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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."

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.