Virtual Nothings

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There was a time when finding new music and living on a budget meant visiting some out-of-the-way "used record store." In high school, this meant traveling with a friend from Lynchburg, VA to Roanoke, VA, about an hours drive. Yep, you had to go to the big city for such worthy intentions. Even in college, it meant a trip out-of-town for the "really good stuff." But you never knew where you might find something good - even a tobacco shop might include a stack of used gems, or, more typically, a gem buried amongst the Pablo Cruise and Leif Garrett rejects.

At these stores, other musicologists could quickly be distinguished from their Top 40 counterparts by both the sleight of hand flipping through troughs of albums and the familiarity with album covers which allowed such quick dismissal of the vast majority.

Those opportunities are becoming a distant memory. "Change" is a constant. I accept that. Most "change" occurs for good reasons. In the marketplace, it happens because something is improved, more cost effective, or more desirable for untold reasons. Admittedly, albums had ample flaws. They were bulky to collect. The covers faded over time with friction. Vinyl warped in heat or by storing horizontally for too long. With repeated plays and in the absence of cleaning, they began to lose a portion of the sonic spectrum and, if particularly mistreated, would hiss at their owners. Accidental impact to the record player, the furniture on which it rested, or even a heavy thump on the floor, caused the record player needle to scratch the vinyl, making a permanent reminder for a moment of carelessness. "Pops" were bad. "Skips" were the worst. The LP, (long playing record), allowed a maximum of about 50 minutes of music, 25 minutes per side. For all its faults, records in their various speeds and sizes served us capably for about 80 years.

So, when compact discs were released, the upgrade made sense. As CDs took a quarter of the physical space, improved audio significantly, doubled the possible music content, and were less sensitive to mishandling, the marketplace spoke. This was definitely for the better good, even at the loss of a poster in George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass," faux concert materials in The Who's "Live at Leeds," a working zipper on the Rolling Stones "Sticky Fingers," or changing pictures in windows as a sleeve was removed from Led Zep's "Physical Graffiti." The album art that was the packaging took a hit, certainly. But we paid for the music, not the cover. With change, "that was then, this is now" holds. I certainly didn't see albums being recycled as clocks and women's purses, but here we are.

Enter .mp3s. Virtual nothings. There are no insert booklets to dissect, so no lyrics, recording information, artist information, or included photos or artwork. Musically, digital is digital, so no improvement there, but then, it didn't need to improve. The packaging? Bowing to the demands of a green world, nonegoodbyeadios to art and presentation.

I have an i-Pod. It's slick. Small, portable, easy to use, ergonomic, simple to operate. Who can find fault with that? For 99% of its musical content, it's okay if my computer crashes. I have the songs "backed up" - not on another hard drive or memory stick, but on CD...yes, the CD, the latest soon-to-be anachronism. I can enjoy the best of both worlds, convenience on the go and the pleasure of analyzing the physical when desired.

I'm not so old that I can't see the future. New CD's at music stores? No need, forget about it! Just go worship at the altar of I-tunes or one of the lesser gods, and your needs will be met. Used-CD stores... Sorry kids. It's a waste of gas to get there, and you can hack what you want from the Net. Musicians don't mind; they want you to steal their work because its best that they get no proceeds rather than to let the evil corporations get most of it. [Returning to subject...] eBay will be the last commercial repository for the archaic spinning platters of music.

Ah, but for now! Each Tuesday, I can go to Best Buy and look for new releases, typically at a discount price. If the release doesn't fit the "average sale window" criteria of the big box store, the flotsam and jetsam can always be found at the big river, Amazon, whose current sweeps by my house.

But the times they are a-changin'. Peaceful coexistence, it seems, is passé. CD racks are becoming an island of misfit toys, and some holes are sprouting in the dikes. What's causing this? A cursed, "we will assimilate you" form of the digital download. This nefarious rascal has enough corporate swagger to actually insert itself into a CD bin - Hello? That's made for CDs, not something...else. It's called "The Platinum Music Pass." It's basically a credit card to download the .mp3 files for what would otherwise be known as an album or a CD, but with additional (bloody daggers in the backs of CD collectors) bonus content in both audio and video. Sadly, the Army Corp of Engineers is... immersed, we'll say, in other matters.

So please, don't taunt us dinosaurs. We know we're doomed; we just want to forage for a little bit longer in our native habitat. We suffer enough with pimple faced teens offering help finding something sorted alphabetically. Allow us our space in our remaining days, and let us leave with dignity when the last bin is emptied.

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