Thursday, March 29

Bridging the Media Gap

Here's what happens with new CDs that arrive at my house. I retrieve the package from the mailbox and take it over to the kitchen counter, where I rip/cut/slice it open. Then I take the disc to the living room and place it on a shelf where I store soon-to-be-listened-to music. When I finally get around to playing the disc, the case sits on the top shelf of my media cart, just above my DVD/CD player. Once I'm done with the disc downstairs, I take it upstairs and place it on a to-be-filed pile I have on a small stepladder. At some point the disc makes its way onto my CD storage shelving. I never really planned this system, it just emerged organically from the intersection of my listening habits and my physical space.

In sharp contrast to the above parade of atoms, I've been trying out my new AppleTV. Besides its video features, I'm using the device to stream music to my stereo. Already I can tell you that my MP3s sound much better than they did streaming through the Airport Express. And being able to control the experience directly from my A/V setup is a big plus.

Until recently, I've never felt anxious about my music collecting. But with all the stories these days about closing record stores and The Death of the Album, I sometimes feel like a luddite fool when I purchase an old dusty CD. The media is slowly marginalizing me, turning me into that weird old guy down the street who collects music on those round plastic things. How quaint I will seem in the future. Surely one day I'll feature in a quirky documentary titled CD Junkies. The truth is that I do occasionally purchase MP3s; I am not afraid. No doubt the AppleTV will nudge me more and more in the direction of digital downloads.

The album's demise doesn't concern me. I'll be glad to see albums become an aesthetic choice, instead of a marketing and distribution necessity. As for MP3s, I'm not even worried about sound quality, format obsolesence, or DRM. I think those issues will work themselves out eventually. No, it's the loss of a visual and tactile experience to accompany my music. I love album art, liner notes, lyric sheets, and nicely printed digipaks. I like holding those things in my hands while I listen. I have always argued that experiencing music involves more than just the sound. In a previous online life, I hypothesized that the iPod's success may, in part, be related to this desire for a physical manifestation of our music. I'm not all convinced that my theory is correct. Recently I've been wondering if physical media has somehow been artificially enhancing our connection with music. We perceive "value" in "things." Will people ever be able to truly value art that exists only as ephemeral data, a format intentionally designed with a built-in deletion imperative? Maybe that's a tiny evolutionary leap for the next generation.

Recently, design-conscious labels like Raster-Noton and Ghostly have tried to bridge the digital/physical divide by offering albums on memory sticks and SD cards. It feels like a stop-gap measure. I have little doubt that eventually digitally downloaded music will dominate the market. When CDs came along artists complained about the reduced canvas size, but eventually they found ways to leverage the five inch square format and turn out unique designs. My questions is: How is this going to work with downloaded music? We may lose the physical object, but can we replace it with something equally compelling in the digital realm? Sure, iTunes has been offering some digital booklets, but that's really just pasting old formats onto new systems. In a blog essay last year, David Byrne recognized the vast potential of what I'll call digital liner notes. Watching giant album art spin around on my 42" plasma screen, I'm catching a glimpse of the future.


Karen said...

i think a lot of us will find it hard to completely give up the object associated with a piece of music. there's no reason there has to be an object so you could argue that it distracts people from the music itself, but perhaps out of defensiveness about fetishing records and cds i don't think that's really an issue.

people who are ten years younger than me, much less twenty, etc. will grow up on ipods downloading and probably won't have the same hangups that i do. i don't think that will really be any worse, but it does make me sad to see something i enjoy slowly become obsolete.

Bruce said...


Thanks for commenting.

I think some of the more design-y labels will continue producing physical objects for a while to come, simply because there is a small group of enthusiasts that want it. But I do see music packing becoming even more of a marginal, specialized collector-centric endeavor than it is even now.

I wonder if bands will turn to other means in order to establish a physical presence. Are we in for even more badges and t-shirts? Or maybe something else altogether? How about a Junior Boys digital watch?

Karen said...

which brings up the topic of the u2 ipod - blech!

i wonder about that too, though there are a lot of other weird currents already running through the many sometimes awesome, sometimes incredibly crass new kinds of merch we sometimes see lately.

i used to think of the record as this thing i owned and a live performance as being special partly because it wasn't associated with a particular physical thing. i wonder whether people's attitude toward live shows would change if their way of looking at what music fundamentally had already changed.

anyway, i should have introduced my earlier comment by pointing out that this is a good, thought-provoking post. one of those things that you read and realize you had already kind of thought about this idea, but not quite that way or fully consciously.

Dan said...

I still buy CDs. From a store, even. I'm a member of iTunes, but have only purchased ten or so tracks, all of them unavailable in another format. I don't keep up with it, though. It's been months since I even considered looking for tracks to download. I used to use file-sharing programs but I don't any longer. I like my CDs and am happy to be old-fashioned.

Bruce said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce said...


I still buy plenty of CDs myself and I certainly don't go looking for more MP3s to download. I can barely keep up with the physical media. But I think eventually all us fans will have to face the day when music we want is available only via download. I can see this happening sooner for small indie labels that don't want to spend money on manufacturing and distribution.

I'm just praying that the software interfaces catch up in time, in terms of managing and browsing my MP3 library. The AppleTV is a decent first swipe, but amazingly it doesn't have iTunes Coverflow. It would be ideal if AppleTV had a controller like the Wii, that I could point at the TV and "flip" through albums and turn them over to see tracklists. I don't see that happening, considering Apple is definitely moving towards Multi-touch navigation. Too bad my TV isn't a giant touch screen.