I was Strictly Discs a few nights ago. They’re a locally-owned CD shop in Madison who’s claim-to-fame for me is that they’ve got an extremely healthy collection of bootleg CDs.
I picked up a couple CDs while I was there and struck up a conversation with the guy working there about digital music. He made one of those points that is, on its face, obvious, but you just haven’t articulated for yourself, yet.
He said, “what’s that song you purchase worth when you buy it? .99 cents. What’s this record worth when it first came out (holding up a copy of Who’s Next)… $8 or $9? Now it’s worth more than $30.”
At first, I thought he was simply talking about the collectible nature of classic vinyl albums. But as I spent some time on it, I realized that he was talking about much more.
To many (dare I say, most), CDs and records are like books. Seinfeld had a riff about why people keep books after they’ve read them. But the fact is that they do. They’re like trophies. And when people come by, they often peruse the book shelf.
There’s something inspirational about a book. How many people purchase books they don’t read? But you’re not just purchasing a book. You’re purchasing a goal or an aspiration. You’re purchasing a to-do list.
CDs can be like that. Those with extensive collections are proud. Why do you think most CD racks are actually display cases? When people plan a room, extensive CD collections are usually in the planning.
I have purchased and downloaded many tracks. In fact, I just downloaded the new David Byrne/Brian Eno collaboration last night. But it’s just not the same. While the lack of sales is taking it’s toll on the music industry, I think the lack of CD purchases is taking it’s toll on me, the listener. The connection just isn’t there anymore. I’m not wedded to my music like I was. I used to take mental time to plan on what CDs would be in the car with me. Now I just bring the iPod. No thought necessary.
And maybe this comes from me being in marketing for so long, but to me, the packaging is an important part of the experience. Having a physical package with cover art, sleeve design, liner notes, etc. is a big part of becoming involved in the music. That sense of ownership made the entire contents of the album that much more valuable.
Cover art was also an excellent opportunity for artists to get their works in the public eye. Consider some of the great album covers of our time – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (Beatles)
Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd)
Ritual de lo Habitual (Jane’s Addiction)
In the Court of the Crimson King (King Crimson)
Brain Salad Surgery (Emerson, Lake & Palmer)
Taste of Honey (Ohio Players)
…to name a few. These not only put a visual image with every song contained on the album, but also serve as great memory and cultural cues for society, at large.
Cover art gave many artists access to a mainstream audience. That access is eroding quickly.
I’m not trying to draw a line in the sand and deny where music is heading. Hell, I’m helping to build a site that deals strictly in digital downloads. But I am lamenting the devaluation of THE SONG and THE ALBUM. I’ve been around long enough to have it both ways, and I’m hopeful, as we develop the new model for music, that we find a way to maintain the elements that made it so valuable, personal and fun.
*As extra reading, here’s an article about cover art by Adrian Shaughnessy that I really enjoyed reading. It’s not new, but it does see the issue similarly.