Technology Changes The Tune For Musical Gifts

Just a generation ago, music lovers could pretty much be guaranteed that underneath the Christmas tree would be a package approximately 12 inches by 12 inches, and very thin. No matter how lavishly it was wrapped, there was no disguising the LP album. The only mystery was which album, with which lavishly illustrated jacket, lay beneath the tissue paper.

A few years back, another sort of thin package was festooned and tucked into the stocking by the fireplace. This one measured not quite 5 inches by 5 inches, but again, it was not hard to discern that it was a CD, filled with music to please the ear of the recipient.

It all made finding a gift for the music lover in the family easy. A vinyl record album, 30 years ago, could be picked up in the record department of any large store or specialty shop, for not too much outlay of money. When CDs knocked the vinyl record from its throne, big box stores were happy to carry racks and racks of the compact discs, many at affordable prices just right for that little extra present.

But who owns a turntable now, or for that matter, who owns a CD player? Most people, young and old, get their music through a digital music service now, downloading individual songs from the Internet. An iTunes gift card does fit neatly into a stocking, and it is a method to guarantee that the recipient will get exactly the music he or she desires.

For some music lovers, though (and for many gift givers), there is something lacking in the gift of iTunes. Not only can the gift be provided without even an actual card — just find it a few clicks away on the computer or phone — but there is no anticipation of seeing a face aglow when the cover art comes into view beneath ripped apart wrapping, or even a look of puzzlement at the choice that encourages exploration of a new kind of music.

Technology has absolutely changed holiday gift giving, when it comes to music, said MSR record label director and promoter Robert LaPorta of Newtown.

“Music used to be the stuff you could give and get that sort of greased the wheel,” he said. But downloaded music has swiftly pushed CDs and vinyl under the bus.

“A download is quick, cheap, and a great way to explore a lot of different music. But it isn’t tangible,” Mr LaPorta said. Browsing on the iPod does not allow you to see a cover, as with a CD or LP, nor think about the music as a whole. He compared the experience of downloaded music to that of a Kindle reading experience vs handling a hardcover book.

“There are some things you don’t want to read on a Kindle; you like the book in your hand. It’s the same with music,” he said.

“With a download, you can end up having a superficial experience to some extent. The tactile experience of a CD or vinyl record is different from downloading music,” and said Mr LaPorta, a CD offers people the potential to truly develop an interest in a particular artist or type of music.

There is a tendency to push old technology aside, said Mr LaPorta, but he sees no reason for CDs, vinyl and downloaded music to not coexist harmoniously.

“Maybe the CD is becoming a luxury item, like vinyl is now seen as a luxury item,” said Mr LaPorta. For enthusiasts, a record or CD offers a richer interaction with the music. “I like seeing the lyrics and the cover art. I like [that with a CD or album] the artist has shown you the complete picture of who they are and how that may change over time,” he said.

New artists are recording on vinyl, he said, as an appeal to a younger, hip crowd that sees vinyl as a way to stand out from others.

“Vinyl has an ‘old school’ cachet to it these days,” he pointed out. It is also a way for artists to become known, to exist as part of a new vinyl comeback.

“If you have a turntable and a good stylus, there is no comparison to analogy and digital sound,” said the music expert. Even so, he admitted that he listens to a mix of all three genres. “There’s a fascination to it, to me, to listen to the differences. I listen to my iPod if I want to listen to something just casually. There are some older recordings I can find only on vinyl, and I have my own turntable at home. We listen to a lot of CDs,” he said.

That goes for his whole family, including his 13-year-old son. “The iPod is his quick parlance. He’s got tons of songs. But if he is into a particular artist, I notice he gets into it on CD,” said Mr LaPorta. So under the LaPorta Christmas tree, he would not be surprised, he said, if Santa left a variety of music options, from CDs to iTune credits or gift cards.

Brian Gerosa has been behind the counter of his business, Gerosa Records on Federal Road in Brookfield, for 25 years. There, music lovers have always been able to find aisles filled with bins of current and classic vinyl record albums, as well as a huge selection of CDs, new and used. Other than the usual ups and downs of business, Mr Gerosa said that he has not seen a big difference in the number of shoppers who come through his door, no matter what the trend is for getting music.

There are always the collectors and people who cherish the sound of an LP, he said, and more recently, a new crowd of young people between the ages of 16 and 25 has discovered vinyl.

“There has been a sort of comeback to the turntable and the vinyl album,” Mr Gerosa said. “It sounds better and for kids, it’s something tangible, something they can collect. The used records sell really well. Kids want The Doors, Hendrix, all of that music.”

He also sees his regular customers continuing to add to their collections, and buying reissues and new issues. Some collectors pick up albums solely for the quality of the cover art, Mr Gerosa said.

Approximately 60 percent of his customers are seeking vinyl records, he said, in pursuit of the cleaner, warmer sound they cannot get from the digitally engineered CD. Still, he said, he has seen sales for CDs pick up in the past couple of years, mainly because many big stores no longer carry or have cut way back on the CDs they have on the floor.

Vinyl record albums and CDs remain a big gift item during the holidays, said Mr Gerosa, despite the popularity of downloaded music. He was not concerned about that impact on his business. In early December, he was already seeing people arriving, lists in hand, to find the perfect gift.

“It’s Cool, It’s Hip, It’s Different”

Quark Record label’s program and managing director Curtis Urbina of Sandy Hook has a 9-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son. “Their whole world is the iTune card,” he said, with a bit of dismay in his voice.

“I’ve been in the music industry for 35 years, and still have vinyl and CDs. I show them to my kids and they are stunned,” he laughed. He recently received a cassette tape from an aspiring songwriter in the Midwest, he said, and that was eye opening to his children.

“They’ve never seen this stuff,” he said.

But there is still a faction of vinyl enthusiasts out there, Mr Urbina believes, who react from the emotional state.

“It’s the cover, the liner, the notes: who doesn’t have an emotional attachment, from our generation?” he asked. For younger music lovers trending to vinyl, the appeal is purely a marketing approach, he said.

“It’s cool, it’s hip, and it’s different. New bands are looking for non-format stations and college stations that still have turntables, to get some airplay. If a band sends a DJ a piece of vinyl, the DJ wants to check it out. It’s something novel from downloading music,” said Mr Urbina.

Like Mr LaPorta, he listens to vinyl, CDs, and downloads music.

“I listen to it all,” he said. “I happen to love the vinyl. It captures the cleanness and warmth of sound,” he said.

As a music industry person, Mr Urbina said that the reality is that digital music is at an all time high. “Music where we used to sit around and share with our friends is over. Now, it’s music on the go. It’s the way the world is going,” he said.

So what musical gifts will the Urbina family get this year? “My kids don’t even get iTunes cards anymore. They know how to search for music online,” he rued. “The big gift is music lesson. Those, you can’t digitize. It turns them on to instruments. They’re still kids, so even a simple harmonica or kazoo is great.

Christine Dennison Wilford’s children are focused on the world of technology.

“My 8-year-old and 10-year-old don’t even play with toys,” she said, so iTunes are on their musical gift list. Mary Ann Jacobs’ family can also expect iTunes gift cards this year, she said.

Newtown Savings Bank vice president of marketing Tanya Truax has found a way around the vinyl/CD/digital music dilemma. “Ives Concert Park gift certificates,” said Ms Truax, while Newtowner Micheline Baker suggested original sheet music from Bach or Chopin.

Boplicity jazz musician Robert Rabinowitz said holiday gift giving would include both iTunes gift cards and CDs, on his part. Or, he said, a mix of CDs of songs that he knows the recipient will like.

“What can we do?” asked Mr Urbina. “Follow the trend and go with it… Or throw a piece of vinyl into the stocking and see what happens!”

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