CD v. MP3

(Originally published in The California Aggie)

When was the last time you bought a CD?

Go ahead, take a minute to think about it. If you’re anything like me, you made your last purchase at an actual music store in middle school. You browsed the alphabetized stacks for Avril Lavigne, Foo Fighters or No Doubt, perhaps.

Then you got an iPod, set up an iTunes or Napster account and never looked back. With the invention of the iPod and other MP3 music-playing devices, the way we bought and listened to music changed, practically overnight.

But for some, that change still hasn’t come. A small subculture of diehard music lovers still exists deep in the stacks of CDs and records at the few traditional music stores that still exist. They’ve browsed the vast iTunes library, weighed the pros and cons of digital downloads and said, “No, thanks.”

On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon, Dimple Records in downtown Davis was mostly empty, save for half a dozen customers perusing the aisles of CDs, vinyl records and DVDs.

But first-year Sacramento City College students Madeline Hamaguchi and Steven Britton (the youngest in the store) explained that, for them, CDs enable a more complex and meaningful listening experience. Downloads, they pointed out, don’t offer supplementary material like the notes that line CD cases.

“I’m quite a music geek, so I like to see who’s playing what instrument and who wrote the songs. It tells just as much about the music,” Hamaguchi said emphatically. “Even the album art is lost on digital downloads. It’s an outlet for the artists. It tells you what to expect from the music.”

Britton added that the order of an album’s songs is also important for appreciating the music. iTunes enables listeners to ignore and change the artist’s intent.

“There’s a continuity [on CDs]. Songs can link together well,” he said. “There’s a way [the artist] wants you to listen to it.”

Britton has a point. In a culture that increasingly emphasizes user control and personalization of technological devices, to only be able to listen to your favorite songs in the specific way they are presented on a CD may seem shockingly primitive. Playlists have turned everyone into DJs: able to cut up and rearrange the work of others into something completely new.

Is this system more convenient for the listener? Most definitely. But is it conducive for honoring the integrity of music itself? Perhaps not so much.

Though countless sources have been reporting drops in CD sales coupled with impressive increases in sales of digital albums and single tracks for years, Dimple employee Joseph Costa said that he hasn’t noticed any significant decline in business. He pointed out that some types of music are only available in older formats, so there will always be a market for secondhand or outdated materials.

“Not everything is available in any one platform,” Costa explained. “Some country albums are only on 78s, while someone like Katy Perry may only be on iTunes.”

If you need proof that in fact not every song ever recorded can be found online, remember: The Beatles only recently put their collection on iTunes, and hundreds of other musicians have yet to make the switch. The digital music era, while off to an astronomical start, is still only in its infancy. Until every song has been digitized, CDs and records will remain viable options in the music retail industry.

Finally, there are those who continue to hang onto their CDs and vinyls just because they’re familiar. Sarah Motts, who shopped for records while dropping off her daughter at UC Davis, said she’s wary of new technology and is simply set in her ways.

“I like to listen to music the old-fashioned way – it’s my generation. I think it sounds better,” Motts said. “And I still have a really nice turntable.”

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