Both Sides Now

by Chin Wong - Date: 2006-12-23 - Word Count: 843 Share This!

LOST in the hazy memories of my youth is a vague recollection of buying vinyl records to play on our second-hand Pioneer turntable.

The music store I frequented, now long gone, was called Carousel, and the thing I remembered most about this pleasant, air-conditioned haven was that it had a listening booth where you could check out the songs on an album before you bought it.

For the benefit of younger readers who may never have experienced this, a long-playing record or LP was about a foot in diameter and had a hole right in the middle of it to keep it in place on a phonograph's spinning turntable. Each side generally held 15 to 20 minutes of music, and you had to flip the record around to play Side B-also called the flip side.

This was analog technology through and through. Sound was miraculously produced by a stylus or a needle running along the grooves of a record. This was a mature technology that had already been around for about 70 years by the time I was old enough to buy my own music.

There was something wonderfully exciting about bringing home a new LP and slitting open the shrink-wrap plastic to get at the prize inside-an excitement that was missing from the next popular analog medium for music, cassette tapes.

Music cassette tapes started showing up in stores in the 1970s and peaked in popularity with the introduction of the Sony Walkman a decade later-the analog precursor of today's ubiquitous MP3 players.

The good thing about tapes was that unlike LPs, they were portable. The bad thing about them was that they were unreliable and prone to getting entangled inside the mechanism of a cassette player. Over time, tapes were also susceptible to molds.

I miss records; I do not miss cassette tapes.

All these analog media were swept away in the years that followed the arrival of digital audio compact discs or CDs in 1982.

Compact discs promised even better sound quality than LPs, which could get scratchy with constant playing. Nothing touches the surface of a CD, promoters of the new format said, explaining how a laser beam would read data off the disc. Expensive at first, CDs eventually became the most popular media for distributing music, especially as prices for CD players dropped rapidly. Today, after more than 20 years, the CD is still the dominant medium for music distribution.

But as a great songwriter once said, everything put together sooner or later falls apart. We're probably seeing signs that audio CDs and the whole record store culture are going to be the next victims of the Internet and digital technology.

Just recently, the Washington Post ran an excellent piece on the last days of Tower Records, a music industry institution that was closing its remaining 89 stores in the United States after filing for bankruptcy some time ago. There were many factors behind Tower's fall, but most accounts agreed that the downloading of music over the Internet had taken a heavy toll on the retail chain.

And it's not just Tower Records. Go to any "music" store these days and you'll probably see movies getting more shelf space than music. Consumers--with their iPods and MP3 players--know where to get their music.

From a technology standpoint, the trend is logical and irreversible. As broadband access spreads, more and more people will be able to quickly download music, cutting out the middle man. Moving bits over the Internet is simply more efficient than moving boxes from warehouses to stores.

Culturally, however, music lovers today who only know iTunes or Limewire will never experience the excitement of walking into a record store-with a bewildering array of choices laid out before them--and the joy of discovering a jewel or two after hours of flipping through record or CD racks. Serendipity works differently online.

They will also be unable to read through liner notes and appreciate some of the outstanding art and photography that accompanied record albums as they listen to their loot. Viewing the album art on an iPod just doesn't compare.

I forwarded the Washington Post piece to Bill and Ben, two friends who have done their share of treasure-hunting in record stores here and in the United States. They talked about Naida's Record Center in the old Sta. Mesa Market in Manila, The Rastro in Shoppesville in Greenhills, San Juan, and record stores I didn't recognize from New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. It's a good bet most of the stores are gone now.

"The past is a great place to visit; one just has to be careful not to stay there too long," Bill wrote at the end of his reminiscences. Added Ben: "Tears are falling from my eyes, man, as my Powerbook fills up with the strains of 977 megabytes of Mozart's violin sonatas… My 30-gigabyte iPod is a wonderful thing, and I'm glad it's the present day instead of yesterday."

All of which reminds me of something Joni Mitchell wrote back in 1968. "Well, something's lost and something's gained in living everyday," she wrote--in a song aptly called Both Sides Now.

Related Tags: mp3, digital audio, online music, record industry

From Digital Life by Chin Wong

Chin Wong has been covering the technology industry since the 1980s, starting as a reporter for Business Day, Southeast Asia's first daily business newspaper. He is now a lecturer in journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines and associate editor for the Manila Standard Today. Before that, he also served as technology editor of the Manila Times until October 2004.

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