Roll Over Beethoven

By Robert MacMillan Staff Writer
Friday, August 26, 2005; 9:15 AM

When my friend Jennifer was in a band a few years ago, she sang a song called "Buying Records Won't Make Me Feel Better."

For a long time I thought that was pretty funny. When I'm feeling down, nothing spurs a recovery like dropping $50 on a couple of CDs. Like any addiction, however, the negative consequences manifest themselves in the long term.

I am discovering this as I try to figure out what goes where in my new apartment. The last place had a walk-in pantry that never saw a crumb of food. The shelves, dontcha know, were just the right size for storing the hundreds of CDs that didn't fit into my two 350-count plastic towers. Space is tighter in the new digs, and after unboxing and realphabetizing, I'm discovering that titles "A" through "H" fit just fine. That leaves tremendous quantities of music to house.

I'm thinking of buying a couple of those massive CD wallets, but then what will I do with all that front and back cover art, not to mention the track listings that don't always show up on the disc face?

If you're a regular reader and think this conundrum sounds familiar, you're right. Eleven days ago, I wrote about my ongoing problems figuring out a way to transfer my vinyl collection to a more portable format -- not so I could trash my LPs but so I could preserve them by not playing them so much. (Don't give me the line about people in the world who have real problems; it's not like I'm fretting over who fished my number out of Paris Hilton's cell phone.)

As of this morning, the albums have a home on the living room shelves, while the "I" through "Z" CDs sit in boxes in the computer room. It's at this juncture that I read a story by my colleague at The Washington Post newspaper, Yuki Noguchi, that makes me feel like I'm giving myself a headache over useless museum pieces.

Yuki wrote about the band Sun, which plans to release its first album next month on DVD, the Internet and vinyl (of all things). The one format it won't show up is on CD. The vinyl situation is easy to explain away: The retro crowd, as we've noticed during the past several years, digs vinyl, allowing the music industry the perverse ability to sell music at an even higher price than compact discs.

According to Perry Watts-Russell, senior vice president at Warner Bros. Records Inc., this is a step along the way of changing the entire concept of an album that many of us grew up with.

More from Yuki's piece: "Watts-Russell... acknowledges that all-video and all-Internet distribution changes the definition of the word 'album' -- a sequenced body of songs with heavy emphasis on the all-important cover art. 'I think the gestalt of having an album has been changing on its own, with or without this change,' he said. 'A few years from now, this is going to be exceedingly common,' Watts-Russell said. 'You can avoid the CD. It's on its way out. It's in no way out now, but the writing is on the wall.'"

This isn't terribly surprising, especially to someone who has reported and edited stories on file-sharing, piracy and the shifting fortunes of the recording industry for several years. But as I drift deeper into my fourth decade on this earth and as a music lover, the stone-cold facts underpinning Watts-Russell's assessment make me think that future generations are going to miss something amazing because of what the Internet is doing to listening habits.

Some of my favorite albums came out before I was born, but it was only six and seven years before 1973 that people started thinking of albums as a cohesive unit. I'm thinking in this case of "John Wesley Harding," "Abbey Road," "Berlin" -- the list goes on.

Since then, albums conceived as a 40- to 50-minute experience have provided the soundtrack to our best and worst moments. I'm talking about every kind of music from Johnny Cash's "Live at San Quentin" and "Young, Gifted and Black" by Aretha Franklin to "Nothing's Shocking" by Jane's Addiction and "Rain Dogs" by Tom Waits.

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