February 20, 2003

End the Trend

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Why has purchasing music now become so much more difficult? I blame MP3s. Now don’t get me wrong, I love file-sharing programs as much the next person, they just complicate my decision-making process at the record store. Previously, the determining factor in my CD shopping forays has simply been which CD do I really want — which is the most essential for my collection or which will be the most enjoyable. Now I contemplate whether I can live with a certain album in MP3 format or if I simply have to buy the actual CD. Although my quip with downloadable music might seem petty to some, it presents wide implications in the various modes through which we acquire and listen to our music.

For example, every time I walk into a record store, whether it is simply to browse the music racks or to find a particular album, I usually see about ten CDs I would like to buy then and there. But alas, my pockets are not deep enough to support such a habit, especially when buying 10 new albums can easily cost over $150. Besides, it seems plain foolish to spend that much money each time you enter a record store. How then am I supposed to select which combination of the ten possible records gets to be the lucky group that comes home with me? This decision is hard enough to begin with, but with the advent of file-sharing programs on the Internet, (like the former Napster), I ask myself questions like “Which artist do I want to support the most by buying their CD?” or “Which album deserves to be owned and appreciated not in MP3 format but as a CD?”

I believe there is an innate value in possessing the original artifact — the actual album dressed up from front to back in its covers, complete with liner notes. Although there can exist thousands if not millions of legitimate copies of this particular CD you’re about to buy from your local music store, the one which you hold in your hand is undeniably authentic. It is a palpable, physical reality instead of some representative code on your hard drive. Though some scholars, like Walter Benjamin, laid claim that the uniqueness of an art-work is dead in the “age of mechanical reproduction,” I would simply ask them to go purchase an original vinyl copy of The Beatles’ Abbey Road and tell me that there is not something vitally original or distinctly alive about that cover art. The album itself has an aura. Even a cover meant to ridicule the mass consumption of art, Andy Warhol’s unforgettable “Peel Slowly and See” banana design for The Velvet Underground & Nico, plays such a significant role in the perception and understanding of the music contained on the album that it would be a travesty to listen to the music in MP3 format without experiencing the cover design firsthand. Maybe a carefully crafted CD-R with copied covers could come close to replicating this experience, but such items are easily distinguishable from the real deal. And who would you be kidding? You would know it’s just a copy.

Other critics might say that it is just the music that matters; nothing should come between the listener and the contents of the album. I would, however, strongly disagree. The cover acts as a frame of reference, a starting point for your aural and visual experience with the particular album. The music can later become an entity of its own, but in your mind, the music it is forever wed to an image you have of the music, whether it is the cover artwork or the design on the CD itself. As the popularity of MP3s has risen, record companies and bands have taken further steps to increase the uniqueness of the actual album. More bands, such as Godspeed You Black Emperor, are putting tremendous effort into creating intricate cover designs, which include startling images and various inserts (reportedly Godspeed even went the distance to place a burnt matchstick in some of their packaging for the sake of originality), all in an untraditionally-sized casing — not your standard jewel case. Mainstream record companies and artists who include a DVD with short video features in the packaging of their albums have furthered this trend in a reaffirmation of the value of purchasing the original CD.

In the end, as much as the MP3 format has proliferated, there is no substitute for the possessing the bona fide album. Granted MP3s provide an excellent method to experiment with new bands and expand your music tastes in new directions, free from the monetary and emotional risk of buying an album and being dreadfully disappointed. But if you have any hope of establishing a permanent record collection on MP3, you’re missing the point.

Archived article by Andrew Gilman