In one day, NPR intern Emily White transformed from a college student into a viral sensation/ scapegoat/ hero for admitting she only purchased 15 CDs in her lifetime but managed to build an iTunes library of more than 11,000 songs. White’s article, “I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With,” ignited a music industry saga with artists, industry insiders, music tech sites, music media and fans battling back and forth over the moral implications of piracy, the facts behind revenues, the transition of the industry, the idea of ownership and the future of the digital model. But her confession hit me on a more personal level.
I am seven years older than Emily White. My music obsession dates back a few years before Napster ripped into our lives. I got my first ever CD as a gift in 1994 when I was 10 years old. By the time I was 14 years old, I started buying my own CDs. I own roughly 500 physical CDs.
The Evolution of a Collector
From the age of 14, until now, that equals about 36 physical CDs I bought per year. It isn’t an astronomical number, especially for a musical journalist, but I’ve never had much disposable income. The thousands of songs on my iTunes library mostly include tracks bought from iTunes plus importing about 70 percent of my CDs (I’m still working on the rest). Entering my music-nerd stage right before the launch of Napster, I spent my time navigating the transition into digital music. If I had grown up a decade earlier, my collection of physical music would be at least triple the size, probably even larger.
I admit to burning maybe 20 mix CDs during high school by using Napster (before that I frequently recorded radio plays onto cassette tapes). I even used the file-sharing site Kazaa for a bit. But around the time iTunes launched I stopped pirating altogether. If I didn’t want an entire album of an artist, I would just purchase the single from iTunes. I’d like to say I stopped stealing out of moral obligation, but it was really out of frustration. Using Kazaa proved difficult and tedious. Often, downloads failed, the songs sounded horrible or some foreign sound interrupted the music (more than once I downloaded songs with what sounded like barking dogs threaded throughout). The iTunes store made it convenient for me to buy decent quality music. But as I expanded out of my egocentric bubble centering on my friends and me and as I made the decision to pursue music journalism, my opinions changed. More accurately, I formed opinions, whereas before I never thought about the moral implications or industry ramifications of piracy.
As far as the Emily White/ David Lowery debate, what’s clear, and what many people have been saying, is we’ve entered an age where music fans like White prefer access over ownership. They do value music, but they value access to music. They want to support artists, but are not exactly sure of the best way to do that and get what they want. If they pay for music, they want to pay for a convenient service that maintains an exhaustive catalog of music. While Spotify and other music streaming services currently in place don’t solve music industry problems, they do embrace this new paradigm and seem to be a step in the right direction.
But what concerns me is what to do with my CD collection now that it’s all about access. Should I keep my CDs? Should I continue to buy physical CDs and build up my collection as I intended to do back when I was 14 years old and thought I would have thousands of CDs by now? Should I stop buying CDs, but keep what I have? Should I get rid of all of my CDs now that I have them stored on my computer, external hard drive and access most of the music on Spotify?
The Art of Collecting
It’s a cyclical struggle that comes with progress in any industry. In film, people traded in VHS tapes for DVDs, and now Blu-rays are replacing DVDs. Luckily, Blu-ray devices also play regular DVDs so collections remain intact. In music, MP3s replaced CDs. CDs replaced cassette tapes. Cassette tapes replaced 8-Track cartridges. One anomaly that stands out is vinyl. In the heyday of independent record stores, music-obsessed fans spent their time searching for the perfect vinyl album to add to their ever-expanding collection. The more records you owned, the cooler you were, the more credibility you possessed. So, many people with vast collections refused to part with what they owned once new formats hit the scene. And often times the stores served as a community for music lovers. People made friends, exchanged albums and created lasting memories. This aspect of owning vinyl paved the way for the nostalgia factor, another reason vinyl endures. And now vinyl is making a bit of a resurgence.
Many of the desires behind owning vinyl in 2012 mirror my desire for keeping and buying CDs. I like owning a physical copy. I like supporting artists. I like building a tangible collection representing a part of who I am. I like liner notes, printed lyrics and artwork included in CD packaging. Purchasing a CD represents a deep connection to the artists and the music, more than simply streaming a song on Spotify. As I pointed out in a prior post, in New York magazine earlier this year Nitsuh Abebe wrote, “Owning music is a kind of intimacy—not just online-dating your favorite records, but literally moving in with them—which leads you to think that ‘good taste’ is about committing to the right things.”
Growing up in a small town in Northeast Tennessee without much of a music scene, I never found a strong, like-minded community. I spent time with friends discussing music and exchanging recommendations, but the town held zero independent record stores and no place filled with fans sampling albums, buying vinyl and developing a community. Instead, every weekend I drove 30 minutes to the closest Barnes & Noble, filled my arms with a dozen CDs and spent all day at the listening station scanning and sampling as much as I could. Sampling on iTunes only included short snippets of tracks. At Barnes & Noble, most CDs allowed sampling of at least 70 percent of the album. When I found an album I loved, I bought it. It felt special. Occasionally, and only if I had extra money, I would buy a CD without previewing, based on recommendation or just pure gut feeling. I would get in my car, open it up, slide it into the CD player and listen all the way home. When the gamble paid off, it was an epic feeling of not only discovering a new band but also having something to show for the discovery.
The Mortality of a Collection
But I do love the digital era of music. Music sites such as AOL Spinner and NPR Music stream entire albums prior to or on release, and of course with Spotify I can play entire albums. The last CD I purchased was in September after I sampled Sleeper Agent’s Celabrasion on AOL Spinner and fell in love. Since January, I’ve incessantly played all of fun.’s music and recalled my affinity for The Format. I just got paid for a freelance story. Fun.’s Some Nights only cost $7.99 on iTunes, which would allow me to put it on my iPod. However, a premium subscription to Spotify allows access to the album via my iPhone. Neither option really appeals to me. I actually want to feel like I have invested in this band. I want to own a tangible piece of the music I connect to at this point in my life. I want to use my money and buy a CD, but I’m reluctant. I want to add it to my collection, but I don’t want to continue to build a collection that will inevitably stay incomplete.
CDs stand little chance of survival. The imminent death of the CD may not occur as early as some predict (one article threw out claims that labels aim to stop pressing CDs at the end of this year, only to be refuted by several others), but a gradual demise seems inevitable. Last year Ford announced it ceased installing CD players in new models. Even newer electronic devices such as tablets, netbooks and the MacBook air work without CD drives. A lot of audiophiles tout the sound quality of CDs over MP3s, but as technology moves forward, online music may eventually match the fidelity of CDs. For instance, Apple announced in February a new format offering “high-definition” audio. Other consumers concerned with sound quality look to vinyl. An upsurge in sales suggests vinyl as a replacement to CDs, which technically is two steps backward, but understandable considering digital music sort of makes CDs redundant. While CDs are a physical version of a digital file, vinyl is an analog recording, which adds a distinctive sonic aesthetic. Both CDs and vinyl give buyers physical ownership of music but vinyl also offers sonic and nostalgic value that MP3s fail to possess.
Back when I started buying CDs, when the digitization of music remained in gestation, I never thought the collection might only last until my late 20s and represent only a portion of my life. It seems too late to start an entire new collection of vinyl and too incoherent to add vinyl to my CDs.
While Emily White never owned music to begin with, a generation of people who did own music exists. A slice of them grew up and purchased CDs after vinyl went out of fashion in the mainstream and before iTunes launched. Now that vinyl is seeing a resurgence and the Cloud holds endless supplies of digital music, what do they do with their collections?