Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Downside of Digital

In the mid-eighties, when vinyl LPs were forced into retirement with the onset of CDs, I didn’t bat an eye. CDs were just as tangible and hey, no flipping required! But today, music is making yet another transition, from the slow death of physical CDs to the virtual popularity of digital downloads. A recent Associated Press article noted that in 2007, album sales plunged 9.6 percent with a 45 percent surge in digital sales.

And this time I’m batting both eyes. Not just because the audio quality of digital music is compromised, as noted by San Francisco Chronicle writer,
Joel Selvin. More disheartening is the “click, delete” factor: how easily a song can be erased and replaced with another muffled tune du jour. Because for me, music is personal.

Back when concert tickets didn’t require taking out a second mortgage and I could actually afford to see favorite bands, I saved ticket stubs and reviews and taped them to album covers or slipped them inside CD jackets. And it’s a habit I’ve kept. When saddened over the 1998 death of Beach Boy Carl Wilson, I clipped a moving newspaper tribute and tucked it inside “The Beach Boys in Concert” album that I bought in 1975 after seeing them at a Day on the Green concert with Chicago. Before returning the album to its dark closet corner, I played it. Closed my eyes. And instantly I could smell the suntan lotion and feel the heat of the sun. I remembered feelings of pure joy as my friends and I held hands and danced in a circle, kicking our legs and bellowing “Help Me Rhonda.” My scratchy album recalled that day as vividly as a YouTube video, because my LPs and CDs aren’t just about music: they’re about memories.

That’s why my favorite Christmas gift a few years back was a turntable. Now I could enjoy my old 45s, still wrapped in their paper sleeves and covered with notes I scribbled while listening to the music. Today these sleeves are like snippets of a diary. “Spring, frosh year, ’73, hanging out with Tricia” I wrote on “So Very Hard to Go” by Tower of Power. “Junior Prom with John, Spring ‘75” on “Color My World” by Chicago. “Jenny’s birthday party, watching ‘Fernwood 2Nite’, July ’77,” on “Down the Hall” by The Four Seasons.

Try scribbling notes on an MP3 player.

Bypassing CDs also eliminates the potential discovery of new favorites through forced repeated listening. The first time I heard the 1998 CD introducing Rufus Wainwright, I wrinkled my nose at his distinctive nasal drone. Buy there was one song I did like, so I’d play the CD and tolerate the other tunes. Gradually, I grew to appreciate the entire collection. So much that I’ve seen him in concert four times and own every CD he’s since released. A muffled digital download wouldn’t have given me the fortitude and patience to appreciate such an amazing talent.

And what about the artistic legacies of LP and CD covers? Creative, teasing, experimental, and often reflective of the zeitgeist, album covers were a beautiful marriage with the music, offering enticing visual images of the content within. Who could ever look at the cover of the Rolling Stones, “Sticky Fingers” and mistake it for a Johnny Mathis album? Remember the iconic covers of “Nevermind” by Nirvana or “Glass Houses” by Billy Joel? Squinting to admire artwork on an iPhone just doesn’t cut it.

With the demise of CDs, the final threatened loss is the thematic and lyrical infrastructure of many albums. Their very genius was often presented in the preconceived order of the songs themselves. In the Beatles, “Abbey Road,” each song is enriched by its predecessor and flows seamlessly into the next. As stand-alones, the songs are good. But played in its entirety, from start to finish, “Abbey Road” is a musical masterpiece. I’m still as amazed by it today as I was in 1970 when I received it as a gift for my 12th birthday. When I offered the CD to my 16-year old niece, she declined, saying that she would download a few songs instead.

She doesn’t know what she doesn’t know.

But I do. Which is why I use my iPod as I did my old Sony Walkman: For exercising and plane rides, and not much else. As long as CDs are available, I’ll keep buying them because I don’t want my music collection to be reduced to a tune du jour.

With memories as fleeting as click, delete, replace.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"They" don't know what they are missing. We used to see 3 or 4 bands in one place -- like Big Brother, Jefferson Airplane, Sopwith Camel -- for a $1 or two. I wish I had been paying more attention -- I was a self-centered teen who had told my Mom I was at the library studying! I would like to go back for 5 minutes...and pay attention. Now my husband sells my old concert t-shirts on eBay...somebody out there still understands!

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