Internet music subsumes record stores: blessing or curse?

Download music subsumes record storesI just learned that April 19, 2008 was Record Store Day, an opportunity to celebrate independent record stores. As record stores slowly vanish across the country, it is revealing that April 19 came and went with little fanfare. Perhaps, like me, the event was invisible to you, too. And I’m sorry I missed it, because I value the place of music stores in our culture. But it got me thinking about how music is accessed and sold these days.

I’m not fond of vinyl — I don’t miss the pops and clicks, or the way that dust balls would build up in front of the needle and cause the sound to crackle — but those large album sleeves allowed for some wonderfully inventive packaging back in the day that can’t be done with CDs. I remember the surprise of opening Alice Cooper’s School’s Out. The cover was the surface of one of those old grammar school desks and lifted up like the lid of the desk to reveal the interior. The record was nested inside a slinky pair of pink girl’s paper panties, which you had to slip off to play the record. Then there was Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick, packaged with a fictional small town paper, “The St. Cleve Chronicle.” It was a crafty satire of a provincial newspaper replete with articles, TV listings, advertisements, a crossword – even a lascivious connect-the-dots puzzle – all oozing with irony. It read like a novel, with the same characters reappearing in different sections.

The Internet offers a wonderful way to discover, sample and purchase music, no doubt about it. It’s a great improvement over the experience most of us have had of buying a new CD and finding out you only like two of the ten songs. And the Internet has really expanded the opportunity for independent artists to reach a wider audience than ever before. But in making snap judgments after listening to a snippet of music online, we also lose the ability of songs to grow on us. We’re like kids dazzled by neon crayons, and we risk passing over subtler but richer hues. There is the danger that music becomes less about artistry and more about commodity.

Another problem is the reduced audio quality of MP3s, a digital format whereby much of the original audio signal is discarded in order to compress the file size and facilitate digital storage, downloading and other transfers. We’ve sacrificed quality for convenience. I confess, though, I love being able to shuffle songs on my iPod. The unpredictability keeps the music fresh for me. But it’s not without a price.

As we increasingly rely on downloadable music, I worry about what we lose. I still like the experience of going to record stores: the physicality of the merchandise, the role of chance and being exposed to something accidentally. Erykah Badu has a marvelous music video of the song “Honey” from her recently released album. An anonymous customer (actually Erykah, but her face is never shown) browses vinyl in a record store, and different classic album covers come alive with images of Erykah. It’s a witty video that captures the magic of the experience. The video ends with a message scrolling across the bottom of the screen: “Support your local record store!!!!!” I couldn’t have said it better.

[Public domain image from www.clker.com]

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