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Generation Next?

With Singles Emerging as Music's Preferred Currency, the CD May Soon Go the Way of the LP

By Bob Massey | Posted 2/11/2004

Looking on my iPod, there's no physical barrier between Maxwell, Melvins, Messiaen, Metallica, Miles Davis, Mouse On Mars, and Mozart. They are peers. They're all songs on a global album. This is promising--and weird.

See, I play in bands. I have played in bands longer than I haven't played in bands. I have made some records. Making records has been a goal of mine since I was very young. I still call them records, though I mean CDs. Now, however, I'm a guy who makes records (I mean CDs), but has no further use for records ( . . . CDs).

Actually, I don't make CDs. Other people make my CDs. I want those people to sell the CDs to other people for their mutual enjoyment. And profit. I want to get paid and I want my labels to thrive so I can make more CDs and tour.

But so, this iPod. When I buy CDs, I immediately transfer them to the iPod and then shelve them, where they sit untouched. My vinyl is long gone. The album as a discrete unit containing 10 or so songs feels increasingly dated. I am entering a post-CD era in which one single disc (my iPod) holds thousands of songs--the new unit of measurement.

Glad I'm not Edgar Bronfman Jr., who's buying Warner Music for a cool $2.6 billion. Because guess what, Edgar? A surprising number of school-age music lovers don't own a stereo. Instead, they have lots of hard-drive space. They don't miss lush 12-inch-square album art, and they don't kvetch about five-inch-square album art. A band's Web site is the album art. How very unlike my thirtysomething friends.

I remember a road trip with my dad, circa 1988, during which I suffered every oldies FM station between Richmond and Dallas. I probably heard this one Buddy Holly song a dozen times. I don't think my dad noticed. He had stopped listening 40 years earlier.

What happens when someone stops listening? Obviously, the plastic disc industry caters mostly to music lovers in their teens and 20s. But the industry erred by selling plastic, rather than music. Then Napster broke the seventh seal.

Vitality, whether of an industry or a person, is measured in growth. Decrepitude sets in when growth ceases. Napster was sued, bankrupted, and sold, but essentially it won. Maybe you saw that Super Bowl ad featuring Annie Leith. Maybe you're asking: "Wait, who?" She's the 14-year-old girl who was among the kids sued by the Recording Industry Association of America for downloading music free off the Internet. She has now likely recouped whatever legal fees she paid, thanks to Pepsi and, yup, Apple's iTunes--who are giving away 100 million songs on top of the 30 million-plus sold legally.

It's tempting to throw out some washy metaphor about the spirit being freed from the body, to grasp at grand metaphysical straws. But if we're gonna do dubious metaphors, it's closer to say the diminishment of the record album is like what happens when an adult body gives birth to a small, unfinished new body, which will succeed it in time. An industry and a generation are leaving artifacts of a moment, which will be studied, revered, and shrugged off.

I'm not sure how much longer I can trade CDs for money. I know as an aging (face it) listener, I work harder to stay open to the flood of musical ideas, just as I work harder to keep in shape. But on my iPod, Maxwell and Mozart are contemporaries. And every day sees another great new human song--for those who keep listening.

I'm lucky. Those of us who grew up with MTV got a well-balanced diet of hip-hop, new wave, metal, punk, and R&B. It's not just the iPod that enables a more catholic taste in music. An iPod full of individual tracks is just the fulfillment of an old promise.

The convergence of all these factors--dying industry, new technology, endless musical menu--creates an idea space where genre boundaries are transgressed with gusto. It's a great moment for art.

Look around. OutKast has a hit, "Hey Ya!," that sounds like Teenbeat Records circa 1993. Radiohead and Sigur Rós are scoring Merce Cunningham choreography. Agnostic Front played the Guggenheim thanks to Matthew Barney. Timbaland makes tracks as avant as anything that comes out of France's IRCAM Centre Pompidou. Kronos Quartet has commissioned a piece from Matmos. And then there's Björk, whose unclassifiable sound is revered by all of the above.

I have a friend who has decided that indie rock circa 1992 is simply "her" music--the sounds from which her adult identity was forged and in which it remains rooted. The One True Music of her lifetime. Keeping up with new music is too much effort; her mind is no longer so easily blown. Where some people shell out a hundred bucks for Stones tickets--or Prince or Pearl Jam--my friend and those like her insure that Guided by Voices or Frank Black or Stephen Malkmus will never want for royalties. At some level she has stopped listening. I couldn't help but think of my dad.

The record album is going away. So are you. Don't mourn yet. The rise of the phonograph in the 1900s meant that ordinary people who couldn't afford a steamship voyage to visit the great opera houses of Europe could still be blown away by Enrico Caruso. Tapes of the Velvet Underground helped undermine a totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia. Great things are afoot in this new era, too.

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