The Good Listener: Why Would Anyone Keep Buying CDs?
We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid our next-door neighbor's copy of Soldier of Fortune is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, multiple requests for help deciding when it's time to bail on an outdated music format.
Grace Caputo writes via Facebook: "I grew up on vinyl and switched to CDs when everybody else did, and I have never made the transition to purchasing MP3s. I recently got a new turntable and pulled my hundreds of albums out of storage, almost none of which I'm ready to part with — which shows I'm kinda sentimental about music, even the Bay City Rollers (my first album). My question: I'm having trouble deciding what to buy going forward by artists I like. LP or CD? Any advice on choosing among the various formats when purchasing would be appreciated."
Ong Su Mann writes via Facebook: "Am I a schmuck for still buying CDs?"
For those who've relegated their music libraries to the proverbial cloud, it's easy to forget how many people retain a strong bond to music as a piece of physical property. When I've written about CDs in this column in the past, some wisenheimer invariably pops into the comments, all, "What's a CD?" — as if everyone on earth has taken the time to go digital, can afford the assorted gadgets, has the best possible Internet access at all times, and actually prefers to listen to their music as MP3s or via streaming. In fact, millions of music fans right here in America haven't taken that leap, for any number of reasons.
To address Ong's question first, I prefer CDs to MP3s as a general rule, if only because you're getting uncompressed sound files — and, more to the point, the ability to pop a disc into your computer and magically produce MP3s where there were no MP3s before. My attachment to CDs has waned a bit as I've come to listen to them less (and as the literally tens of thousands of discs in my basement threaten to drag my house into the center of the earth), but they still represent the most versatile format in my mind. As fewer CDs come packaged in environmentally noxious jewel cases — which can't even be recycled — they've even become less odious from a carbon-footprint standpoint. So, no, you're not a schmuck for buying CDs. In fact, I'm sure there are plenty of musicians who'd thank you.
Grace's question is trickier to answer, because she's taken MP3s out of the equation, although I'm not sure that the format is going to be 100 percent avoidable as we hurtle through future technological comings and goings. Given the choice, I favor CDs over vinyl because of portability; as I wrote in a recent column, the trouble with (and, admittedly, the occasional advantage of) vinyl is that it forces you to stay within the radius of where you can hear music on your turntable. Yes, today's new vinyl records generally come packaged with download codes so buyers can have it both ways, but let's face it: Your old Bay City Rollers LP doesn't.
Finally, there may well be a difference between "I have never made the transition to purchasing MP3s" and "I will never make the transition to purchasing MP3s." You may find yourself reaching a tipping point where the convenience — portability, instant gratification, the desire to make purchases without moving any part of your body below the waist — outweighs sentimental attachments to music you can hold in your hand. I'm not all the way there yet myself, so I can empathize. But as some of the technologies we love go the way of the 8-track, it's wise to keep one eye on the looming cloud.