February 22, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

Big Black Beauties In My Home

The list left me baffled, then I laughed. It appeared some weeks ago in some local paper, I don't recall which. It was a comparison of the various formats in which you can get music these days, listing the pros and cons of each. Now I long ago gave up trying to keep track of music formats -- isn't there a new one every hour? And being as seriously acronym-challenged as I am, I don't even know their names well. So forgive me if I get a few wrong here, not that I care if I do. The list compared CD, DVD, MP49, XLRI, DAT, HMO, UNICEF and maybe some more.

Ordinarily I wouldn't have paid it much attention. But a few words under "CD" caught my eye. With impressive and dismissive authority, CDs were described scornfully as "outdated," "unreliable" and "prone to skipping."

Hmm, I thought, this rings a shiny bell. Precisely those words were once applied to something else; and at that time they told us CDs were forever. I can see it happening again. But this time, I'm not going to fall for it. No sir.

All these thoughts, because I have spent the morning I write this in bliss, listening to a stash of music I haven't heard in nearly ten years. All my favourites. "Nonfiction" by the Blasters, which for me is the finest rock album of all time (with "Barefoot Rock", for me the finest rock song ever); my Beausoleil albums that sometimes sound almost Indian; my Joe ("I Keep My Fingernails Long So They Click When I Play The Piano") Ely albums; my Ponty Bone and the Squeezetones ... all are reverberating through my home again. Because I finally got around to resurrecting both an old turntable and an old amplifier that has input jacks labelled "phono."

Phono, for "phonograph," or turntable. Those funny things with a swivelling arm? That played those large black vinyl discs called LPs, or records? Remember them? I never have forgotten, because a few hundred have gathered a decade's worth of dust in my home. Those of you too young to remember are welcome to come gawk at my collection sometime. Prior appointment recommended. Bring a stock of suitable awe.

So yes, I am thrilled to hear all that music again. Tell me, if you like, that my ears have a decade's worth of wax in them -- but these big black babies sound just excellent to me.

Time was, I was an inveterate buyer of music. I started in the early '80s, those prehistoric days before the CD when real music came on LPs. The music industry was in a prolonged worldwide slump at the time. Newspapers in the USA, where I was at university, carried regular stories that analysed the downturn and wondered what might be a solution. The villain, as record industry head bananas never tired of pointing out, was -- drum roll here -- the blank cassette tape.

Buy one at a fraction of the cost of a new LP, and you could record Katrina and The Waves' latest melodious outpourings. No need to buy the LP yourself. This trend was, the bananas would go on dolorously, a vast threat to the industry, to the economy, perhaps even to the survival of the civilized world itself!

Of course the real threat they were talking about was to the bananas' Beverly Hills existence. Which may have been the same thing.

Me, I never cared for cassettes anyway. So I spent years sacrificing unnecessary frills like food and textbooks so I could buy new LPs. Still, not even my strenuous efforts managed to reverse the industry downturn.

Along came CDs, in about 1983. I began spending hard-earned money on them too. Only, in buying them, I was getting far less music for the buck. Not a specially inspired observation to make, because CDs cost far more than LPs. Yes. That new Fabulous Thunderbirds album would set me back eight or nine dollars if I bought it as a LP, but 16 dollars as a CD.

Twice the money, for the very same music.

We music fanatics went out and bought CDs by the armful.

Of course, the bananas gave us excellent reasons they had to charge us double for CDs. Are you ready? CDs sounded better, would last forever, were more reliable, wouldn't get scratched, were not prone to skipping, the technology they used was extremely advanced, and they had innumerable other extremely advanced features, including, no doubt, the ability to comb your hair. And -- I swear I actually watched an industry executive demonstrate this once -- you could fling CDs around the room -- even off the top of your building! -- and they would still play.

I trust you heard some shiny bells ringing in that rundown.

We music fanatics swallowed all the reasons whole.

In only a few years, LPs vanished from the shelves. But when they finally disappeared, could I have been the lone idiot who noticed that the price of CDs had never dropped? What had happened here? In those few years, the music industry had coerced us fanatics into forking over twice as much as we used to for music. But CDs cost about the same to produce as LPs, less than a dollar. So in those same few years, the profit the industry took to the bank, on each album we bought, had doubled.

And somebody was laughing raucously on the way to the bank, I'm sure.

Not a bad prescription to beat a depression, right? But there were still ample supplies of wool to pull over our eyes. Not content with just getting us to pay double, the industry found another ingenious way to separate us from our money. To enormous fanfare, they released a stream of ancient albums on CD. Again, we fanatics -- by now certainly, certifiably stupid fanatics -- bought them by the armful. Not caring that we had the same damned music at home on LP.

Here was bonanza indeed: we were paying twice what we should have, for music we already had on our shelves anyway!

More raucous laughing on the way to the bank, I'm sure. Or to Beverly Hills. Same thing.

More than anything else, the advent of the CD pulled the music industry bodily from its early-80s depression. It has never looked back. Me, I remember that time -- the coming of the CD -- as my first substantial lesson in marketplace dynamics. Make that marketplace deviousness.

And now, when they speak the same disparaging language about CDs that they once applied to LPs, I am particularly glad to be listening to my LPs again. Many of them date back to well before CDs -- if you can imagine -- yet they sound just as good as they ever did. If CDs are now supposed to be unreliable, my LPs have outlasted them by a mile.

So much for those words like "reliability" and "outdated." You can keep your fancy new MP5 or R2D2 or JPG players. I like those big round beauties in their foot-square album covers; I like those funky thingies that play them.

Welcome back, Lou Ann Barton and John Fogerty. For that matter, welcome back, Bal Gandharva, Ramakant Kamat and Kishore Kumar. Where I live, as long as I can help it, you guys on your black discs will never go out of style.

Dilip D'Souza

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