Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Finding Shame and Losing Your Soul

I've reached a bit of an existential crisis. It all started with the closing of the Virgin Megastore in Times Square. And it got worse with the closing of the Virgin Megastore in Union Square.

I'm one of an increasingly lonely breed who still buys CDs. A few months ago, after having dinner with a rather (annoyingly) young friend, I told him that I was going to drop by Virgin to pick up the new Franz Ferdinand album. He gave me a quizical look and asked: (1) Virgin's still around?; and (2) You actually buy CDs? (Keep in mind that this friend also stared at me blankly when I made a reference to The Karate Kid.  Annoyingly young, I tell ya.)

I have good reasons for holding on to such antiquated technology.  (I still have a turntable, damn it.) I enjoy flipping through liner notes; flipping through a PDF just ain't the same. It's hard to form a connection with a file. The tactile experience of fidgeting with a CD and its contents fosters a more direct association with the music that an MP3 just can't replicate. When I think of an album, I think of the case in which it came and, often, the design silkscreened onto the CD. Where's the slikscreening on an MP3?

And when I get that silly compulsion to impress an object of my affection by making her a mix CD, I need the source CDs. MP3s just won't do. I'm talking about a CD that you can listen to on a plain ol' CD player. Sure, I could simply plop a boatload of MP3s onto a CD. But where's the soul in that excercise? The soul lies in the hours of self-torment associated with slecting the perfect playlist to convey whatever obscure message you intend to send on an 80-minute disc. And converting from MP3 to WAV before burning won't do, either, because the process leaves you with a degraded reproduction.

Many people don't seem to realize that MP3s are created usng a lossy compression algorithm. To squish a 40 MB WAV file (about average for a four-minute song) into a 5 MB MP3 file, some compromises must be made. MP3s are merely a rough approximation of the real thing. There's sure to be a next-generation MP3 algorithm that's less lossy. With the original CDs on hand, I'll have the source materials needed to switch over for free. (A bit sickening to think about all the money Apple will make by convincing people to buy the same musc twice when a spiffy new compression algorithm comes along.)

I'm now left with J&R and Best Buy as brick-and-mortar stores where I can pick up CDs, and that just doesn't cut it. Virgin was pricey, but it was convenient. I used to walk over to the one in Times Square after work on Tuesdays to pick up new releases. It was open late, so stopping by after work was never a problem. And it tended to have a surprisingly good inventory. I could usually count on it to stock obscure imports and introduce me to good finds at its listening stations. (If not for Virgin, I wouldn't have stumbled upon White Lies the week before Coachella, and I would've missed my favorite performance at this year's festival.) J&R and Best Buy are as pedestrian as pedestrian can be. You can find Coldplay there, but good luck finding anything Pitchfork won't piss on.

Yeah, there are still indie shops like Other Music in the Village. But I need a place where I can buy Coldplay without being judged. And I need a place I can conveniently visit after work on Tuesday nights.

There's also the mail order route, but that puts a real crimp on the joy of instant gratification. On occasion, I've bought an album on iTunes so that I could have it as soon as it was released, only to order the CD as well from Amazon. As a good friend has suggested: why can't Amazon let you download an album instantly and offer you the option to buy the CD as well for a few bucks more? Alas, the answer -- as obvious as it is lamentable -- seems to be that the CD is a medium for which the industry is composing a requiem. There's no point in building a business model around a dying product. Its mass production life will soon end, and all that'll be left is a niche market -- much like the one for vinyl -- in which audio freaks shell out $25 for a domestic CD.

But back to that existential crisis. With the closing of Virgin, the last several albums I've purchased have been of the purely digital variety from iTunes. Nothing to touch, nothing to flip. Just a bunch of lifeless 1s and 0s masquerading as something with a pulse -- which is perhaps also an apt description of my soul now that I've crossed over to the other side.

Such a sad state of affairs.

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