Downloads trump record collections

To collect or not to collect?

Is it better to surround yourself with a shrine-like wall of CDs and DVDs, or free up that bookcase and home-entertainment center with a virtual "collection" that exists digitally - on iPod or computer hard drive?


The debate heated up again when Apple rolled out its new iPod Hi-Fi speaker system, which can connect to a TV and other audio sources.

With the new docking device, Apple CEO Steve Jobs assured early adopters, your "music is not on CDs in your cabinet. It's on your iPod."


The idea of not having a tangible music collection - be it CD, cassette or vinyl album - has rattled some ardent collectors. They argue that without something to touch and discuss, you forfeit something fundamental.

"We're a culture of pack rats, and very much into owning in physical ways," said Sean Wargo of the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington, Va. "We prefer to interact with our machines the way we interact with each other - by sight and touch. It makes us feel more secure."

But the convenience of downloading music has changed all that, Wargo adds. For many consumers, speed and portability now trump any sense of well-being that comes from holding a prized CD or album.

Lucy Chen and Jon Tin, both 16, agree wholeheartedly. Both would be lost without their MP3 players. "I down all my songs," says Jon. "Online just makes it easier, and I don't think I'm losing any interaction with friends."

Adds Teresa Wu, 17, of Fremont, Calif.: "I stopped collecting CDs the old way back in seventh grade. It's nice to have your little plastic case and stuff on the artist, but it's so much more convenient to keep music digitally."

How you squirrel away that new album by Mariah Carey or Death Cab for Cutie - on bedroom shelf or hard drive - says a lot about your personality and could affect your emotional well-being, say psychologists. The collector who can reach out and touch his collection may be happier in the long run.

"All that computer collecting takes its toll - you're forfeiting face-to-face interaction with people who share your passion," says I. David Marcus, a San Jose, Calif., psychologist who specializes in online behavior. "And that means you don't learn how to read social cues as well."

Or, enjoy that warm and fuzzy rush some call nostalgia.


"The MP3 and iPod guys are more into accessibility, having the medium in hand," says Brian Hartsell, 50, who runs San Jose's Analog Room, which sells turntables and LPs. "The people who come into my store are into sound quality and nostalgia. Listening to the Beatles and the Kinks reminds them of their youth."

Indeed, those who collect CDs and vinyl LPs are less into convenience than sound quality. CDs and LPs when ripped and compressed (by 50 to 60 percent) for audio files lose important data and, consequently, fidelity. So, if you're a purist with a large classical music collection, audiophiles say you'll be disappointed by MP3-quality music.

Son Chau, 17, of San Jose is torn between the old and new. He has 150 CDs (artists such as Dilated Peoples and De La Soul) on his 20GB iPod, and another 120 discs stored on a bedroom shelf. He even owns vinyl LPs with an older brother.

"I'm more old-fashioned," Son says. "It's convenient to access your music with iPod, but it's fun to have something you can touch and pass back and forth. With iTunes, all you have are files. It's not as meaningful."

This is music to psychologist Marcus' ear. A member of the Silicon Valley Psychotherapy Center in San Jose, he doesn't think collecting has gone out of vogue; it has just morphed into something different.

"The need to collect hasn't gone away - it's just changed from the tactile to the virtual," says Marcus, who collected comic books and baseball cards as a kid. "Now, instead of CDs, people are collecting downloads and playlists."


And the very definition of "permanency" has changed.

"As a culture, we romanticize objects, give them meaning and value," observes Sylvain Boies, a psychologist who treats online addictions. "These new collectors just do it differently: There's no fear of 'What happens if I lose it?' If you lose it, you download another."

Retailers who specialize in cases and racks for collections are preparing for a change in the marketplace.

"Our sense is that people with iPods haven't gotten rid of their other collections - they've just added a collection," said Bette Kahn, spokeswoman for Crate & Barrel. "Our spring line has lots of media-storage boxes for CDs and DVDs."

Marcel Manzardo, the Los Gatos, Calif., designer of the DiscSox storage sleeve, which takes up less space than the conventional jewel box, acknowledges that when it comes to collecting "it's a whole new ball game" and more young people are going the download route. Manzardo himself has 7,000 songs on an iPod and another 16,000 on his PC. His clients, he says, collect the old-fashioned way, and, even if they do download, want a backup CD.

The need to collect may even be stronger now, psychologists surmise, because we're all so anxious about the world situation and have so much more information to process.


But instead of sitting alone and staring at a display screen, we should be sharing our collections with friends.

"Something has been lost," Marcus says. "You don't invite people to your house and show them your online playlist."

Maybe so, but digital storage is the future, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

"It's becoming a challenge to manage all of our digital content - photos, home videos, DVDs, music," Wargo says. "Besides iPods, the answer is media servers that allow us to control digital content from room to room."

Lucy Chen likes the sound of this. The teenager definitely isn't nostalgic for CD racks and carousels.

"I've always been exposed to the Internet and downloads," she says. "Our generation is just growing up this way. We don't feel like we're missing out on anything because we have nothing to compare it with."