There are some inherent advantages to digital releases. Perhaps the most obvious is that there are no physical production costs, and no boxes of CD’s taking up valuable storage space in your closet, or under your bed, or in the trunk of your Honda. But one advantage that had not occurred to me was the ability to replace tracks with alternate (and hopefully superior) versions.*
I made a mistake when mixing the opening track on The Difference Engine. I won’t say exactly what it was because, frankly, it’s more than a bit embarrassing, and it’s something I should have heard much earlier. At any rate it’s fixed now, and the shiny new revision is available in place of the old one.
Patching software has become commonplace since digital downloads became a viable source of distribution. Most of my familiarity with the practice actually comes from my (rather limited and superficial) knowledge of the video game industry, in which it has been take to some absurd extremes, such as over-the-top balance changes and story-critical content that is released separately, at additional cost, on or after launch day. Generally, the main complaint is that the ability to patch a game after release allows developers to put out poorly tested or incomplete works — they can always be fixed later. (This problem becomes compounded when factoring in pre-sales, but I have already digressed enough.)
How does this affect music? In an era where individual tracks take precedence over albums, probably not that much. And there doesn’t seem to me to be any practical reason for an artist to change or add material to a larger release after the fact other than to provide something more for their most devoted fans, perhaps. And even in that case, a new release is much easier to manage. These are big, unnecessary changes though. In all likelihood, the only legitimate purpose for replacing an entire track would be to make one or two crucial alterations — alterations which should have been made in the first place.
In my particular case of a minor, yet necessary edit, the ability to make these updates is eerily empowering. That is, until I think of it as an intrapersonal form of quality assurance, and then it’s not so fun anymore.
But it’s strange to think that I could take the whole thing down right now and, as long as the material was my own, replace it with something completely different.
*I should note that the ability to do this only exists on platforms like bandcamp, which offer the artist an unusual amount of flexibility in managing their works.