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Why You’ll Buy-Not Download-U2’s “No Line On The Horizon”

Plenty of people have already written eulogies for the compact disc now that iTunes is the number one U.S. music retailer, and CD sales are in a death spiral. But U2 is making an excellent case for old-fashioned physical, collectible music with today’s release of the band’s new album "No Line On The Horizon."

Plenty of people have already written eulogies for the compact disc now that iTunes is the number one U.S. music retailer, and CD sales are in a death spiral. But U2 is making an excellent case for old-fashioned physical, collectible music with today’s release of the band’s new album “No Line On The Horizon.”

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It starts with the choice of cover art: A black and white photograph of an empty seascape, with an ill-defined border between sea and sky. It’s by Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto from his 1980-onwards “seascapes” series. It’s a work of art, best viewed as a printed photo–and it ties in with the album title perfectly. 

The box packaging seems inspired by Apple. Inside, you’ll find a poster of a different “seascape” photograph, a DVD of an Anton Corbijn film, and a hardcover book with interviews and photographs that document the making of the album. The CD case has a shiny mother-of-pearl-effect logo superimposed over Sugimoto’s photo, and inside there is another booklet and a fold-out poster. They’re all tangible, gripable artifacts.

Sure, you can see a photo of the album cover when you download it from iTunes–even have it swish by in that slick Coverflow view. There is even a digital booklet to download as part of the package. But that’s not the same as holding and flipping the pages of a real booklet, looking at a poster of an atmospheric photo, or leafing through a hardcover book filled with art. Maybe that’s why Apple had an iTunes-exclusive extra track available if you pre-ordered the album–it’s one way to tempt you to buy a digital rather than a physical version of the album (which you can always rip into MP3s later).

Of course there’s also the fact that U2’s manager Paul McGuiness has a strong position on digital music, and has specifically laid the blame for music piracy at the feet of Internet service providers. Maybe this played into the new album’s design–it’s a reminder that in an all-digital future, where we’ll read the liner notes on a Kindle e-book, and ogle the photography on an LCD screen, we may miss out on the tactile aspects of artwork.

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