By all accounts, physical music media is on its way out. The MP3 is the new king, and – arguably – has been since the late ‘90s.
These days, the only way you can actually hold your music is with an iPod. Otherwise, it lives in binary 1s and 0s on a hard drive or flash drive somewhere. It’s hard to get romantic about the idea.
I grew up in the cassette age – a barbaric period for music, requiring rewinds and thin, black tape that got caught in tape players. It was an awful medium for music (and for movies in VHS tapes), and we were all rescued when the CD, invented years before its heyday, came on the scene. It seems extraordinarily obvious now, but the idea that you could start listening to an album at any point, at any time, and at great sound quality, was mind-blowing.
To those Baby Boomers, the LP was the epitome of audio quality and music appreciation. That artwork, those liner notes, the way you could sit with an album and soak it all in. That was the stuff.
But to my generation, the CD was our LP. Tremendous sound quality, music booklets you could flip through, and a degrade-proof medium that was more portable than the classic record. Sure, CDs skip and scratch – but so did records. And with no needle to replace, the laser-read CD was the new record for the digital age.
This was the era that I came into in high school, right at the time I was developing a greater appreciation for good music.
Over time, the digital music era began, stemming from CDs ripped to computers. But eventually, the need for CDs disappeared. If you could download your songs, why do you need to buy a shiny plastic disc?
And the idea took off. Like a rocket. Thing is, there was nothing artistic, besides the music, to enjoy. It was just songs. To learn anything about the band, you had to visit their web site or Myspace page. There was nothing physical to hold in your hands.
Now Apple is trying to bring back the album idea, transforming it into it’s new iTunes LP format. The iTunes LP idea, like movie extras stuffed into a DVD, is compelling because it lets you go even deeper than LPs and CDs let you go before. Sure, there’s liner notes and credits and lyrics, but there’s also band interviews and music videos and the whole shebang.
As nice as it is, it’s just not the same.
I remember, especially in my high school years, taking a new CD, popping it into my stereo, and sitting down with the booklet and pouring through the lyrics as the music played. It was a way to connect with what I was hearing. I looked at the photos, and tried to parse through the thank-yous, and get a sense of the album’s direction by following along in the lyrics. It helped me memorize my favorite band members’ names and the song titles. For that hour, it was me and the band.
In fact, I would get upset if a band scrimped on their CD booklet. No lyrics? No multi-page nuggets of band trivia? When that happened, I felt cheated.
Now things are different. When I download an album from iTunes, I don’t get that connection that I did before. Now, music is something that plays in the background, while I’m working or cleaning or cooking. There’s nothing to hold on to, except my iPod, so I don’t hold on to anything. Not the song titles, not the band members’ names, not the little mysteries that unfolded when I would sit and listen and digest.
It’s totally different now.
It could be that I just don’t have the time to sit and marinate in my music like I used to. Part of that is true, I’m sure, but there’s something else.
I’ve always been a print guy. Paper and me go way back, and my career features skills that I developed in the print world. Only recently have I begun to learn more about web design and graphics. It’s a different way of thinking, for sure.
To hold a piece of paper with so much information on it, while listening to good music, is a feeling that electronic music formats can’t reproduce – not with iTunes LP, not with an iPod Touch, and certainly not on the web. The physical thing. That’s what I cherish.
I’m a hold-out. I still have every CD I’ve purchased since high school, after that very special Christmas when I got a Playstation and a CD boom box. They’re all still in their CD trays, stacked alphabetically, and some even have tickets when I’d go see the band in concert. Each CD is a slice of my history, and by opening up the CD tray I get whisked away to some time in my life. Maybe it’s when I first bought the CD, or when I first “got” the music. Whatever. Each one has a place in my home.
It’s heartbreaking when my CDs get scratched.
Sure, MP3s don’t scratch. You don’t lose them (unless your hard drive crashes), and they can’t get stolen from you. They’re robust and universally accepted, and it’s not hard to figure out why they’re so popular.
But man. To pop a CD I haven’t heard in years into my car stereo – to feel the CD player tug at the disc and whir as it spins it alive – that’s music appreciation. To pick a CD out of one of the stacks, to see the faded artwork on the cover, and to have a concert ticket spill out on the floor…
…it’s like real sex versus phone sex. Sure, you can get plenty of benefits out of masturbating with some poor schmuck on the other end. But nothing beats the in-your-face physical act.
And that’s why I’ll continue to go to the record store, or visit Amazon.com, and purchase real, live, physical manifestations of my music. I can rip them to iTunes, after all, getting the benefit of both the physical (and backup) copy and the electronic copy that lives its life in electrons. The CD makes both options possible, and I own both a physical and electronic copy at the end of the day.
Music has a special tie to memory. I like to hold both in my hands for as long as possible.