paper insert (though that's an option too), but perhaps a downloadable insert (or tray card). (That was Jill's idea, actually.)

And aside from the JakeBox option I already mentioned, there is the (probably even more costly) option of designing something yourself, like the folks at Winter & Winter did. That apparently goes over well in some circles and not so well in others.

But the spine is really the thing that worries me a bit. I guess the issue is that I'm not really sure if spineless CDs "stand out" in a positive or negative way -- seems like some music fans would see that as part of a unique statement, and some would just see it as a hindrance.

I'm still leaning toward the jacket idea, but obviously there's a lot to consider here!

Anyway, thanks again...

Matt said...

If GG Allin were still alive, he'd be packaging CDs inside roadkill. Or is that too "green", as such packaging would be biodegradable.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that when the album comes out, if I were to buy it, there is a 98% chance that I would buy whatever digital version I could find. If I caught a show and bought it there, the packaging would not influence my purchase decision. Super-cool packaging would make me think you are cool, and wonder how you can afford to waste so much of your budget on cool packaging, and make me wish I had the balls to do that too.

So...go with the cheap and simple, so I won't feel bad for doing the same. We all need to support each other by making it cool to not drop tons of money on packaging.

That said, I think I am going platinum digipak on my next one...I know it will get me that downbeat review.

Andrew Durkin... said...

"So...go with the cheap and simple, so I won't feel bad for doing the same."

It's a deal!

And Matt -- thanks for introducing me to the world of GG Allin.

Steve Lawson said...

Wow, I think that's the first time I've ever heard anyone thanked for an intro to GG's world.. ;o)

Andrew Durkin... said...

"Wow, I think that's the first time I've ever heard anyone thanked for an intro to GG's world.. ;o)"

Ha! Yeah, I try to at least give everything a chance -- whether we're talking about GG Allin or Vampire Weekend...

(But I'll admit it: after the introduction I quickly lost interest.)

Marie-Louise said...

Hey Andrew!
Great reading your blog,
Of course the music itself is what's most important, but if you change your mind and want to enhance your message with a cd package that does it itself contact me and I will help you. Nothing is impossible. Best of luck with your music!

Anonymous said...

I got the notice of the new comment. If she was really following the blog and not just trying to sell you something, she would know that the CD has already come out.

Oddly, I did end up buying the physical version...and the packaging is very cool.