Can USBs Become the New CDs? - Hype Week


By Alexandra Bellink

Photo courtesy of Vadim Molochnikov.

While still the predominant physical form of musical consumption, everybody knows that CDs are a (slowly) dying medium in the digital age. But, no matter what technology disappears, there will always be new innovations to replace it – as was the case for everything from vinyl records to cassettes. The question at hand now is what’s next?

USB drives are generally used to store personal information such as documents, photos, and music one already owns. Recently, the idea of using USB drives for music distribution is becoming more appealing to everyone from retailers to DIY musicians, as CDs and DVDs tend to get lost amongst each other in clutter, causing people to forget that they exist.

One of the first albums released on a USB drive was The Stick EP by the German punk band, WIZO in 2004. Taking advantage of the multifaceted capabilities of the medium, the album came on a rewriteable 64MB drive loaded with guitar tabs, photos, and a live video.

In the following years, bigger name artists such as Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Nine Inch Nails, and Radiohead began releasing their albums on USB drives as well. Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster USB was a limited edition in which only 250 were made and sold out in 24 hours. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, who has always been a fan-oriented artist, used USB drives to push copies of his 2007 album, Year Zero, by scattering them at live venues for fans to find in a scavenger hunt-style promotion.

USBSMG is a section of Salk Marketing Group that sells flash drives for businesses. Their website claims, “a custom USB flash drive is seen as more expensive, more useful, and less disposable than a CD or DVD, so people will be hesitant to throw them away.”

They will load flash drives in bulk with any type of material the artist wants whether it be videos, photos, or music. The choice to encrypt the drive so files cannot be removed or added is also available.

Scott Interrante, a senior classical composition major at SUNY Purchase started a Kickstarter page this summer in order to raise money to record an album. Interrante, who plays under the name The Tiny Elephants, writes songs about social media and hyper-modernity in a tech-driven society. A pledge of $15 or more to his Kickstarter campaign earns the donor a reward of the finished album, entitled A False Sense of Awesome, on a USB drive.

As a college student on a budget he had to find the cheapest way to produce his album.

“Pressing CDs is very expensive, and they don’t press them in small quantities,” explains Interrante. “Usually the smallest [order] you can get professionally done is 300, which would cost about $1,000.”

That is not to say that he released this album on USB solely because of the cost. When asked about whether or not he thinks that USBs are the new CDs, Interrante replied, “I would like to think that they could be. We’re in the digital age now, for sure, but people still like to have physical things.”

“Well made, customized flash drives could be really cool. They can come in packages with artwork and liner notes, and have tons of bonus material, and they’re functional,” he continues. “Everybody has a USB port, but honestly, not everyone has a CD player. Even computers like the MacBook Air don’t have a CD drive.”

In 2011, Carl Cox, a British house music DJ released his fourth album, All Roads Lead to the Dance Floor on USB. This album is only offered through a purchase of the USB on his website. Released on his own independent label, Intec Digital, it comes packed with 20 tracks, which were gradually added to the USBs in installments as the year went on. In addition to 20 album tracks, it comes with video interviews, behind the scenes footage from his tour, remixes of the album tracks and many other extras that a CD or digital download could not offer. Owning the USB will even give listeners the ability to listen to Intec Digital’s full catalogue online.

Indiecater Records is a nontraditional label that primarily releases music through digital downloads. Based in Dublin, Ireland, they are a branch off of a music blog called mp3hugger. The label’s roster includes artists from Ireland, the U.S., and Canada. Through their website, the label sells USB drives that, for 15 Euros come loaded with three releases of Indiecater artists. Even if the consumers do not want to keep the music on their USB drives, they still may use it as a storage drive, which is something that CDs loaded with music are not capable of.

The use of USBs as a replacement for CDs has not caught on as quickly as the use of CDs or digital MP3s, but the format still has potential. The fact that it is deceptively inexpensive, more convenient to carry around, and possible to load with more and different kinds of content than just music files makes the USB drive a durable industry competitor to be reckoned with.