Thursday, April 22, 2010

Why Record Store Day & the vinyl revival marks the death of the CD - if anything - in a good way!

Video killed the radio star. CD killed the vinyl record. And the MP3 killed the CD. In this progression of technological and musical advancement, where does the vinyl record's revival fit into the equation? I think only recently we've begun to see an answer to this question.

If you ask me, if there's any lasting effect that's likely to be seen from the vinyl revival, it's the death of the compact disc, despite what you may have heard. Think about it this way: for years there were vinyl records, which were the main means through which most everyone listened to music that didn't exist in radio transmissions. Eventually - and we've skipped the 8-track here - the CD came along and replaced the vinyl record in terms of price of production, portability and ease of use. That made sense, and the vinyl record was declared dead, buried with various other pre-1990 practices about which discussion has been avoided for obvious reasons.

Eventually, MP3s and the iTunes store came along, allowing people to buy certain songs and albums without ever having to leave the comfort of their point of Internet access, wherever that may be. Music was freed from the confines of walkmans, speaker wire and clunky boomboxes, for good or ill. Before we knew it, musical liberation was brought to anyone with the means to access the Internet and iTunes. Vive la musical revolucion! ( it were.) In time, CDs became like a thumb drive, essentially a medium for storing musical data.

But then came that pesky vinyl record that just. will. not. die. Out of the ashes, it's back, and now there's this national Record Store Day thing that's big enough that my parents are calling me, saying they heard about it and wondering what I picked up (multigenerational fun!). Then there's the fact that more and more records are coming with digital download codes instead of CD copies -- who needs THAT? It's clear, given the recent strength of the vinyl revival, that it's indeed the CD that is on the march toward obsolescence, and here's why:

As I pointed out in this post, and above, since most everyone simply buys a CD for the digital data that's able to be loaded onto an iPod or MP3 player, the CD is more a means to these ends than anything else. A digital download, with a vinyl record, meets that need in a more pleasing way than a CD. When's the last time you heard someone say, "Yeah, I heard it, but I really want to buy the CD, you know, just to have it." And if there was a specific need for a CD, the low cost of a bunch of CD-Rs means that the musical data is easily made into a CD to meet whatever needs that medium fulfills. This low cost of production is a contributing factor to the death of the CD that, gladly, the vinyl record does not have to deal with.

But the point is, a vinyl record of music presents something that's pleasing to look at and very tangible in a way that adds to its value. There are often books or posters that come along with the album, and there's the album art and the records itself. It's all a nice bonus on top of the music that's available to many, regardless of their medium of choice. In this sense, the CD is utterly useless, a cheap plastic disc with little value outside of data storage, aside from the ability to walk straight out of a store and pop the CD into a car. And I challenge anyone to tell me of a time they last did that, or, better yet, point to data that show any significant number of people do that at all.

I admit, there's a large population of people who either download music illegally or just download it without even considering going to pick up a new album in a store of any kind. Sure, for these people, any physical copy of music is an unnecessary bother when they could simply download it via a click or two. But outside of this group, what we're seeing is an opportunity for the music industry to capitalize on two musical phenomena (vinyl and digital) decades apart that, coincidently, have merged to provide a great opportunity to an industry that's suffering under the weight of new technologies.

The portability of digital music, with the aesthetics of the vinyl record (with a 'digital option,' so to speak) present opportunity to capitalize on two different movements that are positive in a number of different ways. This is why, I think, the CD is dead - D. E. A. D.

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