ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

December 1, 2005

Downloads and the Discophile

I drop a CD onto the spindle, cap it with a magnetized puck, slide the lid closed. More commonly, an automated drawer does the work. Either way, the disc spins. The Victor Talking Machine, with its novel turntable for playing likewise novel discs, entered the marketplace in 1901. Exeunt cylinders, slowly but surely: the medium limped on into the ’20s.

Some technologies have hardier legs. Speaking of cylinders, the gasoline-fueled internal-combustion engine was already approaching maturity at the turn of the 20th century. Early in our own century, gasoline is perceived as a threat to the planet’s well-being. Its days as the automobile’s primary fuel may well be numbered.

The future of digital discs is also open to question, but for a much less clamorous reason: Downloads rule. Which leaves the discophile where?

Lingering first at roots: note the disc in discophile. In a transitional period, collector is surely the less evocative term. Shape-wise, recordings have become rather protean -- witness MP3, iPod, iTunes, and their eventual offspring. Burning downloads onto CD-Rs and DVD-Rs is also in danger of proving transitional. Spinning’s place in recording and playback is beginning to look temporary.

But before we speculate on where and when the discophile is tossed off the bandwagon, let’s examine a term. A discophile is, first, a music lover -- the genre is unimportant -- and, of course, a collector. A discophile loves everything about his or her collection: packaging, texts, layout, graphics -- and, of course, the recording’s goods. If the discophile happens to be an audiophile, of value too are the credits concerning recording venue, producer, engineer, hardware (numbers and types of microphones, cables, electronics). The discophile will even savor departures from the old-fashioned "jewel case."

I’m describing the compact disc. The medium’s descent from hegemony is a lot more than possible yet a lot less than assured -- witness its continued dominance despite the advent of higher-resolution media. But as happy as I’ve been with the CD, who can deny vinyl’s collectibility quotient? Back in the days, I got a kick out of graphically adventuresome rock-album sleeves. Would that the music had proved as entertaining. On the classical side, beginning in the mono era, Angel releases looked like rare books: the sleeves bore reproductions on laid paper (i.e., watermarked with fine lines running across the grain) of some Medieval or Renaissance subject. I recall jackets edged on one side with a painted wood dowel for ease of removal from the LP sleeve.

Good design will find a way. Creative types have been doing interesting things with the CD’s label side as well as the tray card’s inner face. I have CD releases in my collection that resemble hardcover books; e.g., two German labels, Winter & Winter’s Artist Editions (largely jazz) and Kairos (classical avant-garde). More recently, John Eliot Gardiner’s series of Bach’s cantatas on the British label Monteverdi Productions raises book-like packaging to elegant heights. Many of the operas in my collection are accompanied by nicely printed, sturdily bound booklets, a few of them around 200 pages long. These cost money to produce, yet the sets retain standard per-disc prices. (To cut costs, folded rather than stapled inserts are often chosen for low-budget and small-label releases. The difference never occurred to me till the proprietor of a small indie label explained it.)

So here our discophile sits, waiting. For what? Well, let’s allow that downloads can now or will soon be able to do it all: surround-sound movies, all manner of music in two or many channels, resolution to spare -- whatever one could possibly want. (And then there’s the market economy.) Does the discophile I’ve described from long personal experience (he’s there every morning in my bathroom mirror) have sufficient coreligionists to sustain the luxuries to which he’d like to remain accustomed? For example, those opera booklets -- downloaded, they’re nigh unthinkable as other than printouts. But bound? Of a size commensurate with however one shelves the music one downloads? And all that variously inventive and elegant packaging -- how will that be achieved? Difficult to envision.

Other than our discophile, will anyone even care? On bad days -- overcast skies, chill wind, drizzle -- I think of my discophile tribe as dinosaurs. One theory about the great reptiles’ demise points to a meteorite. Still, dinosaurs were around for 183 million years before the Big Collision -- nearly 100 times longer than humans have been. While I’m pretty sure our rock’s en route, I’m hoping its date of impact falls beyond my ability to care. I’m selfish that way.

...Mike Silverton

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