Americans ever-so-slightly favored their music in digital rather than physical form in 2011. This is a first. It’s not a last. Physical albums declined five percent last year after declining 20 percent the previous year. Total digital sales rose by eight percent in 2011. Even Stevie Wonder can see where the trend lines lead.
At about the same time that America embraced digital over physical, I said goodbye to my compact discs. Like any good atavist, I did not step willingly into the future. I was pushed there by Santa Claus, who left an iPod in exchange for my being good for goodness sake in 2011.
Anticipating the future was much easier when I didn’t have as much of a past.
Cassettes overtook vinyl in 1983, but the previous year, with money from my paper route, I purchased Men at Work’s “Business as Usual” and Pete Townshend’s “All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes” as tapes at Lechmere Sales in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A decade later, CDs first outsold cassettes. But I had already upgraded to CDs in 1988 when I upgraded from Boston Globe paperboy to Fenway Park vendor. As with tapes, I couldn’t buy just one CD on my first shopping excursion. I splurged on The Police’s “Outlandis d’Amour,” Pink Floyd’s “Animals,” and REM’s “Eponymous” at a Record Town (my 1982 preference for current versus my 1988 purchase of back catalogue says much about the respective music scenes). Despite being ahead of the curve on cassettes and CDs, I am decidedly average in transitioning to digital.
I don’t know where my tape collection resides. My CDs will soon be joining them there. I have stored 300 albums on the computer since Christmas. I have since stored those 300 discs in unmarked brown boxes. My descendants will look upon the contents of those boxes as I would a Victrola.
The format changed from wax to magnetic tape to polycarbonate plastic. One constant remained: the primacy of the album. Billboard announced in 1968 that LPs had surpassed 45s in sales. Despite challenges from the ill-fated cassingle and 3-inch CDs, albums reigned triumphant. The iPod, and digital downloads, ensure that we are going back to the future. The binary code may not rotate 45 times per minute, but the marketing, distribution, and playing devices of digital music push consumers toward songs and away from albums.
The iPod just makes it too easy to skip from song to song. There’s no wait for the rewind or burden of rising to flip to side two. With every number in your collection at your fingertips, the device begs you to bounce around and overplay the great ones. The needle literally wore songs out so that you couldn’t. The iPod only figuratively wears them out.
Album art, marginalized in importance in the post-vinyl world, becomes almost meaningless shrunk from a foot-by-foot record sleeve to an inch-by-inch pixilated mini-me. The graphics are so tiny that it’s impossible to determine which member of The Beatles is walking barefoot on “Abbey Road” or what indecent act Keith Moon and friends have just completed on “Who’s Next.” Good for Apple for its “cover flow” feature allowing users to shuffle through a deck of album art work. But when small is the new big, it doesn’t leave much space for those arresting visuals that once served as the symbols of the music.
Most albums are merely collections of songs. But some strike the ear as sonically cohesive works, losing proper cadence even by tinkering slightly with the track listing. Think Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” or Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” in which the whole trumps any of its components, as the type of art lost to the digitized future. An iPod to an album is a razor blade to the Mona Lisa. It isn’t as beautiful cut into ten or twelve snippets.
Unlike physical sales, digital downloads witness singles trumping albums. Amid the benefits of having the ability to cherry-pick songs to download is the downside of the increased irrelevance of the deep cuts that really made the LP. What would “Sticky Fingers” be without “Sway,” “Houses of the Holy” without “No Quarter,” and “Achtung Baby” without “Ultraviolet”?
The album is but one victim of the iPod. Our older selves’ hearing, rich high fidelity yielding to tinny audio compression, and the transformation of music from a social activity to an anti-social one are among other overlooked casualties. Hearing the anarchic chorus of the 21st-century Walkmans on the subway is enough to make one wish for the return of the ghetto blaster to public transportation.
The good news is that after nearly a decade of decline, total album sales increased ever-so-slightly in 2011. Alas, the popularity of Adele, rather than a revival of the album, accounts for the turnaround. The LP is dying a slow death, and when it finally croaks the iPod people may not know what they have lost.
As my Boxing Day turns into Boxing Month, I decide that some albums won’t make the journey from compact disc to computer. They’ll just go straight into the brown box. What “nice price” sticker hypnotized me to buy Genesis’s “Invisible Touch”? Do I really own “Stadium Arcadium”? I recall liking Semisonic’s “Feeling Strangely Fine” in the 1990s but I don’t recall why. But the tragedy isn’t really this or that album falling down the memory hole. It’s the loss of the whole art form.