what does it all mean? (regarding digital downloaded music, i mean)

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.


4 Responses to “what does it all mean? (regarding digital downloaded music, i mean)”

  1. August 19, 2008 at 3:46 pm

    I thought you’d appreciate this:


    I think there is a very stark divide in consumer preference between the collectors and the ascetics. I know lots of guys like you that take pride in their DVD/CD/book/etc collections. Lots of others, like me, generally see packaging as wasteful marketing crap.

    I still buy CD’s when it is the most convenient way to get at the music (in a way that pays the artist) but toss the disk, case, etc (or give it away) the second the music has been moved to my computer. Same with books, though I always give those away, as opposed to throwing them away after reading. You’d have to charge me less to buy a DVD than to rent it just because the burden of doing something with it instead of returning it after viewing it is a real cost in my mind.

    In general, I don’t want the responsibility of having to do something with the package after I’ve consumed the contents. And I’ve never really connected with the appeal of showing off trophies.

    I’d argue there are roughly the same number of consumers falling into both camps.

    So I’m just pointing out that many of us actually place MORE value on a product that adds LESS responsiblity/clutter/marketing to our lives.

  2. 2 Jon
    August 19, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    That cartoon is fantastic. Worthy of its own post (wait for it…).

    As for your comments, it’s hard to measure which camp would have more consumers, though I agree it’s probably equal. I think part of it is habit, too. If you started on vinyl and cassettes and then moved to CD, it’s hard to have nothing that accompanies the music. But I certainly respect those who fit your description. In fact, I married one. She’d toss the entire CD/DVD/vinyl and (you’ll enjoy this) comic collection, if I left her alone in the house for more than a few hours.

    For me, it’s actually closely tied to sound quality. The idea of dumbing it down to MP3s and giving up the rich sound of vinyl bugs me a bit. But given the amount of time and the kind of time I have to listen to music these days – sound quality really doesn’t matter anymore.

    But I will say, and this relates back to the comic, that it’s the content of the collection that matters to me, not the size of it. I don’t think less of anyone for their musical tastes, though, because taste is just that. And it’s different for everyone.


  3. 3 Austin
    January 14, 2009 at 8:04 am


    Im currently writing a these with the topic “with the advances in technology, is the album cover a dying cause?”.
    Would anyone have any information that would guide me with my research. All help would be much appreciated.

  4. 4 Robert Maynard
    February 17, 2009 at 7:00 am

    Besides the divide between collectors and regular consumers that eltigrenumerouno mentions, I don’t necessarily see the collectors “way of life”, of assembling peacock/bowerbird displays of music collections, fading away. It’s just changing form.
    When you see how programs like iTunes respect album covers with their Cover Flow setup, and sometimes offer certain tracks only with a purchase of the full album, I just don’t agree that digital music distribution is eroding or devaluing the album, nor is it making it harder to take pride in assembling, organising and displaying a large collection. I think we’re still just in a transitional period between the old ways and the ways to come. 🙂

    I don’t see why the stereo setups of the near-future can’t or won’t just become ways to both listen to AND browse a collection, together as one. Technically it’s already possible, if you had cash to throw around and were enough of a tech geek enough to put in the time. Functionally speaking all you’d need to have is a stereo linked up to a terabyte-scale hard drive (or just networked to a computer setup), and an average sized screen and interface you and guests could use to browse the collection, look at all the pretty cover art, and then just play it without any messing around with sleeves or plastic cases.
    In fact, the whole reason I stumbled on this entry is because I was looking for cover art of Dark Side to put in my iTunes playlist, and the one here was the highest resolution one I could find.

    The basic way it IS hurting albums is in how it is streamlining the old hobby of mixtapes – rendering it painless and fun to assemble your own custom playlists. But with all respect for albums, I refuse to impugn freedom and convenience. 😛

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