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Friday, January 15, 2010

In Defense of the CD

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 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.


Anonymous said...

Nic. I appreciate your considerations here. Environmentalism aside I agree that it's nice to have something compact in your hands rather than a mostly Platonic, ethereal musical experience. Perhaps you are aware of ekphrasis—literature that describes visual art; to me the CD book is the inverse of this: the CD art—I would guess almost always made after, or occasionally in tandem with the music on the album—is to be a visual description of the musical “literature” of a CD. When well executed it should add depth to music statement. As you say a screen shot doesn’t achieve this (usually). Also I think even though mp3s do not really exist (in a substantial way) the criticisms of consumerism against CDs and records apply equally (if not more so since you’re essentially buying 1s and 0s) to digital music. However. I will stand by my criticism that even with the important benefits you and I have described regarding CDs, the CD is one of the worst formats of music for this reason: scratches. The fact that one can scratch a brand new CD putting it into the CD player for the first time and that cassette tapes that have been in storage for years can work without any problem is a statement of technological regress to me. Whereas I enjoy CDs otherwise and I am aware that they will likely one day not even be pressed, because of the ease of scratching a CD I can only conclude it is a ridiculous format.


Nicholas said...

Now I have thought of this scratching issue, and must admit that this is a case where I enjoy an MP3 in tandem with the CD. I try to burn my music as soon as I purchase it so that I know I have a backup. That way I can always burn a new CD, or listen to my Zune while holding the CD case and booklet and pretending I am listening to the CD.
I should say, though, the scratching issue is worse for me with vinyl. I start shaking when I put a record on for fear that I am going to drop it, or drag it across the surface of the player and ruin it for life. Since I don't have a USB record player, I can't duplicate that music, unless the record came with a free download. At least in that case, now that the music I am listening to is non-existent, I can pull out the record sleeve and pretend that's what I am listening to.
I just realized we both used the word tandem. What a great word.
Also, I still have a working Walkman, and there aren't too many things as calming as the light pop and hiss between tracks on a cassette tape. Lovely.

Neal said...

Hmmmmm, interesting. I feel much the same way about any digital media (and I am not luddite, believe me). There is something nice about the physicality of a CD, book, or even video game. Digital media takes it to some vague, nebulous place it is hard to take ownership of (problems with DRM make this even more of an issue).

I do agree about the album art... I like bands that take the time to put together a nice looking album/CD. It adds something to the music and the band. Getting a little picture on your player isn't the same at all, I would agree.

On a related note, part of me does like the idea of electronic books via Amazon's Kindle or Barnes and Noble's Nook (I do rather like the look of Nooks, too). Lugging a lot of books is not very portable on a vacation (I just hauled a backpack full of them for the holidays). But at the same time, I love turning pages and holding the book. I've seen a Kindle and while it doesn't get to my eyes like a computer screen can after awhile, I still prefer looking at a page of words.

The same issues are hitting video games. Valve has an online/electronic only store that often has really good games for very cheap. But you frequently just download them and they're electronic format only (some with a need to be connected to Steam via the web). I just can't get settle into that.

So, while I will partake of electronic media, I don't prefer it completely over physical media. I don't think it's a completely random feeling, either. My guess is we'll see a balance of sorts between the different types of media.