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the rockin' debate: CD's vs. MP3s vs. vinyl. let's get it on.

July 21, 2007

Going into a record store for this first time in my life was a defining moment for me. It was the mid to late eighties, and I was barely tall enough to peruse the racks of 45s, cassette tapes, and 8 tracks. I think I came away with 2 45s that day to take home and play on my Disney record player: Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach and Hank William’s Jr.’s Tear in my Beer. It was a strange childhood, I know.

Fast forward to 1989, when my music catalog was a bit broader, and I had my tape collection: more Madonna, Depeche Mode, Young MC, and Michael Jackson. I’d take the inserts out of the cassette cases and learn every word printed in there. I’d hit stop and rewind to keep experiencing my favorite parts. And sometimes, the tape would get eaten.

Now it’s 1991. I have my first CD player, and I can vividly remember my first trip to buy CDs. My dad took me to Blockbuster Music, and after an extensive, wide eyed examination of every slot in the one row of CDs that were available at that time, I came away with: The Beatles’ Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, a Johann Sebastian Bach collective, and Guns ‘N Roses Use Your Illusion I. As written before, those CD longboxes were a powerful piece of marketing material for me-little pieces of art.

Those longboxes didn’t last very long. Then, for 10 years, we lived happily in CD land. Sure, we bitched about prices, scratched CDs, and the like. But we bought more and more of them, having extensive shelves to hold all of their cases in a prominent place in our homes next to our TVs. I, like many of my friends, had a souped up sound system in my car where from age 15-24 I shared with any car in close proximity exactly what CD I was listening to. Boom boom.

In 2002 or so, things changed. I remember going to a college party and hearing someone playing a burned mixed CD, and I remember that my gut reaction was, this is going to change things. First it was just that one friend in your group bought a CD and then made copies for everyone. Then, it was downloading songs and making mixed CDs. I can remember the first time I did it, downloading random, old songs that I would never shell out the money to buy the whole CD for. And when I put it in my car for the first time- what was initially excitement in hearing a song from my past was drowned out by horrible sound quality, cut off songs, weird high pitched noises, even skipping. Not the kind of thing you want to play loud.

Granted, downloading music has improved over the years, particularly if you do it legally. But I still can’t help but wonder if we’re just getting used to a diminished experience. Sure- it’s cheaper, you get only the songs you want, and it’s instant gratification. But what about seeing the album art and that rounding out your music experience of the album? Or reading the liner notes? Or having a full album and hearing tracks you wouldn’t have know about otherwise? Or going to the record store, and getting a great recommendation?

I can only talk about this debate in the context of my own personal experience, and what I feel like I’m missing out on. Many are chiming in on chastising the record industry for not coming up with a solution to stealing music. It’s not an easy problem to fix. What would make you go back to paying for music when you’ve been getting it for free?

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