Not so long ago or far away, there were record stores, where collections of music recorded on vinyl LP (long-playing) discs were sold in artful cardboard albums.
They were funky havens, the air sometimes thick with the scent of strawberry incense, and music pumped through the speakers all day. The folks who worked there - perhaps a little quirky but usually approachable - could tell you almost anything you wanted to know about the latest sounds.
Music lovers would take the albums they purchased home, mount the vinyl discs on turntables and savor the intimacy and physicality of placing the needle in the first groove, listening to the faint background hum of the amp as they studied the album art.
But then big-box stores like Best Buy and Circuit City squeezed these friendly neighborhood shops with their larger selections and lower prices of high-quality compact discs. When they were done, Apple squeezed some more, offering lightning-quick iPod downloads of almost any cut you want. Last year, total album sales dropped 7 percent while digital track downloads rose 150 percent.
Now, the download sound is becoming even more pristine. Recently, Apple announced that it will offer digital tracks from the EMI catalog at higher quality 256 kbps AAC encoding, resulting in a sound indistinguishable from the original recording, for $1.29 per song.
For many, the music revolution is nearly over. The turntable is an antique and digital portable super-perfect music is the standard insisted on by any thoughtful listener.
But some rebels still resist. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, vinyl sales, which for years have constituted only 1 percent of overall music sales, have doubled since 2000 to become a $110 million industry. Although that number is microscopic compared with the $12.2 billion generated by digitized music sales in that time, it is still a strong sign that vinyl isn't vanishing anytime soon.
But as musical products increasingly move from tactile to ethereal, record rebels ask: Are we missing something in the listening experience? With new sounds just a click away, do we actually spend time getting to know music anymore?
"It's in a transitional phase. It's too early to say what people in the age of iPods and MP3s will miss in the listening experience," says Stephen Thomas Erlewine, senior editor of pop music at All Media Guide, a Michigan-based company that maintains a large database of metadata about music, movies, video games and audio books. "But it's not the same as immersing yourself in the music the way people did in the LP era."
Indeed the vinyl lovers argue that back in the seemingly prehistoric days of records and tapes, the listening experience was more absorbing. You felt as if you were a part of it. Because you couldn't easily scan an album or cassette, you were almost forced to get to know the music track by track.
With LPs, especially ones packaged in gatefold covers, the art was like an entrance into the music - evocative of the richly layered sounds inside. The elaborate renderings on the covers of classic albums by Jimi Hendrix (Axis: Bold as Love, 1968), Miles Davis (Bitches Brew, 1970), Santana (Abraxas, 1970) and Prince (Around the World in a Day, 1985) seemed to pull you into the complex, often revelatory music. LP covers also sometimes served as artwork, adorning bedroom and dorm room walls. With repeated plays, the vinyl acquired pops and hisses that seemingly gave the music more character.
"Well, the quality of recording has certainly come a long way from the scratch and pop of the vinyl record and the distortion of the overplayed cassette tape," says Justin Jarvinen, founder of VerveLife, a digital media agency in Chicago. "The high-quality digital download has improved the listening experience, but it's the experience that's been affected in the new digital world."
Before CDs and musical downloads, the listening experience was often more intimately shared.
"With vinyl in particular, it was more appreciated in the home because you couldn't take your record player in your pocket," says Jim Fallacaro, president of Global Music International Inc., a Connecticut-based digital content aggregator that delivers music videos and music tones to the telecommunications industry. "Now with the iPod and MP3s, it's a more personal type of device, which has its good points and bad points. There isn't that shared experience of inviting people over to listen to new music. But convenience is a good thing."
The boom of downloading has made music of any kind more accessible than ever.
"Growing up, I trusted the guys in the record shop and what they said was hip," says Anthony Yanow, the managing director of Music.com, a Los Angeles company that offers a social network service for artists and individuals and an extensive music database of artist biographies, album information and audio samples. "Now, there are so many channels and ways to find music. ... It's intimidating and overwhelming. It used to be that people shared what was new. Now, we're in an instant-gratification world, so we shuffle through songs on the iPod."
Whether today's pop is more disposable than that of yesterday is open to endless debate, but one thing is certain: The ways in which we consume music continue to change. In the midst of it all, recording companies struggle to stay relevant during a time when music buyers seem to have more control over the ways they acquire the latest sounds.
"The big labels are watching their foundation crumble," says Music.com's Yanow. "But what can they do about it with so much massive fragmentation of the pop audience? The record companies are not embracing technology, so they're not going to be anything close to what they were."
Perhaps listening to music, getting lost in the sounds and the packaging, will never be what it was in the days when character-rich record shops dotted the neighborhood and friends invited you over to check out new grooves.
"You did spend more time with music during the vinyl age," says AMG's Erlewine. "You gave yourself over to the music then. But that experience doesn't lend itself to an iPod, where you can easily skip through thousands of songs. With so much music and so much variety, who has time to listen anymore?"