A couple of days ago, while discussing EMI music exec Alain Levy’s announcement that the CD as we knew it was dead, Kirk wrote this: “music lovers shrugged and loaded more songs onto their iPods.”
Perhaps. But that’s not necessarily the right reaction. Last time I checked, I’m a music lover, and I did neither (of course, part of the reason is that my Nano’s battery keeps acting up, but that’s another story). I actually think that the death of the CD is a potentially bad thing for music lovers. We’re the ones who could easily get the shaft from the wholesale transition to digital music.
Here are five reasons why music lovers — even ones who have abandoned the format years ago — should worry about the death of the CD:
- Sound quality. Lest we forget, mp3z don’t sound as good as CDs. Especially commercial downloads, which are usually compressed down to 128 kbps. The analog here is cassette tapes. Yes, cassette tapes were more portable and eventually outsold vinyl, and they sounded worse and were essentially disposable. Also, eventually, bandwidth and storage will be cheap enough that we will be able to keep and stream uncompressed digital music in our homes. Unless, of course, you’ve gone totally compressed.
- Cover art, liner notes, artist information. Sure, the days of staring at album covers or even unfolding CD covers are long gone: nowadays, you can dial up an artist’s website or MySpace page while you are listening to their album. But who listens to albums as albums anymore? By the time you might muster up the energy to learn more about that cool song, it might already be gone. Or you may be in your car. And a lot of artists’ websites are long on the sell and short on the information that we used to get from the liner notes.
- DRM. While the record companies have put some copy protection on their CDs, by and large it has ended up a failed experiment. It’s far far easier, however, to lock people into their DRM schemes with digital music. As Kirk has also pointed out, DRM is viral. This scares me. Yes, you can stand on principal and only purchase non-DRM’d digital music, or music from iTunes, where you can get around the code. So the upshot is that you end up being able to enjoy a fraction of the music out there. I realize that, realistically, I can only ever listen to a small portion of the music out there, but I’d rather have that as much choice as possible as to what that fraction is. Otherwise, the Long Tail gets shortened by DRM.
For example, if you are a long-time Beck fan, your principles might keep you from hearing his new album, because the only digital versions are DRM’d. Or wait for your friend who purchased the CD give you a backup for safekeeping. But when the CD is gone and the next Beck album is only available via DRM’d sites, what are you going to do?
- Backups. Let’s not forget even for those of us who instantly rip everything, a CD is an instant high-quality backup of our mp3z. Since the prices are just about And as far as the “trouble” it takes to rip a CD, last time I checked — Beck’s Information — it took approximately 2-3 minutes to rip a CD. No trouble at all.
Ironically, I spend wayyyyyyyy more time organizing my digital music collection than I ever did with my vinyl or CDs. You have to make sure that everything is tagged correctly, put into the right directories, and wait as everything is moving back and forth across the network. And hoo boy, if you accidentally drag something to the wrong directory, good luck finding it.
- Choice. I touched upon this earlier when I was talking about DRM. I think that anything that limits my choices as a consumer is bad. Even back in the bad old cassette days, I purchased some, just because I knew that there were certain situations in my life where buying a cassette of Live at Leeds or London Calling for my car was the right answer. Nowadays, I download some things and I buy the CD of other things. I like having that choice, and I think that my power as a consumer will be greatly diminished when that choice finally goes away, and I am stuck with the very very flawed digital distribution model.
What’s the answer? I don’t know. Lower prices and no DRM for a start, as if that’s going to happen. And it’s not like the CD in and of itself isn’t flawed, what with the artificially high prices and the potentially dodgy lifespan. I do know this, however: when I switched from vinyl to CD, it was an actual switch — after I bought my first CDs after purchasing hundreds of albums, I only ever purchased one ever again. And that was because it wasn’t available on CD at the time. (Ironically, that album — The Ex-Cat Heads’ Our Frisco — finally came out on CD last year.)
Still, despite all of their flaws, CDs were so obviously a better distribution system than vinyl or cassette, I made the transition and never looked back. This time, I’m not so sure that trading one flawed model for another flawed is the best thing for music lovers.