By Craig Playstead for MSN.com
I used to get a rush when I bought music. Growing up, I’d ride my 10 speed about seven miles into town to Rainy Day Records, and passionately flip through their used vinyl just hoping to unearth a jewel. And if I had enough money in my pocket, I’d spring for a new tape of one of my favorite bands. Now, that magic is completely gone.
The local record store is, for the most part, a thing of the past. Buying music in today’s broadband world takes all the magic out of what used to be a life-shaping experience. Who didn’t love spending hours looking for that perfect band in the store, and then making the big decision to purchase? You get home, throw it on, sit back and listen while reading the liner notes and looking at whatever twisted images and covers the band cooked up. It took you somewhere else. It wasn’t just the music, it was the whole experience.
Now, music is bought by subscribing to an online music service and downloading pretty much anything you might even have a slight interest in. There are no pictures, liner notes, investment or mystery. If you don’t like it, you delete it. Like it never happened.
An even worse evil is the option of buying tracks one at a time. At least 45’s had a B-side (if you don’t know what 45’s are, just go back to playing “World of Warcraft”). If you listen to music with any depth at all, you know the gems on the CD aren’t the hits; they’re the B-sides and tracks that don’t get radio play. Can you imagine only downloading “Sounds Like Teen Spirit” on Nirvana’s “Nevermind?” You would have missed classic songs such as “Lithium”, “Come as You Are”, and “Breed.”
I can remember rummaging through the used vinyl one day at Rainy Day when I asked the guy behind the counter what was playing. He got up from polishing the water bongs long enough to give me a 15-minute sermon about U2, and the record was “Boy.” You just can’t find music that way anymore, and it’s a crime. Those guys who used to hold court in record stores are a thing of the past as well. In normal society, they were freaks. But in that store they were philosophers, professors, and usually too cool to talk to you.
I don’t want to come off like a bitter old man. Haven’t seen 40 yet, and I love technology. I’ve made my living for many years from emerging technologies and how they deliver content. I just hate when the soul out of something meaningful is ripped out. Now, that being said, technology has helped some bands get out there that never would have otherwise. But the trade-off hasn’t even been close.
Music, in general, is pretty disposable today. Record companies are too afraid to take a chance on greatness, deciding to package bands up like the crap on American Idol. What we end up with is music that sounds more like a car commercial than art, and people that act like shills for a moment in the spotlight, instead of artists and actual rock stars. And the disposable way we buy music sure hasn’t helped this.
Great music is as much about the feeling you get when you listen, study the lyrics, or see your band. It’s about reading the liner notes and coming across something you didn’t know. It’s about investing in yourself. It’s about attitude. Gun’s N’ Roses, “Appetite for Destruction” wouldn’t have been the same if you couldn’t see the insane pictures of the band in the CD insert, which basically validated every crazy story we ever heard. And who would have known that Gene Simmons of KISS played a big part in discovering Van Halen if the liners notes in their debut album didn’t thank him?
There is one additional gripe, and it’s driving musicians nuts. The quality of what passes for mp3’s is terrible. The majority of the digital music you hear over your computer sounds like it recorded in some stoner’s basement, with a tinny sound that screams "there's more music than I can handle here!!" Most people don’t even realize this until they actually hear the music as the band intended. Neil Young and a few others are taking on this fight right now.
I’m such a music and technology freak that I’m guilty of buying my music digitally over the internet at times, but I still buy the CD of my favorite bands. There’s a little spring in my step as I race into the store and a skip in my heart when I see what I’m looking for on the shelf. While it seems you need to be a Navy SEAL to get the protective wrapper and that damn sticker off the case, I still tear it apart like a kid. Then I pour over the pictures and liner notes while deciding if this CD will change the way I look at the world.
While I may seem like some old guy who used to love roaming record stores in the 80’s, I still think as technology continues making things better, faster, and cheaper, we need to keep one eye open and see what we’re sacrificing. What good is cheaper, better, and faster if lose the soul?
(This piece originally ran on MSN.com in 2010.)
photo via (CC BY-SA 2.0)