When I was nine years old I wrote a letter to Michael Jackson. As I’m sure we are all King of Pop fans in some way, you can bet I spent a lot of my own childhood pretending to be him. Truth be told, before I discovered the guitar I would lock myself away in my room mimicking his dance moves pretending it was me in all those iconic music videos. It wasn’t uncommon for me to show off those mad skills during family get-togethers either, especially if it meant scoring a couple dollars from Grandpa to entertain everyone. I had every solo album Michael made on cassette tape. Well, every album except one. I don’t remember why exactly, but, when Dangerous came out I had a hard time getting a copy. Maybe I didn’t have the money, maybe I didn’t have the patience for someone to take me to Sam Goody at the mall. For whatever reason, my naive young mind thought the best course of action to obtain MJ’s latest would be to just write the guy, tell him how big of a fan I was and simply ask if he’d send me his new album. I thought surely he read and answered all his fan mail, he would understand, right? Well, actually, yes… well, sort of. Weeks went by after I mailed the letter and by the time all hope of hearing back was lost a small manilla packet addressed to me from Epic Records happened to show up in the mail, and guess what? Inside was a copy of Dangerous on compact disc. I couldn’t believe it! Of course Michael himself probably never got the letter, but somebody somewhere in the industry ranks granted my wish and I’ll never forget and always appreciate that.
That’s the story of the first CD I ever owned, I still have it today. It sits in alphabetical order (by artist) amongst 2,000 or so other discs I’ve accumulated since then, each with it’s own little personal story on how it got there on my shelf. Some sit in cracked jewel cases with a worn and wrinkled lyric booklet, and on the most important albums you will undoubtedly find the discs themselves marked with scuffs and scratches from dedicated and continuos play (especially the ones I kept in my car during high school). So, what with the evolution of the digital music library, why not get rid of them? Don’t all those CDs take up a bunch of space in my house?? Well, no, not really. But, that’s the assumption these days considering most people can now fit their entire music collection comfortabley in their back pocket on an iPod or Smartphone. Our homes are more empty than ever, void of tangible books, music, and movies (also known as “culture”). Make no mistake, I love the convenience of having all those albums on my own iPod too, but at heart I am of that dying breed of people that still prefers to buy the physical version before importing it into iTunes. Having the actual album in hand, to me, is like holding a photograph. It represents a specific time, a memory, and the many emotions you’ve had in life. Though the paper itself might get a little tattered in time, at least I can touch it. It’s not just a physical product, it’s a physical memory. When you got it, where you kept it, who you played it for, who you let borrow it, why there are staple holes on the cover or doodles and underlined favorite lyrics in the booklet; all subconscious memories about who you were/are stored away in a little plastic case with a round disc. You can hold it and say “I remember when I got this” and a story quickly evolves. Rarely will you find somebody mousing swiftly down a computer playlist and say “I remember when I downloaded this, that was so great.” There’s just no sentiment in owning only the digital file.
The idea of the iPod, to me, is like I said, just a convenience. It beats carrying around a huge binder of CDs, that’s for sure. It’s made it easier to enjoy my favorite music on a long drive, a jog, or in bed before I go to sleep. But, it’s not what I turn to when I want to sit down and really focus on the composition and recording being presented. Why? Because while I’m doing those things it makes the music secondary. It becomes a foggy audible background to my daily errands at that point and I don’t really find myself absorbing the entire art. It’s kind of like having the vacuum on while your watching a TV show. You kind of know what’s going on, you find yourself enjoying what little you notice, but overall you’re missing out on a lot of important information that can really enhance the entertainment experience. For as important as music is to our lives we continue to find ways to make the least amount of investment possible in it. We keep degrading the magnitude of it all, shrinking every aspect of it’s presentation almost to the point of it now being practically invisible. We went from big 12″ vinyl records to clunky little cassette tapes, clunky tapes to slim CDs, slim CDs to mp3 files, and now mp3s to an overly compressed audio stream stored on some “cloud” of glorious internet space in the sky. You can’t even hold a mp3 but somehow we have concluded we just don’t have space for it in our lives. These new cloud services are, if anything, symbolic reassurance that the physical format is dying slowly and drifting to the heavens. Additionally, headphones have shrunk to Skittle and M&M proportions, speakers the size of a quarter, and album covers are rarely viewed larger than the dimensions of a postage stamp.
While the quality of these technological advances are actually pretty okay for their respective purposes, the price of these mobile music conveniences has come at the cost of sacrificing the most important attribute of all, sonic quality. Music of course has a lot to do with sound, so why haven’t we advanced to hi-def audio in the same way DVDs have advanced to Blu Ray? Well, we have… Super Audio CDs and other hi-def audio options have been around for over ten years already and offer listeners much better resolution and clarity in sound presentation than a standard CD. Like Blu Ray discs, they are a little more expensive and require a compatible system, but the impact of the musical performance is far-far more superior than any compressed mp3 you could download. But, truth be told, there isn’t a large market for SACDs or hi-def audio equipment because the reality is the average consumer doesn’t care, nor really understand, about higher audio quality and won’t invest in it. It’s a niche market, not to mention it’s another physical format that could horrendously “take up space” in our homes (gasp!).
So while new technology is offering us wonderful opportunities to take our music with us anywhere we go, I guess the question is at what point will it get so small we long to touch and feel music on a larger physical platform again? Does the physical product have to completely vaporize for a decade so a later generation can rediscover those vintage CDs their parents grew up listening to? I know I wouldn’t have discovered much of the music I know now if my own parents hadn’t kept their vinyl records, and I know my son will undoubtedly have a decent collection of CDs and records to rummage through one day for himself. And when he asks me about them there will be plenty of stories to tell, too. But generally, I don’t envision children down the road thumbing through their parent’s obsolete Mp3 players the same way. But, speaking of vinyl, it has made a small and trendy comeback in recent years, so maybe there is hope for another generation yet! We’ll see…
That’s all for now.