From CD to MP3: The Degradation of Music Curating

In 1999, on the eve of PopMatters’ inception, I was an angst-ridden teenager, who had a tendency for ditching classes only to sit in the toilet reading back issues of Rolling Stone. By the end of the decade, my love for grunge music had sent me searching through expanses that spanned Punk & New Wave to classic rock, gospel, and soul.

But despite my obsession with the retrospective milieu, I was always conscious that I was, of all things, a product of the ‘90s. As such, the world mythologized in the pages of music magazines about vinyl records, played on analogue players was something that I believed, belonged to my forefathers. Certainly, the rickety sound of a spindle scratching the surface of an old record was romantic, and the large artwork was appealing — but nevertheless, I was a staunch believer in the compact disc (CD). With its plastic shell, artwork, and liner notes, the CD had all the positive bearings of an old gramophone disc, except they were portable. This isn’t too mention, the shimmering and ‘untouchable’, optical surface intrinsic to every CD — for a music aficionado like myself there was something quixotic about this; it felt like music was sacred. It was something worth protecting.

Through the years, and wherever I was geographically there was this extent need within me to maintain my music collection. If an artist were to release a new album, whether I liked it or not, I had to own it. These were then piled up alphabetically as ‘room art’ — symbolic markers of a collective identity. At the time, when my friends and I would visit each other, we could quickly decipher from each other’s CD collections which person would get along with whom best. It didn’t seem snooty or materialistic; it was just a practicality. Lifelong friendships were born out of mutual passion or devotion to an artist. I remember when I was approaching the end of high school, when I stumbled across the 1990 re-release of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours amongst my friend’s things: we locked eyes and in a hyperrealist moment of epiphany, I realized then that we would be friends for the rest of our lives.

Retrospectively, I have broken my back trying to come to terms with the social shift that has made music collecting a matter of inconsequence. But when one starts to consider the most basic practicalities, a lot of answers seem self-evident. In the past, we (the fans) were left waiting on edge, hoping that our favorite music videos would be played on MTV, penciling in release dates into our jotters and racing physically to record stores to purchase them. Before CD ripping software became the norm, friends would lend each other CDs, with the expectation that if the friend liked it, they too would ‘go out’ and ‘buy it’. The sheer physicality of the experience denotes a commitment, one that is no longer present in the minds of trigger-happy, mouse-clicking teenagers today. As well, the sheer fact that CDs were relatively expensive (in comparison to cassette tapes), increasingly meant that a lot of sweat, blood, and tears (or for youngsters) patience, had to go into curating one’s personal library. Accordingly, attaining new albums was like acquiring a piece of art. One had to wait for the funding to be in place, before waiting for clearance, and finally, delivery.

I remember vividly getting my first weekend job babysitting to save up specifically for the 1995 release of the Velvet Underground’s commemorative Peel Slowly and See box set. I was living in Saudi Arabia at that time in a small conservative enclave, where albums were banned from being sold if the artwork was offensive. The only Velvet Underground album that the local megastore sold was the The Velvet Underground and Nico, but the manager of the music shop at the time (a friend of my mother’s) had pre-ordered the Velvet’s compilation specifically for me. I remember the zealous smile that came over my face when I realized how envious my best friend would be of this fact. I had already started to plan my evenings in, where I imagined I would have listening parties for my privileged cohorts wherein, I would unleash the clambering sound of Lou Reed and his band of misfits, when my haphazard ‘connection’ at the store fell through. The manager was transferred. No one knew about my pre-order, nor were they going to make any effort to redeem my broken heart.

With this anecdote, I return to the contemporary world of 2009. It is hardly fair to suggest that “the music [has] died”, but it has certainly become a far more free-flowing construct — one that is less connected to personal identity. When I survey my two teenage brothers and their relationship to music for instance, I often find myself baffled. Unlike me, they have had the luxury of growing up with musical instruments, and the benefit of private music tuition. However, neither of them physically owns more than ten CDs. Instead, when they hear a song (often on a TV advert, i.e. Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten“ c/o MTV’s The Hills), the pair of them will sit in their rooms on their computers, and watch the video on YouTube on loop, alone. As such, the collective experience of sharing music — the notion that it brings people together — is automatically voided.

Subsequently, if the boys can be bothered, they will download the song off of iTunes (rarely the album, might I add), and they will store it onto their MP3 devices and listen to it for a number of days before it dissipates from their consciousness. To them, it is but a blip on a magnanimous hard drive that they lack any physical appreciation for. When I used to collect CDs, I tended to believe that the music industry functioned as a cyclical meritocracy. I saved my money, I purchased a CD, and in my mind, a percentage went to the artist (so that they could carry on making exciting music) and a portion went to the record label (to allow them to develop and discover new talent).

Certainly, this amorous view bypasses the villainous perception of the money-hungry music executive, who has often been used as pawn by peer-to-peer aficionados, who believe that music should be a ‘free’ public commodity. But, the point remains pertinent, and that is that by purchasing music, I believed I was ‘taking part’ in a whole that was greater than myself.

Of course, I may judge my younger siblings and their friends, but as of late, I too have found myself succumbing to the whim of the MP3 format, and it’s degradation of musical curating. Despite my initial skepticism, I realized that it would be difficult to transport my CDs as I moved, now that my collection had spiraled into the thousands. For practicality’s sake, during college, I transferred all of my CDs to my computer. Soon enough, I had started to forget about the actual ‘contents’ of my collection. Without the physical act, of bending down and searching for an album amongst a stack of shelves, I grew lazy, only moving my cursor to the list of my most played tracks — rarely stepping out with the confines of my own imagination.

Two years after the switch to MP3, I had stopped buying CDs completely. I convinced myself that they were bulky and unnecessary, not to mention more expensive than MP3s, which were heavily discounted if you compared ‘album prices’. Nowadays, I sit at my laptop watching TV, and I find myself downloading up to ten albums at a time. More often than not, the majority of these new releases will slip out of my consciousness, and will go unheard for months. For in the past there were lyric sheets, liner notes, and artwork that personalized the experience of purchasing a record. Not to mention, the sheer expense suggested that thoughtful consideration went into the actual purchase. Today, the sheer immediacy makes them inconsequential. Indeed, if I were to survey the entire contents of my iPod, which is full at 80 GB (with another 40 GB on my laptop), I can shamefully say that I listen to no more than five percent of my entire collection.

Specifically as well, the appreciation of albums had disintegrated as well. I no longer remember album release dates, artwork, and on the whole, albums tend to be less synonymous with ‘events’ in my daily life. Of course, with the advent of album artwork on video iPods, as well as lyric storage capacities, and so forth — the evolving MP3 format is growing to encompass many of the things that were ‘lost’ in the conversion from CD. Without a doubt, this is a wonderful thing, but so much of our musical landscape has changed. Rarely do I invite someone over to listen to an album over coffee, rarely do I make a mix CD for a friend, and what used to be an exciting outing to an independent music store has increasingly become a distant memory, as these autonomous ventures continue to fold.

Perhaps the saddest thing for me personally is that my once carefully curated music collection, no longer defines me. Seldom, does one ever ask if they can survey the contents of my iPod. In fact, not once in the last four years, has a person flinched at the sight of the 1000 strong CD collection that sits in my living room today. Ten years ago, before the advent of MP3s, it certainly made in impact. Arguably, the way that we appreciate, collect and share music has changed drastically over the last decade. It is less ritualistic, and more about immediate gratification. But to every generalization, there is an exception. It is no secret for example that for the hordes of MP3 guzzling fanatics out there, there are enthusiasts out there pioneering the independent record store, and traditional dissemination formats. However, regardless of these retrospective advances, one thing is clear, my relationship with music has forever changed.