The death of the Compact Disc, part 1

Hands up those who still buy music CDs.

In fact, who still buys records or even SACDs, let alone cassettes?


Who hasn’t fallen for the charms of iTunes, MusicLoad, AmazonMP3 and/or Beatport for all their musical needs, buying and downloading gigabytes of music that you cannot touch or feel?

Not me I haven’t.

Call me old-fashioned if you will, but nothing beats picking up a real record and admiring the physical, real entity that I hold in my hands, wondering if its contents sound anything like the artwork and the photographs and the artist/band’s image (or total lack thereof) suggest.

A record is a work of art. A recording is a historical artefact.

This object, this piece of plastic and paper/cardboard means that there was a degree of effort and sincerity involved in its creation, a need even, the venting of emotion, or a statement. There were hopes and aspirations of either the now-disbanded punk group and their sleazy manager, or the still-unknown producer, or the struggling label trying to make a name for itself. Novelty records aside, there was somebody, somewhere, somehow who thought that this music was worth recording for posterity or commerciality, even if critics panned it and sales figures disagreed. There was someone who figured it was worth the effort that it took to get that piece of plastic to a location where the possible future fan could see it and hopefully buy it.

And then listen to it, hopefully appreciate it, and cherish it.

Physical vs. digital

There’s far more to an album or a concert recording than just the audio — or is it just me who considers a few tunes on a hard drive or iPod to be just bunch of megabytes, in no way a true, real, and honest representation of the artist’s work? Sure, you could burn yourself a CD-R from those select downloaded MP3s and print your own inlays from whatever artwork you may or may not get with your digital purchase — but it’s just not the same, is it?

Each record contains vast amounts of history.

Each pressing, each re-issue, each bootleg, each remastered version with bonus tracks is unique and tells its very own story.

And that story is not quite the same as the one told by an artist’s MySpace page or his self-maintained Wikipedia article compared to the often (perhaps purposely so) vague and cryptic snippets of insight offered by whatever liner notes a CD or a gatefold LP offer — there’s just no mystique. While it’s true that you can declare yourself a friend or fan of the given artist via their Facebook profile and religiously follow their every move and tweet, I, personally, feel more disconnected from the artist’s online presence/s than when knowing there’s a piece of his blood, sweat and tears stashed away in my CD cabinet or record crate.

James Hyman's CD collection

Inviting someone to look at a playlist as a widget on your blog doesn’t say about you as much as would inviting someone over to peruse your CD cabinet. That indescribable bond between yourself and someone who says, “Hey, I’ve also got that album” simply isn’t there in comparison to, say, someone claiming that they’ve got the same MP3 on their iPod. There isn’t that warm, fuzzy sense of achievement and, dare I say, pride you get when someone goes through your record collection and exclaims in jealousy, “You bastard, I’ve been looking for this album for ages!”

Even the act of lending someone a CD or record temporarily passes a piece of your very self to the borrower. Not so with quickly copying a bunch of files over to someone’s flash drive, is there?

Mixtape USB Memory StickWhere’s all that gone in the age of the internet and instant media gratification?

Looking for a song? Just go ahead and download it. In digital format, those songs (read: files) are nothing more than some disposable commodity or data stream. Expensive white noise to drown out the jabber of the foul-mouthed brat next to you on the train during your daily commute.

Where’s the longevity and the sense of ownership? Somehow I get the feeling that I get more out of a real CD. There’s just nothing tangible about a downloaded MP3 album — whether purchased or not. There’s no “feelie”.

There’s none of that sense of achievement or gratification to be had when you can just click a “download now” link on an MP3-flogging (or -sharing) site in comparison to finding an old, original pressing of some obscure Miles Davis record in your favourite secret store, is there?

How much would I pay for a digital album? Truthfully I probably won’t ever buy a complete album again. I recently transferred my 1300 disc CD collection to Itunes in uncompressed format and I realized during the process that I can’t remember the last time I actually pulled a CD off the shelf and read the liner notes. I also realized that of the 1300 discs I’ve collected since I bought my first one in 1986 there are only about a dozen or so of which I like every single tune on an album and most of those are greatest hits albums to boot. I admit I do enjoy several deeper album cuts that we don’t hear on the radio which is why I love the 30 second sampling of the music on a digital album. I can now only buy the songs that capture my attention. What a great feature this is! in the past radio stations told us what music was a hit but now technology lets us make up our own minds what a hit song is or isn’t. Of course I’d like to pay as little as possible for a song but 99 cents isn’t going to break my bank. — dmagicrat

But do you ever really LISTEN to your MP3 collection? The portability of the iPod means you’d carry it mostly when you’re out and about or simply lounging around in bed. Considering the audio quality then, does one ever really sit down to listen to his MP3 collection? Grabbing a record or CD off the shelf and placing it on a deck or in a player requires effort which you’d reward with the time it takes to listen to a given album. That’s time you invest, and you’d have made the time and the effort to listen.

More than anything else, people want cheap or free music, playable anywhere they want. Vinyl doesn’t fit that model. Music now serves as background filler, something you have on while you do something else: read, cook, exercise, commute, work, whatever. Vinyl doesn’t lend itself to those sorts of activities; it’s a listening medium. That’s a low priority nowadays. — 

All killer, no filler

But, on a positive note, at least now you can find the sounds of that obscure record, presented in the pristine, 320kbps-encoded, DRM-free, digital format of your choice. You can create playlists and compilations, and rearrange them at your whim  — at least until your hard drive crashes or your iPod’s battery goes dead.

As a corollary, with music contained in a purely digital format, one could dispense with the need for rack space for its physical counterpart. You won’t need to worry about fingerprints or scratches on the CD or tearing the record sleeve by accident. As long as you don’t drop that media tank or iPod you’re OK.

Sure, you could compare the loss of your iPod to a fire ravaging your CD/DVD/vinyl collection but this begs the question: Can your insure your iPod?

Can you insure the legally-downloaded contents of your hard drive?

To be continued

Image credits: Unknown

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