With the advent of the digital mp3, hard copy CDs are slowly going the way of the cassette and vinyl before them. Vinyl, of course, if making a come back, but it's much more expensive than a CD. However, if there's one thing I like to pick up through my travels it's a CD or three of the local music.
The mp3 player simplifies carrying around a lot of music, but CDs, in my opinion, remain one of the best ways to find local music with very little frustration. Why? It's simple. It's hard to find music in different languages. I can't write Thai and it takes forever for me to write in Ukrainian or Russian (the Cyrillic alphabet), and I don't even think about trying to write in Chinese, Japanese or even Korean. The entire process is frustrating. CD stores, however, make it easy to browse through a bunch of CDs and to pick out the ones that catch your eye. It's the artwork that will usually catch your eye.
CDs can also act as souvenirs for the country you visit. The artwork is often made by local artists and and stands as contemporary art. I'm not one for mass-produced plastic bracelets or wood carvings, but CDs? I'll get a few of those. With a packaged CD, not only do you get the music, you get the artwork, a sample of the writing, and, in some cases, free posters, stickers or other items. Years down the road when you're remembering your travels abroad you'll be able to go through those CDs and still have a souvenir from your travels, even if you'll have to dig out your old CD player.
What about understanding the words? It is a problem if you let it be. I find this one of the more remarkable opportunities to really listen to the music and how the song is arranged and presented rather than what they're singing about. I assure you, most foreign bands aren't singing “Die! Die! Die!” No, like most bands, they usually sing about life's problems such as love, relationships, politics... or drinking. There are some common themes in world music! But if that's not good enough, you can always search online since many fans will produce translated version of the band's songs. On the other hand, one of the age-old tricks to learning a new language is to listen to music in your target language. If you go to Asia and know a local song, you'll make new friends and they'll invite you to a karaoke bar.
Lastly, purchasing CDs will help the local musicians. Although imported CDs can cost quite a bit in the western world, buying CDs abroad can be very cheap, around $3-$5 with similar, maybe better, quality to their Western counterparts. Even if you don't go to CD stores, purchasing a CD from a local musician will help them produce more music.
I hope CD stores stay around a little while longer. I understand that the CD itself will become a vintage item, like vinyl, while the CD stores themselves may be demolished. Right now, however, they remain one of the best places to find new music while travelling abroad. Here's to CD stores!