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Whatever the format it’s all music, so go outside and get some

January 26, 2012

Earlier this month, I came across a short piece on CBC’s website pointing out that 2011 was the first year ever in which digital download music outsold any physical media format. According to the Mother Corp, a Nielsen SoundScan year-end report found that 50.3 of all music sold (to say nothing of that which is procured through less commercial means) was in digital form, including one out of every three albums.

I'm sure my copy of this 1983 Van Morrison album was pressed on a garbage bag.

I also recall reading somewhere that 2012 might be the last year for CDs to be mass-produced. I’m not sure about this particular report, though I’m guessing the death knell for the format that everyone now loves to hate isn’t far off.

LPs are making a comeback, at least as a cottage industry, but I doubt we’re looking at it as a major force. I’m guessing the digital, non-CD version of music is what we’re stuck with for the foreseeable future.

I love the 20th century sound, but I can’t justify the 21st century prices. I admit I’m not enough of an audiophile. (I did see a vinyl pressing of my favourite album, Rheostatics’ Whale Music, at a local shop, which I might have to shell out for.)

One thing about the LP I love and missed through this digital age is the packaging. The large cardboard covers seemed more like art, and the lyrics and liner notes were large enough to read. I used to listen to album sides from start to finish and scour the covers for the words to songs and to find out which musicians were playing on which tracks. I never really did this the same way with CDs.

I also think the LP encouraged the “album” as its own art-form, whereas CDs and MP3s have taken us back to where albums are simple a holding tank, a mere collection of songs.

As far as sound quality, sure analog was warmest, CDs were cleaner but more sterile and MP3s a more stripped down version of CDs. In defence of the hated CD, when they hit the market, they were a marked improvement over the LPs that were being pressed in the 1980s. It wasn’t the 180-gram virgin stuff they use now. Generally, it weighed in under a hundred grams. Here, in Canada, I think they were pressing music on Glad garbage bags. I recall how a roommate and I each had the same brand-new Van Morrison album. He’d bought his in the U.S. , and it felt like an old 1960s pressing by comparison.

By the 1980s, you’d buy LPs and pull them out of the sleeve (ah, the record sleeve, the album jacket. Such great phrases. Right out of Mad Men!) and they’d be warped, with skips and pops, and be damned near unlistenable. (Sure, a few pops and crackles when you first put the needle on is nice, but I don’t want to hear them throughout; that’s akin to saying you like mould on your food because it adds flavour.)

But I digress. I don’t really know how I feel about the expected death of the CD. I still own a ton of them and haven’t ripped many to my computer. I should point there’s a great book chronicling the demise of the recording industry called Appetite for Self-Destruction. I was planning to write about it here, but I’ll save it for another time because I’ve gotten so far off track. In short though, the book covers how the music industry shot itself in the foot in just about every way possible over the last 30 years.

The one sure thing I do miss about the way music is consumed and heard is the effect it’s had on the local record shop. I try to go to Zulu whenever I get back to Vancouver, and I’ve been to great stores in the U.S., like Music Millennium in Portland, Amoeba in Hollywood, the Downtown Music Gallery in New York or the Louisiana Music Factory in New Orleans, but these places are becoming rare. Museums preserving what’s left of a way of life.

Since I was a little kid, record-shopping has been my favourite activity (with book-shopping a close second), but I guess one of these years I’ll have no other choice but to sit and “cocoon” at my home computer or tablet or whatever toy we’re using when I want to get some new music.

A final thought: Isn’t the point of a cocoon to go inside as a squirmy, little caterpillar, stay for awhile and then emerge as a beautiful butterfly that can fly the world over?

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From → Essays

One Comment
  1. Kenny G permalink

    Some of my fondest memories of growing up in small town Grimsby, Ont. were trips made into Toronto to search for hard-to-find vinyl at Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street. The sight of the iconic neon sign outside the store was awe inspiring. We’d spend hours walking the aisles looking for copies of Teenage Head, anything British and punk, Iggy Pop, Diodes, and, for me, early Todd Rundgren. My mother, on a trip to Holland, found me a vinyl copy of Runt, the only album I still have to this day.

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