Late last week it was reported that pop diva Mariah Carey had married actor Nick Cannon in a secret ceremony. Naturally, my first thought was that her new album, E=MC², must really need a sales boost as it enters its second month on the charts.
A crass and cynical response? You bet, especially since I defended Tom Cruise three years ago after he jumped for joy on Oprah Winfrey’s couch to show his love for girlfriend Katie Holmes. I thought it was a genuine, albeit shame-free, show of affection, not a publicity stunt to promote Cruise and Holmes’s then-upcoming summer blockbusters (War of the Worlds and Batman Begins, respectively).
Last Friday Cruise was interviewed on Oprah for the first time since 2005. One news item about his appearance mentioned that PR experts had analyzed the interview and determined that he came across as “serious” and “thoughtful,” or “not communicating with a miniature version of L. Ron Hubbard floating beside his head.”
I’m also one of the few people I know who defends Cruise’s heterosexuality. Since 1996 I’ve written hundreds of letters to the toothy megastar requesting a romantic dinner date, but I’ve never gotten a single response. Disappointed, gossip hounds?! Move along. Nothin’ to see here.
As for Mariah Carey’s potential publicity stunt, she has good reason to marry a guy 11 years her junior just to sell more copies of her new album, because music retail ain’t what it used to be. No pressure, Mariah, but the fate of the compact disc is in your hands.
See, back in February I asked a record producer in Boston when the local band he was producing planned to put out its next CD. He told me they’d probably bypass the format altogether and just press vinyl copies of their album with a digital download code in the sleeve. A few weeks later I read that Elvis Costello’s latest album, Momofuku, was going to be released the same way: vinyl with a download code, but no CD (though Lost Highway has since reversed its decision). And earlier this week I opened the current issue of Spin and saw an article on the surprising upswing of vinyl sales — apparently they’ve increased 15 percent since 2006, while CD sales have dropped 35 percent since 2000. Josh Bizar of vinyl retailer Music Direct says CDs probably won’t even be sold 20 years from now: “I think the CD will go the way of the cassette or the eight-track. But I can absolutely guarantee that LPs will still be made.”
To me this sounds a little like music writers and snobs taking the opportunity to write about their favorite audio format and using tried-and-true gloom-and-doom journalism tactics to convince whoever they can that the end is near for CDs. I remember seven or eight years ago when a few new reality shows were bombing on TV — critics took the opportunity to predict that viewers would soon tune out all reality shows, at which point the world would be safe again for these critics’ reviews of programs with real actors and real writers. Turn to any broadcast or cable network and you’ll see how that turned out.
Reality shows are cheaper to produce than sitcoms and dramas — it makes sense for networks to continue making them if people want to watch them, which they clearly do. Similarly, if people aren’t buying CDs like they used to, and the full product — the disc, the booklet, the jewel case — costs more to produce than intangible MP3s that can be made available on iTunes, it makes sense to go that route. But wasn’t vinyl supposed to go away completely after the introduction of the compact disc? Wasn’t that a gloom-and-doom prediction in the late ’80s?
Personally, I missed out on vinyl. The first album I ever owned was on cassette, but I don’t miss that format at all except for the blank tapes I bought from 1988 to 2005 and filled up with music from the radio and CDs. Whereas the albums on tape that were manufactured by record labels tended to warp and stretch pretty easily, the blank ones made by Sony and especially Maxell have held up over the years, if the ones in my collection are any indication.
I just don’t buy the notion that vinyl is making a sizable comeback, and I can’t quite believe that CDs will no longer be produced 20 years from now, although I am glad vinyl never went away for those who grew up buying LPs and 45s, because I don’t think any music format you love should be banished to oblivion completely. Before I had a CD player of my own, I tested out the one at my grandparents’ house in the fall of 1990, and I remember that my grandfather had an eight-track player sitting right next to it. I don’t know if he loved his eight-tracks as much as I love my blank tapes, but I certainly loved that he held onto his eight-track player long after it was replaced by newer technology.
I have no idea what’s next in terms of new technology, though the thought of keeping every song I own on a tiny external hard drive doesn’t seem like the answer I’ve been searching for. Sure, that hard drive takes up very little space when you think about how much it contains, but do I now need to buy a second hard drive that can be the backup drive in case the first one breaks down? New technology makes me tense.
I would like to make a formal apology, though, for helping to kill the music retail business. I didn’t mean to, of course. You see, in college in the mid- to late ’90s I bought CDs at a Best Buy in Athens, Georgia. I had disposable income, but I didn’t want to dispose of all of it, so instead of spending $14.99 at an independent record store like Big Shot downtown, I’d drive to Best Buy and pay $9.99 instead.
But that’s not all. In 2000, when I first saw what Napster was capable of, I was mesmerized. I used it at a dot-com job I had at the time, and when I was told three months after I started that I was being laid off, the first thing that ran through my mind was: I’m going to lose 600 songs.
I clearly had my priorities in order. For the next four years my home computer was a green iMac with a modem connection, so there was no point in trying to access Napster or LimeWire. I continued to buy CDs and put the songs on blank tapes that I could listen to in my car, but I bought more and more of those CDs from Amazon.com instead of brick-and-mortar stores like Tower Records and Spin Street.
It gets worse. In 2004 I bought a new computer, which I’m using right now, but it’s four years old, so it’s obviously the equivalent of an eight-track player at this point. But back then it was shiny and new and exciting, and I could finally access a dirty little file-sharing program like LimeWire. In ’04 iTunes’s selection wasn’t that great, and occasionally I’d end up buying a song that unexpectedly had five extra seconds of silence up top. You expect me to pay 99 of my hard-earned cents for an unreliable piece of digital merchandise like that, Apple? Forget it! I’ll start up LimeWire instead and download the glitch-free version at no charge. Don’t worry — I’ll only take a few songs. It’s a faceless crime, and besides, the record labels have been ripping off loyal customers like me for years with albums that contain three good songs and a bunch of filler, even on “Best of the ’70s”-type compilation discs. No real harm done, right?
Well, four years later a lot of harm has been done. And it’s all my fault.
According to a New York Times article published on the eve of this year’s Record Store Day, nearly 3,100 record stores in the U.S. have closed since 2003, half of which were independently owned, and that figure doesn’t include the 89 Tower Records outlets that closed in 2006. (Virgin Megastore still has ten stores in the U.S., but they’ve closed 17 since 1999, including the one in Chicago that was shuttered last July.) Now I feel an obligation to buy CDs from independent stores in Chicago and ones that are listed on Amazon.com as part of the site’s “Marketplace” program even when their selection isn’t exactly what I had in mind.
Then again, the selection wasn’t that great when I was in grade school, middle school, and high school and I was shopping for cassettes and CDs at places like Camelot Records or Turtle’s Records and Tapes. It’s easy for me to forget that even though the Internet has made it possible to find almost any song or album I could want, it isn’t necessary that I find any of it. I’m thrilled these days when I walk into a grocery store and hear a song on the PA that I can’t identify, even after I go home and plug some of the lyrics into Google. Sometimes it’s actually comforting to reach a dead end in this age of instantly accessible information. (In all seriousness, though, if you can identify a Trammps-like R&B song from the ’70s that contains the lyrics “It’s my piece of the rock / It’s the only thing I’ve got,” I’d appreciate you passing along the artist and title. Thank you.)
I need to find ways to simplify my music consumption. There’s too much to listen to these days thanks to CDs you can check out from the library, MP3s that friends attach to e-mails, and music blogs like the one you’re reading right now. Granted, I lack the willpower to refuse all this music, mainly because I hate the possibility of missing out on the next great song to blow my mind, like when I heard Wheat’s “Closer to Mercury” on Jefitoblog two years ago. And though I don’t want to go back to my sixth-grade routine of listening to Paul Simon’s Greatest Hits, Etc. every afternoon for months on end until I have every lyric memorized, I do want to stop acquiring new stuff and start listening more closely to the stuff I already have.
But I also need to support local record stores more than ever before. Hmm … what to do? Maybe the solution is to marry a pop diva and give away lots of her money to independent record shops while she’s either on tour or off at Scientology reeducation camp. In fact Li’l L. Ron just whispered in my ear some encouraging rumors he’s heard about Jessica Simpson’s current relationship status. Keep your fingers crossed!