Friday, March 19, 2004

MP3s and the White Album

If you've seen the movie Men in Black, you'll probably remember the scene where Tommy Lee Jones leads Will Smith into a lab where MIB have consolidated a number of various technologies from alien planets. Jones picks up a small item, tells Smith that it'll one day replace CD's, and adds the punch line, "Guess I'll have to buy the White Album again." As a Beatles fan, I got a kick out of that line. And after all, back then in 1997, I'd say the CD was still at its peak of popularity — what a laugh, the ultra-modern compact disc: obsolete.

Six and a half years later, of course, and the prevalence of MP3s is threatening (or, promising — depends on your viewpoint, I suppose) to fulfill that prediction. Although I don't think it applies for a specific album, there are quite a few songs that I now have in four formats: vinyl album, tape cassette, compact disc, and now MP3. (Actually, five formats, if you include vinyl 45's. Sorry, no eight-tracks, although I have a friend whose dad had an eight-track of Abbey Road.) It actually caught me by surprise the other day — and probably dated me — when I realized that the Beatles CDs have now been on the market for 17 years. I still remember when they came out in those black cardboard containers; the sound of the first one sounded great after hearing them on a bad turntable for years (although today the CDs even reveal limitations — compare the original CDs with the 1999 remastered Yellow Submarine Songtrack). It doesn't seem that long ago, yet when they came out, the 17 years since their last release seemed like an eternity.

In some ways, MP3s are great — not only are they generally convenient for listeners, but they also make it easier for bands to get their work out in the public. That doesn't make it any easier to look at your CD collection and see it as yesterday's technology, though. (Now all you young'uns know how those of us born prior to 1980 felt about our record collections!)

Anyhow, that's a long way of saying that James Bow has an interesting post this week on technology and its obsolescence. James speaks specifically about the device used to play the media (in his case, a DVD player), rather than the media itself (the DVD), which takes Men in Black and presents the other angle: that every music lover will have to buy a new player to listen to their new copy of the White Album.

Incidentally, as I started to write this blog, I did a quick Google search for "Men in Black" "White Album", to see if I could find the exact line from the movie. Turns out I'm not the only one who noticed that line and reflected on music reproduction technology's perpetual obsolescence.


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