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Columns > Patrick Buzby

Published: 2009/05/26
by Pat Buzby

Back To The Future

A few Sundays ago, the Chicago Tribune ran a “vinyl is back” story as its Sunday music article. When the Tribune recognizes a trend, it’s been around for a while.

This week, an article promoting an opposite trend got my attention. Bob Lefsetz is an opinionated music industry character who sends out e-mail missives. Last week he had a reflective one about Joni Mitchell and his life as a music fan. This week, he bounced in the other direction – apparently he sees current iTunes centric music distribution as a positive development, and his new column attempts to cast those of us who are resisting it as today’s equivalent to the folks shouting “Judas” at Dylan in 1966. (You can read it here).

In this column, convenience guarantees value and popularity confers validity. It’s not hard to find counterarguments. He celebrates a music-buying system where “you [don’t] have to leave your house,” but I suspect I’m not alone in thinking that having a well-rounded life in music requires leaving the house now and then. “You [get] to purchase exactly what you wanted, with no bloat-tunes” is a convincing point if you like artists who have a lot of bloat-tunes. But the ones represented on my CD and LP shelves don’t. Well, not many of them, anyway.

I can’t deny that his column is successful in some ways, though. It got me to sign up to his email list. (Like modern bands, Lefsetz gets a fair amount of unauthorized redistribution, which is how I encountered this column and some of his earlier ones.) And it prompted some thought. He writes, “People have moved on. Proven by the endless closure of physical retail outlets.” Which is true, and which puts me in the conservative position of having to say that I regret a change that is in process.

Back in the 80’s, when CDs arrived, I felt differently. Many “vinyl is back” articles dwell on the negative regarding CDs. Back then, I liked the improved quality (even though sometimes it wasn’t all that much better), the expanded length (even though some artists felt overly required to take advantage), the fact that it brought a lot of unavailable music back into circulation (even though companies charged three or four times more for it). Perhaps I was more open to the new then than now.

In the end, though, I went with CDs because they improved my experience as a music listener. Based on my experiences with iTunes and other music streaming, I’m not convinced that they will offer similar improvements. Lower audio quality is not good. More time sitting at the computer is not good. For the types of music I enjoy, making an individual song the primary format rather than a multiple-song program is rarely good.

Lefsetz argues that the naysayers will change their minds once they encounter a smooth streaming application. I suspect I will change my mind if an artist makes a compelling statement available only (that is to say, only legally) through iTunes. It could be done. Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker put out some very important music on 78s, just as the Beatles did on 45s.

Perhaps in a few years this will happen, and I will be siding with Lefsetz. On the other hand, I remember when vinyl was headed for the wilderness 20 years ago much as CDs are now. I suspect in 20 years there will be “CDs are back” articles. Perhaps in the Tribune, if they’re around then. Or Lefsetz, if he’s around then.

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