It Is What It Is.

Musical Chairs

 An Essay by Steven J Holetz

Last week I got an email from a co-worker that I found extremely disturbing. It contained a link to an
article from the New York Times, which recapped the dismal state of music Compact Disc sales. It also
posited the theory that Christmas 2007 would be the last that big box stores such as Best Buy and Target
would be selling CDs in a serious fashion before they begin to phase them out. As a music fan, this was
like getting an electronic bucket of cold water poured down my back.

Of course, I have seen first hand the deaths of the 45, the vinyl LP, the 8 track, and the audio cassette
already in my lifetime. So the idea of yet another change in the popular format of recorded music
shouldn’t surprise me in the least. I absorbed the last big change from casette to CD pretty much with a
shrug, actually buying a few before I even had a player. It was a fait accompli. But to me, the big difference
this time is that the new format is a digital handful of magic beans. Want to buy the latest musical works?
Pay your money and download some files! We'll even thorw in a thumbnail of cover art!

This is an absolute deal killer for me. I simply can’t get my head around the concept of paying $9.95 for
ether. And I can’t abide the possibility of losing thousands of dollars of collected music collection if my
hard drive gets smoked.Yeah, yeah, I know how to back up my shit, and I know how to burn a cd.
But that’s not the point. It’s just another hoop I will have to jump through to enjoy the music I buy
going forward. At the risk of sounding like the curmudgeon that I am rapidly becoming, I am just not
that comfortable with spending good money on the intangible. Too many of the parts that used to
make an album experience great are lost this way. Not the least of which is the album art itself.

 This has been a long downhill slide since the LP went R.I.P.  Once you could put on a record and
stare at the cover art for hours. Following along with the lyrics, reading the liner notices, soaking up
the little artistic details, basically immersing yourself in the musical experience the artist was trying to
convey. Gatefold? Oh, Hell Yes! Now you are fortunate to even get liner notes with a cd. It is more
often the case at present that all you get is a folded insert of credits, and a link to the band’s website.

But here is a recent example of a fully realized cd experience. On a recent visit to my local store,
I noticed that Nine Inch Nails had a new CD out. I no longer listen to Trent Reznor as much as
I used to, but I still dig his stuff and try to keep up with his work. The first thing that caught my eye
about Year Zero was the warning on the back label of the digipak: 

Consuming or spreading this material may be deemed subversive by the United States Bureau of Morality.
If you or someone you know has engaged in subversive acts or thoughts, call: 1-866-445-6580

Awesome! The cd was nicely priced at 13.99, so I threw it in the basket. I get back to the office and
open it up. When I lay my thumb across the black surface of the cd, it changes white. WTF? I lay my
whole hand on the cd and all the text disappears revealing a completely white surface marred only by
 a series of zeroes and ones across its face. When converted to ASCII, the code reveals a website,, which appears to detail the surveillance of private citizens by some nefarious government
organization. As I listen to the cd, I am immersed in the negative utopian vision of an America 15 years
hence, where the government is spiking the water supply with a drug called parepin in order to keep
the populace docile, amidst efforts of resistance. The cd booklet reveals clues pointing to other websites,
further expanding the story. Calling the toll free number in the USBM warning treats you to a chilling
message informing you that the chip in your recently purchased media has been activated, and that you
are now being tracked as a subversive!

I was surprised and thrilled to find Year Zero to be an amazingly deep concept album, displaying Reznor’s
finest music since Broken. This is coupled with a supremely compelling open-ended storyline reminescent
of Brave New World, 1984, or The Matrix. The level of thought, effort and creativity that went into this
release is tremendous. I just don't see how this level of presentational richness and artisitc detail can be
possible from a music download alone.

Yet while I bemoan the state of things, it occurs to me that even I am actually part of the problem.
 I am not exactly alien to the concept of downloading shared music (cough, cough), it is not my habit
to do so. I still buy the CDs from my favorite bands immediately upon their release, either at a store or
directly from their website, in order to support the music I love. With the saddening fold of the once
mighty Tower Records, a chain that had a huge impact on my musical upbringing, it has never been
more apparent or important that I spend my money at local music stores. I am well aware that if I
don’t support the Silver Platters, Easy Street Records, and Sonic Booms of the world, (buy shit
from them!) they won’t be around long.

In the end I simply do not buy as many CDs as I used to. When I do, I am as likely to trade
for it on, or buy it used somewhere for half  to a third of the new retail price. Of course
the savings is a factor, but another impetus is that my music collection has reached critical mass.
After 20 years of collecting I now own close to 1500 prerecorded CDs from almost every genre
of music, so anymore there are fewer holes in my collection. And no matter how much I love
Back in Black
or Kind of Blue, I don’t need a third version of those albums.    

So it appears we are at an impasse. For many reasons we are no longer buying music the way
we used to, and the music industry is evolving accordingly. Perhaps the Compact Disc will become
a boutique business primarily for collectors the way vinyl has, and I will be still be able to enjoy
music as I have become accustomed. Or more likely this is just the first of many depressing yet
inevitable signs that I am getting older, and the world is moving on without me.


  Copyright  2007 Steven J Holetz

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