This week’s poll tackles the subject of music and, more specifically, where you buy it. That got me thinking about my own history, which reaches way back into the land of cassette tapes. Too many years have passed for me to remember the specifics of my first cassettes, and my tastes obviously weren’t that memorable. However, I do recall that my first compact disc was U2’s Rattle and Hum. Some 20 years later, that very same CD sits with a slew of others in my living room. It’s still one of my favorites.
Rattle and Hum was the beginning of a collection that now numbers more than 500 albums. I used to have an insatiable hunger for new releases and would devour at least a couple every month. My appetite for fresh tunes has waned, though, and I’m now down to a few new albums two or three times a year. Rather than chasing new releases, I’m most often filling out my back catalog of oldies. But I keep buying CDs because, well, I just can’t bring myself to spend money on the alternatives.
My buying habits might make a little more sense if I actually owned a CD player. I bought my last one of those while still in high school, and it didn’t last past my first year of university, which marked my introduction to the burgeoning MP3 scene. Coaxial cable was strung from window to window in my freshman dorm, and most of the bits flowing across our impromptu network were these newfangled digital music files. Well, most if it was actually, erm, special video files; the rest was a combination of MP3s and network traffic associated with Doom II and Command and Conquer: Red Alert.
Soon, I had stopped playing CDs entirely, opting instead to rip them and manage playback with my PC. Winamp turned my desktop into a digital jukebox far cooler than any stereo I’d ever seen. Forget multi-disc changers and chintzy graphic equalizers; I now had playlists, skins, and visualization plugins. That was the last of my ghetto blaster, which was useless without the ability to accept input from my SoundBlaster.
Before long, Napster had popularized MP3 sharing on a grander scale than our hacked together dorm network. Intrigued at first, I was quickly disappointed by the inconsistent and generally poor encoding quality of songs available for download. Tracks were often mislabeled or infected with viruses, and full albums weren’t always easy to find. At the time, I also became increasingly uncomfortable with, well, stealing music. I don’t want to get all preachy here, but my listening habits squeeze a lot of replay value out of the music I love. There’s little doubt in my mind that I’ve listened to some albums several hundred times already, and my favorite individual tracks have surely been played into the thousands. In that context, the cost of a CD is pretty trivial.
Led by iTunes, online services started offering music downloads minus the peg leg and eye patch. Unfortunately, they did so with DRM-encrusted files that were a far cry from true CD quality. Online services weren’t necessarily cheaper than buying CDs, either. You could save money keeping up with one-hit wonders, but full albums were a pretty raw deal, so I kept buying real ones.
Like most things, online services improved as competition increased. Proprietary formats and DRM were largely phased out in favor of MP3s, and bit rates climbed upward. These days, the norm seems to be 256kbps, which is twice the bit rate of early MP3s that were overly optimistic in their claim of "CD quality" at 128kbps. Prices have fallen, too. Amazon MP3 offers loads of downloadable albums for $5-8 a pop. Still, I stubbornly buy CDs. You see, Amazon put downward pressure on CD prices long before it tackled the MP3 market. Shipping is often free, and cheap used CDs can be purchased without the hassles associated with eBay.
Honestly, I’d rather pay my usual $10-13 for a CD than $5-8 for an album’s worth of MP3s encoded at 256kbps. You may not be able to hear the difference between the two without a good ear and quality speakers or headphones, but it’s definitely there, and I’m willing to pay a premium for a higher-quality recording—or, perhaps more accurately, I’m unwilling to accept a lower-quality recording—for something I expect to endure for decades. Besides, there are other perks associated with CDs, such as the artwork and liner notes, occasionally novel packaging, and the peace of mind that comes with having a pristine backup tucked away on the shelf. Add it all up, and CDs continue to offer pretty compelling value when compared to downloadable alternatives.
For me to give up compact discs, I’d need to be able to download music in a non-proprietary, lossless format that’s substantially cheaper than the equivalent optical media. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be an option outside of releases from a handful of artists and smaller labels. The big labels and services don’t appear to be interested in changing their tune, either. I don’t expect them to cater to a minority, though. The vast majority of folks are satisfied with 256kbps MP3s, and there seems to be more interest in subscription services with multi-device streaming options than in lossless encoding. So, I’ll keep buying CDs… just not actually listening to them.