Songs and Scenes: iPods and the last stand of the liner notes

By Jonathan Hicks
Staff Writer

I gave away my age in last week’s Songs and Scenes. In a less direct fashion, I will do so again this week. For my birthday this year, I was given my first iPod. Of course, this means I am officially almost caught up with the technology of 2004. All I need now is a PlayStation, and I’ll be all set. But, I digress…

For the record, there was reasoning behind not buying an iPod. It is the same reason why, after the release of cassette tapes and compact discs, people still clung to vinyl records. It is why I tend to avoid digital music in general—I miss the artwork too much.

Knowledge and beauty lie in the art. I grew up believing albums were complete pieces of artwork. They were the visual component that took the audio to another level. Beyond that, as an information source, there is no substitute for flipping through liner notes.

Liner notes are like little encyclopedias—everything you need to know about an album is there. Where was an album recorded? Who produced it? Who is the primary songwriter? Were there any guest musicians? The answers are all there.

The liner notes can even tell you a little about the artist that the songs themselves might not. A “thank you” section is almost always included. These are windows into whom and what the artist finds important. As a rock journalist, this is an often overlooked, but invaluable, resource.

In the last decade or so, I have amassed a CD collection that numbers more than 1,000. It is an assortment I still feel is far from complete. Anytime I have a few extra dollars burning a hole in my pocket, I find an independent record store and pick up something new. Sure, the Apple website can tell me what other people think is good or popular, but then I am denied the chance to have a conversation with someone. One of the great aspects of a record store is hearing what song is playing on the loudspeaker and having a conversation with the shop owner/clerk about why they chose it.

To put it in perspective: I have bought more albums on vinyl in the last year than I have albums via digital media. I was an undergrad during the Napster file-sharing phase. That time taught me two things: 1) If digital music isn’t worth illegally downloading, it’s not worth downloading legally, either and 2) If music IS worth buying, it’s worth going to a store and purchasing.

I am going to enjoy having an iPod. It will make carrying around thousands of songs much easier. That said, you can also bet that when I next add new music to my cache, I will do so with a record in my hand, not with a folder on my laptop.

From the Aug. 25-31, 2010 issue

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