I love record stores. But I suppose the simple fact that I use the phrase “record store” dates me as a child of the pre-digital age. Maybe I should say, I love music stores. But then that’s a little confusing instead, because a music store is something more like Patelson’s.
But little by little in the age of the CD, record stores have become less relevant. While I’ve got several pet theories about contributing causes (including boring album art, lame music, crude CD audio quality) the number-one reason is the advent of digital music on-line (if you think CD audio quality is crude, get a load of MP3).
Your typical listener, a former LP customer, asks “why pay $15 for a bad-sounding, boring new music release when I can bootleg it off of LimeWire and enjoy it for free?” Why indeed.
So it was disappointing to read that the last Virgin Megastore in New York is closing its doors. While the story isn’t entirely accurate that it’s the last big store in New York (J&R lives on), the choices compared to when I first moved out here are vanishingly small. And even within J&R, the selection is a pale shadow of what it once was.
My personal favorite genre is of course classical. And believe me, the digital age has been nothing but heartache. At first — this is the late ’70s early ’80s now — we were excited about the increased dynamic range (those Telarc bass drums!) and the end of pops and skips. But once you got over the thrill of that, the day-to-day experience is rather different.
Neil Young once said that listening to digital music is like looking at art through a screen door. And nowhere is that more true than in a digital recording of a large orchestra piece. The detail is gone, and what’s there has a subtle but unmistakably harsh sound to it.
At the time the format was released, the hype was that it was “by definition” (as one Panasonic puff piece had it) the truest reproduction of sound. What it actually is that the CD is the truest copy of the original (digital) source material. Nothing is lost in copying the item, as opposed to what’s lost in the taping, mastering and pressing of a vinyl record. However, the vinyl groove contains infinitely more information than the 44,000 Hz digital file can hold. It’s like a pixellated version of a painting. From a distance, if you don’t look closely, it seems the same.
I could go on and on about this, but it’s probably enough to just say, vinyl has a sweet and musical sound to it; CDs do not. One doesn’t notice it at first, and maybe not consciously at all. But I found that over time it was just less and less pleasurable to listen. I bet that you too, gentle reader, don’t listen to music as much as you did back in the day.
It would have been nice if the music industry had come up with a palatable, affordable alternative early. There were a few feints in that direction — HDCD and audio DVD — but they never made an impact because of either price ($30 for an audio DVD?) or hardware cost (HDCD is only available on a few expensive players).
Back when the only option was a turntable, I could listen for hours; but with digital, it starts to get on my nerves a little after an hour, and finally I’ll just shut it off. For me, that’s the proof — it just isn’t as enjoyable.
The other proof is, of course, declining sales. And shuttered stores.