You can’t download a sandwich

By Jonathan Jacobson

When I headed home to Chicago over break, I made sure to go shopping.

Now, the normal connotation here implies department stores, malls and over-crowded parking lots, those bastions of American consumerism. Fortunately for my sanity, I didn’t have to deal with any of that trash.

I left Champaign-Urbana with a singular purpose and goal: to return chock full of new music in the form of records, CDs and, if possible, an 8-track or two.

These items were to be purchased in independent, neighborhood record stores, the kind you just can’t find in East Central Illinois. The type of place where, if you ask for the latest Linkin Park album, you are turned away at the door.

I ultimately walked away with some great new stuff from these places but I realized, when I tried to tell some friends about it, that virtually everyone was completely unimpressed.

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“You wasted $12.99 on that crap,” a friend said. “Couldn’t you just download it?”

That was when I came to terms with my worst addiction, the hypocrisy of which serves a dual purpose: to empty my wallet and to turn me into a slow-moving target for greedy record executives.

The addiction – that is, purchasing music at tangible places of business instead of doing it in my boxers at 3 a.m. via my laptop – gives me something of a rush. This rush, I have found, cannot be replicated by watching a download bar move from left to right and double-clicking a few times.

Call me old-fashioned – and you certainly wouldn’t be the first – but I need to physically hold the music in my hand, to feel and see it before me. And I don’t believe that I am the only one.

More people would buy CDs if the prices were actually controlled by normal market impulses. But the record industry has simply not responded to the fact that consumers believe they have set their prices too high. Far too high. They have also been pathetically slow in making music available to people in new, innovative ways.

Apple practically had to beg record execs to hop on board the iTunes boat and, when they finally did, they demanded that the music not be sold without DRM, digital rights management, which hampered the ability of listeners to do what they do best: listen.

Now, purchasing a physical CD is practically unheard of, completely passé. And as with the death of virtually any product, it is mostly the fault of the producer.

This is not to say that those who steal music are right and the record companies are wrong. But the music theft plague might have been avoided had someone at a conference table said, “Hey, I don’t think people want to pay 15 bucks for a CD anymore. We need to make some changes in the way we produce, package and market our music.”

Instead, that guy was fired on the spot and replaced with packs of ravenous and sharply dressed lawyers.

But it’s not all bad news. Nine Inch Nails released an album three weeks ago that offers hope to both music buyers and sellers.

Listeners could choose from a free download of one-fourth of the album, a $5 download of the whole thing, a $10 double-CD or a $75 set with some bonus video material. They also sold 2,500 deluxe editions, all signed by singer Trent Reznor, at $300 a pop.

The whole package has now grossed $1.6 million and sold 800,000 copies, an enormous success by any measure. The catch: It had to be done by a very popular, if strangely named, band without major label backing. Nine Inch Nails left Interscope, a subsidiary of Vivendi Universal, after a very nasty and public quarrel.

That independent and risk-taking attitude could have saved the major record labels from the ruin they are facing and will continue to face until they make changes in their industry.

Stealing music has become something of a habit, a compulsion that may be too hard to break now that people have been doing it for so long. But if there is still anyone out there with a desire to hold music instead of just data, the industry may still have a chance.

John McCrea, the lead singer of the band CAKE, recently took an admirable stance on the world of free downloads.

“I want music to be free,” he told The Onion’s AV Club. “But I also would love sandwiches to be free, and rent to be free.”

As soon as I can download my corned beef on rye, I’ll think differently.

Jonathan is a senior in english and rhetoric and never did find that 8-track he was looking for.