The Future of Recorded Music - Part 1

The Tower Records store at New York City's Lincoln Center isn't seeing particularly heavy foot traffic these days. Stopping by, I find just a shopper or two per aisle - pretty typical, a saleswoman says. And the customer demographic seems a bit on the mature side - hovering around 30 or older. Where are all the Rihanna- and AFI-loving kids?

Oh, wait - there's one: a skinny, shaggy-haired, black T- and jacket-clad guy, fingering through the experimental "downtown" stuff. As hinted by that light pair of headphones hugging his neck, Ken Jigarland, 17, of Manhattan owns a 60-gig iPod. So why is he perusing bins full of that almost-retro music-delivery system, the compact disc?

"I like to have the real thing," Jigarland says. "I like to have the album art. It's sort of a collector's thing as well - I want to have the albums of all the people I like to listen to. I do resent the price - I feel like it doesn't really need to be that expensive - but I still buy CDs."

And roughly 95% of music buyers still buy CDs, as opposed to that other 5% or so who buy online downloads. Still, every year the disc-heads lose some ground to the Pod people. Except for 2004, when the number of CDs shipped to retailers actually rose 2.8% from 2003, sales have been dropping an average of 7.6% per year. Legal downloads in 2005, meanwhile, rocketed 163.3% from 2004 (the year the Recording Industry Association of America started keeping track).

So is the CD spinning toward oblivion, or will it land softly on a nice plateau? Or will it fade into obsolescence while other physical media (the kind you can actually hold) take its place? After all, the new high-def HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc formats can play Dolby TrueHD, a new 7.1-channel format boasting lossless audio (the disc matches the studio master recording bit for bit). Or maybe we'll finally ditch those silver spinners completely for another physical format - something motion-free and impervious to scratches. Chips anyone? Or instead of listening to the music from a computer chip, maybe we'll have it fed directly into our brains (talk about "easy on the ears"!).

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