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.

Now that we're heading forward into the realm of song-by-song distribution, it's actually a souped-up return to the days of the single -- not that I'm sharing an observation that hasn't been made before. The difference now is that we "remember when" albums trumped most singles.

I ought to be happy about this. With a powerful computer, I should just transfer all my music -- CDs and vinyl -- to the machine and go iTunes-crazy. This would free up plenty of space in the apartment, opening up space for a set of sweet speakers.

Then again, figuring out where to store my albums is a problem that I think I want to have.

My Music, My DNA

For someone else's self-indulgent take on the Internet's effects on music, check out this essay by Michael Crowley in the New Republic. Crowley writes about how the Internet is contributing to the death of the rock snob:

"'Oh my God, where did you find this?' are a Rock Snob's favorite words to hear. His highest calling is the creation of lovingly compiled mix CDs designed to dazzle their recipients with a blend of erudition, obscurity, and pure melodic dolomite. ... In some ways, then, the iPod revolution is a Rock Snob's dream. Now, nearly all rock music is easily and almost instantly attainable, either via our friends' computers or through online file-sharing networks. ... But there's a dark side to the iPod era. Snobbery subsists on exclusivity. And the ownership of a huge and eclectic music collection has become ordinary."

Crowley suggests that the easy swapping afforded by online music has created "musical parasites." He cites the example of a friend of "middling taste" who availed himself of Crowley's library, as well as this anecdote about his ex-girlfriend: "She promptly plugged [her iPod] into my computer and was soon holding in her hand a duplicate version of my 5,000-song library--a library that had taken some 20 years, thousands of dollars, and about as many hours to accumulate. She'd downloaded it all within five minutes. And, a few months later, she was gone, taking my intimate musical DNA with her."

Talk about your Bittersweet Symphony!

Dead Trees Still Beat the 'Net

Like many people these days, I conducted my apartment search entirely online, but a New York Times essay informs us that some of the best deals can be found only in the newspaper.

Alexandra Bandon chronicles her experience with brokers on her search for a Greenwich Village townhouse with one bedroom and a separate kitchen. It had to be west of Seventh Avenue and between 10th and 13th Streets, and for $2,600 a month or less. It sounds expensive, I know, but this is what the headline aptly described as a Holy Grail scenario.

In her profile of the different kinds of apartment brokers, she found out this interesting fact from "Veteran" broker Michael Marino: "His ad, it turns out, had appeared only in the paper, not online. Michael said he's old-fashioned and thinks people who are looking for an apartment will check the paper first, so it's not worth paying extra to put the ad online. Once I started reading the classifieds in print, I realized that a lot of Veterans followed this logic, and that I'd been missing quite a few listings by searching only online."

This isn't what I was hoping to read on my second day in the new pad.

No More Blind Dates

Newspapers may be the secret treasure trove of choice Manhattan apartments, but they can't match the Internet when it comes to making the blind date a thing of the past. A Gannett News Service article says that using the Internet to research your upcoming date is now more often the norm than the exception.

Teenagers and twentysomethings "want to see everything from a potential date's picture to his or her credit history. Love might be many things, but with the Web, blind doesn't have to be one of them. 'Technological improvements made possible another way of imagining human relationships,' says Sorin Matei, a communications assistant professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. 'Before, dating was the product of fate, luck and the quest for romance.' ... That's not necessarily a good thing, says Kathleen McNerney of Cincinnati. She says it's 'creepy' to know little details about a person before a first date. 'Our culture is always seeking control, and we want to be in control of the situation,' she says. 'We don't want to trust someone blindly.'"

It might be creepy to know those little details from the get-go, but when did having control of such a potentially intimate situation become a bad thing?

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