This Christmas, I entered the 21st century -- or, more precisely, was given an iPod, which is essentially one and the same. Small, portable digital media players haven't quite reached the universal status of the cell phone but Apple has sold some 42 million units of the iPod since its release in 2001. In my circles, it seems to be fast approaching indoor plumbing as a staple of modern convenience.
The appeal is easy to understand. The iPod and its competitors make the old Sony Walkman or even a portable CD player seem like lugging around a huge old-fashioned tape recorder by comparison. The headphones are too small to attract unwanted attention. The hustle and bustle of the daily commute doesn't cause much skipping or otherwise interrupt the music flow. You can easily alternate between tracks, quickly switching from sleepy acoustic singer-songwriters to thumping hip-hop beats as your mood dictates.
Yet I've long resisted the iPod's siren song and if it weren't for the Christmas present, I doubt I would have owned one anytime soon. It's not because of any latent Luddite tendencies -- I come from an IT background and spend most of my day on the computer. Nor was it sticker-shock from the price of the little gadget, now quite competitive with other media. It's just that the whole process of downloading music, to be listened to on my laptop or on an MP3 player, seems a bit... well, wrong.
Not because of Napster-style patent disputes. I'm not sure where I come down on the internal libertarian debate over intellectual property, but it's hard to feel sympathy for pop stars and record companies raking in the millions from overpriced CDs and concert tickets. Ask me to choose sides between a few college kids strapped for tuition or beer money who want to download music from their buddy Poindexter's server and Metallica, those poor and thirsty college students are going to win every time.
But digital music downloads ignore and even do violence to important parts of the music-fan experience. Music, in my view, isn't just something to be listened to. Music is something to collect. I have a four-foot tower of CDs in my bedroom with a few dozen outliers sitting on my kitchen counter. I own several cases of cassettes -- remember those? -- a couple hundred vinyl LPs and, buried somewhere in my parents' home, a few eight-track cartridges. And for true collectors, this represents a pitifully meager selection.
Not only is it difficult to fathom the possibility that for all the time, space and money I wasted collecting now-obsolete recordings, I could have reserved just a fraction of my hard drive space. Where does collecting factor into our digital media music craze? Twenty years from now, is anybody going to be admiring your Black Eyed Peas audio files?
When I visit friends and relatives, one of my favorite activities is to peruse their record collections. If they have anything interesting, questions ensue. Oh, you have the limited-edition two-LP Something/Anything? by Todd Rundgren, with the one blue record and the one red record? You have Roy Orbison 45s or the old Readers' Digest swing-music box sets? Some early, digitally remastered CD reissues of the Beatles U.S. albums?
Looking through someone's assembled records and CDs tells you something interesting about their tastes and, in some cases, their lives. It's edifying to learn where a cousin got his autographed copy of Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde signed. Sitting at a friend's computer to browse through his MP3s, on the other hand, feels more like scanning a soon-to-be-fired employee's C drive for pornography.
Shuffling through someone's digital media playlist is only slightly more satisfying. These are all isolated songs that they may have heard once somewhere, without any knowledge of the artist who recorded them or reference to the albums from which they came. A 22-year-old with all of Queen's CDs is someone with refined, if somewhat unorthodox, tastes. A 22-year-old with "Bohemian Rhapsody" on her iPod is someone who once saw Wayne's World.
Yes, I know these kinds of fuddy-duddy complaints have been bandied about by old-school fans with each new technological innovation. Stars of the silver screen feared that television would ruin entertainment. The Buggles wrongly sang that "Video Killed the Radio Star."
Eventually people were going to stop all those expensive full-length albums with only one or two good songs on them, or those greatest-hits packages missing just enough of the artist's best-loved tunes to force fans to buy another album or two. A few years after the introduction of the CD, nobody missed the eight-track player. Perhaps we're not far from the day when CDs are consigned to a similar fate.
In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy playing with my iPod. And maybe get that old turntable working again.
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