James Werrell

Resisting the latest musical technology

I thought compact discs were the answer to an old dream. Now I hear they are about to become extinct.

As a teenager, I had a fantasy of winning a contest where the prize would be to walk into the biggest record store in the world and walk off with all the albums I could carry. At the time this dream was dancing through my head, records still came in either monaural or stereo, with stereo records costing about 50 cents more. LPs had pretty much replaced 45s, but singles still were available for about 80 cents apiece.

A record purchase was a risky venture. Too often, I would plunk down my hard-earned $2.77 for an album at the Record Mart on the strength of one hit song I'd heard on the radio. And too often, that was the only decent song on the record.

A bad record was a haunting presence in my album collection. It's cover would stare back at me, reminding me of my rashness and bad judgment, not to mention the other albums I could have bought instead.

If I was lucky, I would be able to trade the lemon for a better record. But usually, it just sat in the stack with the rest of my records, gathering dust.

Bad albums could remain in pristine condition. Not so one's favorite records.

I knew some people who wiped their records with a static-free cloth and carefully replaced them in their proper covers after playing them. I, on the other hand, was a record abuser. I would play them and then stack them on top of each other on the floor, where they would get scratched and covered with dust and other debris. And the scratches usually occurred right in the middle of my favorite songs.

But even with care, records could be damaged. Dancing too vigorously or bumping into the turntable could send the needle skidding across the record, often creating a permanent skip.

Funny, the familiar screech of a needle skidding across a record may slowly be disappearing from our culture. I won't miss it.

I have adapted to changing technology. While I wisely passed over eight-tracks, I embraced cassette tapes. The idea of being able to record other people's records -- and only the best songs -- opened up new avenues of listening pleasure.

But recording was a chore. It still involved playing records on a turntable and required perfect timing. All the pausing, rewinding and fast-forwarding was a pain. And the end-product was nothing special, just a flimsy plastic cassette with tape that could unroll or snap in the tape player. Remember the phrase, "Uh-oh, my tape just got eaten"?

So, CDs seemed like a gift from heaven. They were small, indestructible and easy to play. There was no rewinding or fast-forwarding; songs could be played at random. CDs rarely skipped or refused to play because they were dusty.

Then came blank CDs that could be burned! Friends could trade their favorite music back and forth for less than $1 a CD!

Eureka! I had achieved my dream of limitless records!

Now, however, I hear that CDs are on their way out, obsolete, yesterday's technology. CD sales, according to industry experts, are expected to drop by 20 percent this year. And, as sales decline, fewer CDs will be displayed on showroom floors to make way for more profitable items. And music companies will limit recordings to sure things, the mainstream hitmakers and teeny-bopper bands.

I know what you're saying: "Hasn't he heard of iPods and MP3 players?"

Well, yes I have. And I realize that everybody has one but me.

For now, though, the effort of learning how to program those things so I can collect 12,000 of my favorite songs and listen to them anywhere I want to just sounds too exhausting. Can't I just pop another CD into the player?

Consider this, maybe the MP3 is the eight-track of the 21st century. If we just wait a little longer, someone will invent a small hat that has all the music ever written stored inside it, and all we have to do is imagine a song, and it will play.

In fact, I think I will make that my new musical fantasy.