March 2004

Give Me Just a Little More Time

When I got my first job about a year after I got out of college in 1979, I noticed an interesting phenomenon: the older people were, the more hesitant they were to buy into whatever new technology was ascendant. Answering machines, VCRs, CD players - - my friends and I were buying into these dazzling necessities, while my older co-workers were content to wait. Now that I have children and increased job responsibilities, I can understand why. There are more pressing details calling for my attention, and it takes longer for me to gauge how much that HDTV, say, would bring to my life.

That's about where I am with the whole question of downloading music. Now that iTunes and, especially, Wal-Mart have entered the market, it’s clear that the concept of downloading music to a computer is an appealing one to a lot of people, even when they have to pay for it. Someday I’ll probably be one of them. I do most of my music buying through the Internet anyway. There isn’t a single retailer in my town that carries vinyl and there are many titles that I can’t find on disc, even at our well-stocked Borders and Barnes & Noble.

I’m not a complete novice with MP3s. I’ve downloaded some bonus tracks from the Tragically Hip’s last disc, In Violet Light, and from Elvis Costello’s most recent, North. I even figured out how to convert them to .wav files so I could burn them to disc and play them on my CD players, none of which plays MP3s. I do have an inexpensive DVD player that plays MP3s and I did a quick comparison between the MP3s of the T. Hip tunes and the .wav CD. While they didn’t sound frustratingly bad in either format, I noticed a flatness in comparison to the original CD release. In addition, things sounded slightly off - - for example, the drums had less slam and kick. Nice to have the songs, since they’re not available elsewhere, but I hope to hear better-sounding versions someday.

It could be that my DVD player didn’t give me the full sonic potential of the MP3, and I’m sure one or two of you could point out ways that my .wav-based CDR shortchanged the tracks I burned. But the reason downloading music doesn’t hold any interest for me yet has nothing to do with sonics or convenience. And that reason kind of depresses me because it serves to reinforce my suspicion that I’m a middle-aged fogey.

As a collector, records and, to a lesser extent, CDs have always been something I enjoyed and cherished as a package. One of the things I like most about reissues by such companies as Sundazed, Four Men with Beards, and Classic Records is the care they put into reproducing the original record covers that housed those great recordings. CD boxed sets, especially those issued in LP-sized packages by Mosaic Records, provide some of that same enjoyment. Even standard-issue CD packages can be attractively designed, and many of them contain informative liner notes.

With MP3s, you get nothing but the music file. I did a search for on Wal-Mart’s download site for "Some Velvet Morning," a batty piece of '60s kitsch by Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra (Wal-Mart’s site didn’t require me to download software in order to do a search). They had a version by Vanilla Fudge, which I could download for 88 cents. For about ten bucks I could download the complete Vanilla Fudge best-of collection, but for about two dollars more (plus shipping), I could go to an online store and buy the collection on disc and get the cover art and song-title listing. Or, for 12.98 list, I could get the Sundazed CD reissue of Near the Beginning, where the band’s version of the tune originally appeared, and get a facsimile of the original cover art, plus new liner notes.

Instead, I went to eBay and got a copy of Nancy and Lee for about four bucks plus shipping and bid on a copy of Near the Beginning. I’ll get full-sized, well-worn LP covers to look over and one of them will have a way cool pic of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood. Am I laying too much stress on something that’s peripheral to the music? Maybe, but downloading takes away a part of what I like about collecting music. With all the music in my collection, I still get a small thrill when I cut the cellophane and remove the CD booklet - - and that’s nothing compared to the buzz I get when I carefully cut along the open edge of a sealed LP.

Downloading is already changing the way kids experience music -- they’re reverting to singles. That may not be a bad thing. One of the golden ages of pop songwriting, the mid to late '60s, was a time when singles still ruled. It’s too early to predict the effect downloading will have on music itself in the long term. All I know is that one of my favorite pastimes, going into a record store and rifling through stacks of records, savoring the artwork on the covers before I committed my dollars to a decision, is fading into the distant, distant past.

...Joseph Taylor

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