I can still remember the first record I ever bought. It was Christmas of 1969 and I had received a toy racing car that hadn't worked as a present so I went downtown to exchange it for something else either on Boxing Day or the day after. I can't remember how it came about that I decided I didn't want another racing car, but wanted a record instead, but I ended up buying a copy of The Beatles' Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
I can still remember the feel of that album in my hands, and looking down at the four of them dressed in their band uniforms on the front cover and the lyrics written out on the back. It was still in the days of the Beatles being on Capitol Records so the label at the centre of the disc was an ugly orange with the Capitol dome in Washington sketched on it. In those days records were solid chunks of vinyl, not the flimsy pieces of shit they became by the end of the 1980s when they were being phased out by the record companies. So it didn't wobble or shake when you touched it, but just sat there big and sturdy. It made you feel like the music could last forever.
I held onto that album even when others were lost and destroyed over the years, and it wasn't until in the last few years that I actually finally got rid of it. It probably hadn't been playable for the last five years I owned it, but it was the first record I ever bought. It became especially important to me when they started getting rid of LPs and only selling recordings on tapes and CDs. The quality of records went down the tubes to the point where you could probably only play them once before they would start skipping so my old friend was a memento of how things used to be better when it came to LPs.
The worse thing about getting rid of LPs was how purchasing a CD or a tape diminished the experience of buying music. Instead of picking up a package that measured about a foot by a foot, all of a sudden you're looking at something that's maybe five inches by five inches. Bands that had looked larger than life in their cover art were now reduced to inconsequential figures surrounded by information you needed an electron microscope to read. Yet if I had thought those were dark days, if was only because I hadn't yet experienced the horror to come: downloading.
Now I couldn't give a rat's ass about any of the ethical questions surrounding downloads – the music industry squawking about people's morals evokes as much sympathy from me as a Klansman complaining he got his white sheet dirty from burning a cross on someone's lawn. These are the same people who used to do their best to ensure that artists signed away the sweat of their hearts for as little money as possible after all. Anyway most of them jumped on the bandwagon as soon as they figured out how they could control the music and saw how much money it would save them.
When I first started reviewing music in 2005 part of the enjoyment of the process was having the CD delivered to my home. This isn't something I receive money for very often, if ever, so actually receiving the disc with its packaging as a memento of the experience was the only reward open. Now, instead of sending out even promotional copies of a disc, a bare bones item without any of its final packaging, most companies are requiring reviewers to download the music from secure sites, or worst yet only letting them listen to it on line.
I don't know about anyone else, but I don't own a mp3 player and I'm not about to run out and buy one either (see above about not getting paid), and I don't really want to sit around tied to my computer in order to listen to music, which means I have to buy blank discs and burn the music to disc in order to write a review. Yet the worst thing is what we've lost because of this, experiencing the excitement of holding a new piece of music in your hands. The anticipation brought on by looking at the cover, reading the song titles before listening, looking at the art work, and trying to guess what it might have to do with the music. But most of all, losing the connection that you used to feel to the performer when you'd see their face- or faces – looking back up at you from the cover or the inside spread.
Even the meanest packaging that would come from the smallest of companies allowed you some sort of connection to whomever it was you were reviewing, but with downloads its gone completely. It's like the music all of a sudden exists in a vacuum. Oh sure some of labels have information packages you can download to your computer as well as the tracks, but it's not the same thing to look at something on your monitor as holding it in your hands.
There's something about the attitude behind asking a reviewer to download music that bothers me – it's like they're the ones doing us the favour by letting us listen to the music. However we're the ones giving them free publicity not the other way around. We're providing them with a service for which they don't have to pay a cent – making it possible for thousands, potentially millions, of people to know about their product. How much would they have to pay for that kind of advertising?
What really gets me is that it's the biggest companies who are the worst for this, while the small independents still send you out not only the final CD, but information sheets and press releases. It feels like the big companies figure because there are so many reviewers on the Internet it doesn't matter how they treat us and are cynically counting on enough individuals being thrilled at being "allowed" to download music before anyone else that they will still get their free advertising.
Yesterday I received an LP in the mail from a small company in Germany. That means they paid for a record to be safely shipped across the Atlantic Ocean on the off chance that I might own a turntable and be willing to review it for them. As I was standing there holding it, looking at the packaging, I felt the same stirrings of excitement that I had some forty years ago when I held my first ever record. It made me realize all over again what we've lost with progress. I'm no Luddite filled with hatred for machines as I cheerfully use my computer, the Internet, a DVD player, and other modern electronic convenience, but I can't stand to see how they are used on occasion to make our lives less then they once were. In the future, if I'm offered a link to an Internet address instead of a CD, I'll politely ask for a hard copy. If told they aren't available, I won't be either.