The other day I saw an older news reporter speaking to a writer from Rolling Stone magazine about the top albums of 2009. As the writer rattled off a half dozen artists the reporter admitted he had never heard of, the reporter stopped the writer in his tracks.
"Who buys an album anymore anyway?" the reporter asked. He looked over to the other reporters sitting at the news desk. "Who buys CD's anymore? When is the last time any of you even bought one?"
"I bought the Susan Boyle CD," one woman said.
The other reporters showed blank expressions.
The older reporter laughed, said the segment was out of time, and the commercials started rolling.
I still buy CD's. This post is not a defense of the album, though I could easily make it that. This is a defense of the Compact Disc format.
I am not sure if I am a materialist or not. When I own something, I like to be able to see it. An invisible digital object does not cut it for me. I want to be able to hold the things I purchase in my hands. I held off getting an MP3 player until last year, and even then, I only purchased a second-hand Zune. I am happy with this purchase because I feel that all the music I own (and digital pictures I have taken) are backed up. However, I have found one major factor to be unsatisfying: unable to resist the low prices of certain MP3 albums, I purchased the digital versions over the physical CD versions.
Immediately, something felt off. The satisfying feeling of unwrapping something was completely absent. There was no artwork, no lyrics, no liner notes to gaze upon. Just a cellphone screen-sized image of the album cover and the music.
No big deal, I thought. Well worth it for six dollars.
Actually, disembodied sound is not worth six dollars.
Despite the quality of the music, I felt completely disconnected from what I was listening to. The sounds seemed to hold no value.
Call it a New Years Resolution if you will, but I am not buying any music beyond the random single that doesn't come on some type of physical media. I think I will take this ranting a step further, though:
I think CD's are better than vinyl.
There I said it.
I own a record player and a decent amount of vinyl. I admit, nothing sounds as good as a vinyl record. I can honestly hear the difference, and I love them.
Still, as a format, the Compact Disc is better.
CD's, for the most part, sound good. The quality is marginally less than that of a vinyl record. There is just a little less of that thick, bass feeling. Otherwise, the quality is fantastic. Better than that of most MP3's, and certainly no MP3 sounds better than a CD.
One edge for the CD is portability. If I want to transfer thirty CD's somewhere, I can fit them in a big shoebox, and they don't really weigh that much. On the other hand, thirty records weigh a ton. They take up a lot of space...and honestly...they look kind of ridiculous...
Okay, blasphemy, I know. For everyone who grew up listening to records (myself included), records look normal, but think about it: nothing should really be that big. Records are huge. The surface area of one cardboard record sleeve is about the same as three or four hardback novels. I love them for nostalgia's sake (and I will keep buying them), but they are too big.
MP3s don't take any space because they don't really exist.
CD's and their jewel cases are the perfect size. They take up just enough space to feel substantial, but not enough to get in the way. You can listen to them in your car, and read the lyrics in the booklet when you stop at a traffic light. You can't listen to a vinyl in your car! The jewel cases are just the right size to fit a decent sized booklet, and the CD booklet is a marvelous thing.
Take Radiohead's Kid A for example. The booklet itself is a labyrinthine work of art. Page after page unfolds with unique surprises.
The vinyl does not even try to duplicate this because it can't. If it did it would be ridiculous. You wouldn't even be able to hold it in your hands.
I can think of at least two or three hundred CD booklets that would seem ridiculous if blown up to LP size. Plus, 95% of CD booklets contain the album lyrics; maybe 5 % of records do.
Confession: I came of age in the 90s, not the 80s. I listened to my parents vinyl in the 80s. I bought my own CD's when I started working and making money...in the 90s. Maybe I look on them more fondly than I should. Maybe the kids today think that having a CD and a case and a booklet is stupid and pointless. To me they are essential. I wonder if 20 years from now there will be a CD revolution like the vinyl one of the last two or three years. I hope so.
Despite the fact that the Earth would probably be a cleaner place, and less resources used, a large part of me hopes physical media, CD's in particular do not go away.
They will go away, though.
Someday I'll die and people will fly around in space cars.
Instead of trees there will be "Oxygen Poles."
Archeologists will excavate a late 20th century home and find hundreds of flat, plastic cases housing thin plastic discs and booklets worn to dust.
None of this matters anyway.