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The CD vs. the iPod deck: In a digital age, does anyone buy albums any more?

It really is the end of an era.
About 15 years ago, CDs were the coolest thing to ever happen to music: Small, slick, portable, with instant access to songs not previously afforded on vinyl or cassette.
But now the CD is yesterday's news. Album sales have dropped year after year, with surveys reporting that they dove 4.9 percent in 2006. It's getting harder and harder to find any teens who are still willing to fork over $15 for the old disc and jewel case.

Apple delivered a one-two punch to the CD format, first with the iPod and then with the iTunes store, a digital music store where you can purchase nearly any popular song for a mere 99 cents. And let's not forget that oh-so-sinister world of free downloading, either.
The iTunes store recently started offering "digital booklets" to try to replicate the feel of a CD.
So how can the CD manage to stay afloat? Is anyone even still interested in it?
Well, there seems to be a rare breed of people who would answer yes.
Nostalgia plays a big part in keeping the format alive. Jim Laudisio, an English teacher at Williamsville North and avid music fan, was a teenager when the CD was at its most popular. "I remember getting a bootleg copy of Nirvana's 'In Utero' in eighth grade; that kept me rapt for a while, and still does," he said. "Probably the most exciting CD release for me as a teenager was 'Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness' by the Smashing Pumpkins in 1995."

Laudisio has a "faux-pod" MP3 player that he loves for convenience, but he still has little faith in the digital music era. "There is a certain joy to obsessively arranging and cataloging one's records. Shopping for music, trolling through record bins at New World Record, is a joy in itself. Technology is terrific until it doesn't work, which is far too frequently for me to entrust my precious record collection to a device the size of a credit card," he said, adding that "we would do well to remember that one power surge can wipe out years of collecting and listening."
But what about teenagers who never truly experienced CD pandemonium? For them, one driving force that keeps record stores in business is loyalty. "A band's biggest fans will still go to the record store to buy their CDs to show support for the band," said Carl Morse, guitarist for local teen band John Stamos and the Full House. Nick Sessanna, singer of teen band The Kismet, adds: "I think it's important that if you're really psyched for a CD to come out, it's only right you support it [with a purchase]."

Most teens today always have their trusty iPod in their pocket, but some actually still prefer a CD. Williamsville North senior Kelly McCann said: "What I like about actually buying CDs is that I'm actually supporting the bands I enjoy financially, the quality of the sound is much higher, and it's nice to actually have a physical copy or recording in my possession." North junior Mackenzie Froese adds: "I don't own an iPod because technology and I do not go hand in hand. I'm a music nerd and I like discovering new bands. If I like [a band's] sound I'll buy the CD. You gotta help the band, and call me nostalgic, but CDs are way beyond iPods for me."
Unfortunately, all the loyalty in the world won't help the record stores. The legendary Tower Records chain recently went out of business. Recently, Buffalo was shocked to hear that Home of the Hits, a 25-year Buffalo landmark that specialized in hard-to-find CDs and vinyl, announced it was closing. That left New World Record and the multiple Record Theatres as the only local independent record stores.
Scott Rankie, manager of the Record Theatre at University Plaza, says he started noticing a drop in sales about a year and a half ago. "New releases have suffered the most," he said, but adds "when CD sales dropped, vinyl sales actually started going up." On the topic of Home of the Hits, Rankie says: "It was sad. I mean, they were the competition, but it was still bad to see the independent guy go down." He himself has no worries about the store: He knows they have loyal customers and knows the simple key to success in a music store: "Knowing what people want, and having it in stock." Rankie understands the advantage of the convenience of the iTunes store, but is against free downloading systems like Limewire, and he has no interest in purchasing an iPod.
New World Record also noticed declining sales around 2004, and found ways to deal with it. Owner Govindan Kartha says that to make up for shrinking disc sales, the store has increased its stock of nonmusic items, including posters, T-shirts, and offbeat action figures (anyone craving a Jesus action figure can find one at New World).

He also expressed sadness at the closing of Home of the Hits and record store giant Tower Records, which he says was "in a sense an independent store" due to its unique selection and genuine interest in music.
Kartha says that having knowledgeable employees with a true love of music is a key element in keeping record stores afloat. "I went into a Best Buy a while ago, and asked the guy in the music section where the Bob Dylan section was, and he didn't even know who Bob Dylan was!" he said.

Kartha includes a music quiz on the applications for new employees, to make sure applicants know their stuff. He does own an iPod, and adds "frankly, I love it," though he still always buys CDs.
And even if the iTunes store is bringing in big profits, there are still some musicians out there who see the value of a whole album and won't totally conform to the digital music trend. Several high-profile artists, including Radiohead, Tool and Led Zeppelin have not released any of their albums on the iTunes store, saying they want their albums heard as one work from start to finish rather than a bunch of songs that can be purchased individually.

Other artists have come up with creative ways to spark interest in their discs. Beck's latest CD, "The Information," took the idea of the album to a whole new interactive level: It included a blank cover and one of four sticker sets so fans could make their own cover. It also included a DVD featuring music videos shot by the band for all 15 tracks.

Rankie feels that if things keep going the way they are, the CD could become obsolete, though there will "always be a place for them." Kartha adds: "I'm not married to the CD format, but I am married to the idea of something that is physical and archival. If you lose that, you lose the sense of being able to talk about music. With everyone walking around with iPod headphones, it's hard to have music conversation."

Jason Silverstein is a sophomore at Williamsville North.

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