Records Aren't Round Here Anymore
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Last year I bought U2's latest album, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. This isn't a record review, so I won't go on about how the disc marked an upward turn for the band, a recapturing of form after the lack lustre, All That You Can't Leave Behind, but it is a good record. Anyway, I bought the album at the local mall, took it home, put it in the computer, copied it (quite legally) onto my iPod, put the disc back in the box and slid it into the CD shelf on the bookcase in my living room. A couple of days ago, I had cause to get it out again. I opened the case and there was the disc, clipped into the grey plastic inner. I pulled it out and was suddenly struck by an odd thought. I've probably listened to the album in excess of fifty times via my iPod, but apart from the morning I got it home, the actual disc itself hasn't seen the light of day.

I started to reminisce the days when buying music meant more than merely acquiring new tunes to listen to. My thoughts travelled back to 1984 and U2 again. The Unforgettable Fire had just come out. I can remember buying the record, and having to tuck it into my jacket, so I could carry it home on my Vespa. And I really do mean record, LP, long-player – the black plastic thing that sat on your turn table and spun thirty three and a third times per minute. They were big, tangible and the cover art was brilliant. Yes, back then the picture on the cover of an LP really was art. The Unforgettable Fire had thick, claret borders, subtle gold lettering and a wide shot of the band stood in the ruins of an ivy-covered castle. There was no glossy coating on the paper either, so the cover had a really tactile quality. I played that record a lot. The sleeve became dog-eared and tatty and the music full of background hiss. But that was ok; it was a testament to how much I loved it.

I replaced it with the CD version about fifteen years ago. It's got the same cover, but the photo is so much smaller you can hardly tell which band member is which, and there's no touchy-feely quality anymore, just the cold, hard plastic CD case.

At some point this year iTunes (Apple Inc.'s legit MP3 downloading service) will launch in New Zealand, and I won't have to go to the mall to buy new music anymore. In fact, I may never go into a record store again. I'm quite an environmentally friendly bloke, so I can see an upside to this. Less nasty chemicals distilled into CDs and their cases, no trees chopped down to make the paper for the little booklets inside, and no petrol burnt transporting the things half way round the world. But where's the love? Buying music online is so impersonal. There's no anticipation, no participating in the moment, no sense of relief when you enter the record store on the day of release and get the last copy on the shelf.

Don't get me wrong. I think iPods are great. And being a bit of a sad audiophile, nothing gives me more pleasure than making my own 'best of' selections. I'm not a grumpy old man either, someone who has a disturbing belief in the 'good old days.' But I like the idea of music coming from a round, spinning thing. There's some continuity to it – a moving object produces the music, and if the tune is good it makes the listener move, too. (Okay, so that's not so good if you believe all middle-aged white blokes can’t dance, but you can see what I mean.)

I can best illustrate the point I'm trying to make with another eighties nostalgia trip. Who doesn't remember Dead Or Alive, the one-hit-wonders who gave us You Spin Me Round? You might not recognise the title, but the lyrics are something like –

You spin me right round, baby
Right round like a record, baby,
Right round, round, round.

Got it now? Imagine if that song had been written today by the iPod generation. How would the chorus go?

You make me feel like a stream of binary numbers, baby
Stream of numbers, baby
Numbers one zero, one zero, one zero.

It doesn't work quite so well, does it?

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