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House of Cards

A newsflash just passed through the ether that CD sales last week were the lowest in almost 10 years. The No. 1 CD in the country is the new Johnny Cash CD, which sold an unremarkable 80,000 units. For perspective, during the boy-band scare of the late ’90s, new CDs would routinely sell a couple million on their first day.

Now, this may be an aberration. You know, like all those phony claims about global warming. But I don’t think so.

CDs are a dying breed. Make room in the basement, in the corner where you keep the dregs of your vinyl record collection. Your CDs are moving in.

The more people get broadband Internet, the more digital downloads become attractive. Drop-dead gorgeous is more like it. The only thing holding the deluge back is the inevitable jockeying for a standard format, a universal means of getting and listening. This isn’t likely to resolve itself anytime soon, but it will eventually.

You don’t need 75 minutes of music from every artist you take a fancy to. You probably don’t need more than a song or two. And you certainly don’t need the idiotic “jewel case” or a shiny plastic disc or a glossy little book you’ll maybe look at once, if you can get it out of the idiotic jewel case without trashing it. All you need is a digital file, that you can put on a hard drive somewhere, stick on a gizmo that you can put in your pocket, and maybe burn onto a CD with 15 or 20 of your other favorite songs by different artists.

If this all sounds foreign or scary to you, it’s time to wake up. This has been the future for a long time.

ITunes is, of course, the big kahuna, but the tracks you get from the iTunes store are burdened with anti-copying restrictions. Microsoft is taking aim at Apple, and is going to release a much ballyhooed “iPod killer” device this fall, which is supposedly going to lure people away from the iTunes music store to Microsoft’s music store. Microsoft, of course, will fail, because, well, Microsoft generally sucks no matter what they do. Unless Microsoft takes the bold step of selling tracks without anti-copying restrictions. And they should, because it’s inevitable.

Because I think what’s going to happen is that competition will eventually result in the peeling off of the onerous restrictions that currently burden most legitimately purchased digital-download files. Millions of people (like me) are flocking to the Russian site for music, and not just because tracks are about 10 cents apiece. The site is also popular because, unlike any pay-download site, you can get songs in your choice of formats (I get straight MP3s) and qualities (I like near-CD quality 320 bps), and all of the formats are free of the goopy anti-copying restrictions that almost all of the online music vendors slather on their downloads. You can copy and transfer the songs all you want without fear.

I say “almost all music vendors” because a crack in the wall occurred last week. Yahoo’s music store offered a Jessica Simpson track as a straight MP3, without any restrictions at all. Yahoo’s charging a premium, $1.99, for the track, but it’s a start, notwithstanding the fact that most people who would want to buy a Jessica Simpson song are probably too stupid to know the difference. Yahoo did this to draw attention to its music store, and to distinguish itself from everybody else. I’d like to think that it’s the modest beginning of the end for the rampant anti-copying technologies that are screwing up most people’s digital music collections.

And Microsoft’s only hope of making a dent in iTunes’ hegemony is do Yahoo one better and offer its entire catalog as a real alternative, and right now the only alternative on the horizon, the only one people want (whether they know it or not) is untampered, unrestricted music downloads.

And for crying out loud, don’t do it at $1.99 a track. That’s just ridiculous.

My band, Blotto, had its first CD go out of print recently. We’re selling nicely on iTunes and about 20 other (and lesser) online music sites. I seriously considered just not reprinting any more CDs—why deal with the expense, the hassle, the shipping, the shelf-space and the goddamned jewel-boxes? But I realized that, well, we’re talking about a collection of 25-year-old music here, with prospective purchasers who—how can I say this delicately?—tend to trend to an older demographic? Many Blottophiles, I suspect, aren’t yet completely hep to that crazy digital scene, daddy-o. So, it’s probably a good idea for us keep the CDs available, at least for now, and we will.

But if we had a geezer-free fan base, I don’t think we’d bother. Kids don’t care about CDs anymore. Why should they?

—Paul Rapp

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