Friday, December 31, 2010

Like a record, baby

I used to buy a lot of records, then CDs, but now I buy neither: I buy songs through iTunes Store. This includes replacing records.

As long time readers may remember, when I went to the US in late 2007 to dispose of the last of my stuff I had stored there, I had to leave behind nearly all of my records. In the three years since, I’ve bought a few albums through the iTunes Store, found some as cheap CDs, some I’ll still eventually buy and the rest, well, I probably don’t want them anymore, anyway.

To answer an obvious question, these electronic files have multiple redundant backups, so I’m not worried about losing them except in the same ways I once could’ve lost records/CDs: Theft, fire, natural disaster. But there are strategies to remove even that risk.

This is one of those paradigm shifts I often talk about, where successful technology is evolutionary, seldom truly revolutionary. What that means is that new technologies actually use an existing paradigm that people are familiar with. Microwave ovens, for example, work in many of the same ways as traditional ovens, only faster and through a different method. Cassettes and CDs and now MP3 music are extensions of the record that people were already familiar with (though the introduction of records arguably was revolutionary).

Still, it’s all a matter of perspective, really. Today I saw a Tweet: “Before iPods we’d go to places that were like in-person iTunes Stores to get circles made of mirrors that made music if spinning in a gizmo.” This is cute, but I couldn’t help thinking it was a young person’s perspective, someone who’s aping being a sage remembering the near past.

I remember browsing through the bins of a record store, or looking at a big wall filled with the Top 20 albums. Then, once I brought my new record home, opening the shrink-wrap and smelling the ink-on-cardboard scent of the jacket, combined with the smell of the vinyl record within. Neither iTunes nor CD stores gave the same sensations, but I don’t really miss them.

Records took a lot of space to store, were VERY heavy to move, and weren’t portable. CDs were portable, but took a lot of space to store and a LOT of boxes to move (when it seemed one or more plastic jewel cases were always broken). Electronic music, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily take any physical space to store, is completely transportable and easy to move. To me, all this trumps the few drawbacks (although I do miss the extensive artwork in the jacket, inner sleeve and sometimes the label, too).

I get why people are nostalgic about the technology before—CDs or records—but I’m not one of them. I want the music, and the specific delivery medium isn’t that important to me as long as I have the file in my possession, not on some company’s computers somewhere else. Some paradigm shifts take longer than others. But the music will keep playing in the meantime.


Roger Owen Green said...

I guess, for me, it's less about the methodology and more about the apparent loss of the album - that is, a collection of songs around some thematic premise. yeah, some albums suck but what if Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt Pepper were coming out now - would people listen to the album or glom onto Money or Lovely Rita?

Arthur Schenck said...

That's a really good point, and one sometimes raised by performers. For me, the songs I'd buy individually are ones I'd never have bought if a complete album were the only choice. It's a bit like waaaaaaaaay back when I was a kid buying 45 singles of songs that I usually didn't buy on album (as a kid, I didn't have a lot of money).

Later, I bought greatest hits albums (another thing some purists hate) because of one or a few songs I liked, grew to like the rest and bought the albums those other songs were on. I did this numerous times.

I guess what I'm saying is that I think that it's better that people buy one song they like rather than avoid an entire album because they can't get that one song any other (legal) way.

But with older albums, I often arrange my iTunes by album, turn off shuffle, and let it play the way it was originally intended.