After bemoaning the decline of the CD and the format's inevitable demise yesterday, I asked myself why I cared so much. What's the problem with downloads? So what if CDs disappear? It's not as if jazz is being outlawed. The things that hold the music—piano rolls, LPs, CDs, computer chips and fiber optic wires—are in truth mere shells and relatively inconsequential. It's about the jazz, the art and the music's availability.
So why are so many people upset about the CD's rapid extinction? Could it be that part of our passion for jazz stems from the need to physically hold an album and look at it? In other words, does recorded jazz register in our hearts and minds only when we can touch or see the thing that delivers it?
Maybe. And maybe the end of the CD era is a good thing. Everyone I know is running out of shelf space and slowly walling themselves in, like in Edgar Allan Poe's The Cask of Amontillado. Me, too. Yet whenever I see a new CD box bearing the words "complete sessions," I'm compelled to have a look and possibly click and buy. "I'll find room," I tell myself.
Why is that? Part of the Pavlovian impulse surely must come from years of album-buying in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Anyone weaned on that experience also relishes the CD hunt, capture, purchase, the opening, putting on the disc, looking at the artwork and reading the notes—or trying to. Maybe this desire to own and open factory-sealed albums dates back to our prehistoric role as music providers for our families or our natural instinct for skinning animals and gutting fish.
All I know is that buying CDs gives me a rush. It's only recently that I've adjusted to enjoying this pleasure online rather than at Tower Records. I see albums on Amazon, and for me it's like the smell of pizza. Even if I'm full, I want a slice. And there's something to be said for the joy of receiving those Amazon boxes in the mail. Sure, the LP-buying experience has been miniaturized with the CD's introduction and rise of online shopping. But the drive to buy and own jazz albums not only has remained intact in the CD era but also has intensified. CDs will never be LPs, but at least you can hold them and look at what you just bought.
By any measure, downloading is a pretty sexless act and medium. There's no hunt, no anticipation and no delayed gratification. Lots of jazz albums are just a click away. One, two, three...you own it. There's nothing to hold, nothing to read and nothing to put on. All you get is a small screen-shot of an album cover. The experience and drama of shopping and buying and collecting are all gone. And that stuff counts as part of the jazz listening experience.
The other problem with downloading is the impersonal nature of storage. When you purchased LPs and CDs, you created your own shelving system. To this day all of my friends know exactly where each album is, when they bought it and why. Each LP and CD spine has a different personality, and they all wait for you patiently to engage, like polite friends at a dinner party.
By contrast, downloads pour into one big, sterile pool. Yes, you have convenient computer folders and hundreds of ways to slice and dice what you import. But because I group albums under artists' names, one folder can hold upward of five different albums. So naturally I forget what I own. There's no hole punch through a cover, or a brittle sleeve promoting other albums released in 1967, or a cracked spine. No stacks of CDs or rows of LPs to remind me of my trophy hunting. Downloads have reduced collections to personality-less dots stored away somewhere really, really small and accessed under a computer-screen icon.
These are big problems for us jazz listeners. Because you don't lust after downloads or hold them in your hands, your brain never registers them as being owned. And because your storage zone is hidden on your computer, you never have a full sense of what you own or get to enjoy the filing experience. What's more, if you don't back up your computer regularly and your hard drive crashes, goodbye collection—a fate more likely to occur than your CD cabinet burning down.
But maybe all of this is a good thing. As downloads edge out the hard stuff, we'll have more room for books. Spouses will stop complaining about cluttered desks and guest bathtubs. We'll spend more time reviewing our digital libraries to see whether we need what we have, and we'll gladly erase what's boring to make room for more. And because we didn't hunt or hold what we bought, we'll be less clingy about dragging files to the trash.
I know what you're about to say. There's a fourth negative about downloading that isn't psychological or so easily overcome: The fidelity issue. I'm with you. That's why yesterday I picked up the phone and called some of my pals in the high-end stereo equipment business. If downloads are here to stay and CDs are going the way of the LP, the big question we need to ask is this: How can we improve the sound of what we're downloading, importing and ripping?
All of my pro pals told me there are several key steps you can take to ensure that music downloads sound far better than CD players or turntables. OK, I'm in. I'll report back in the next few days on exactly how to make this happen. As CDs fade to black, I for one am happy to adjust to downloading—if I can find the albums I want and I can hear them played back with recording-studio sound. Now about those liner notes...