CDs are Dead. Long Live the CD!

Originally published by Breaking Modern:

Compact discs are dead. I realized this recently while shopping for a replacement for my dead 25-year-old Sony CD player; where there used to be lots of brands, now there are only a few and where there were many models, fewer still. Of course, this follows years of watching brick-and-mortar music stores — HMV, Tower, Virgin Megastore et al. — close their doors.

Perhaps it would be more precise to say that CDs were murdered. But was that just? Was that right?

Apple, which both predicts and creates the future, thinks streaming is the future — so they’re driving a stake through the heart of those shiny 5-inch discs whose design was supposedly inspired by an episode of Star Trek.

The computer giant recently ceased production of the signature device it introduced in 2001, the 160GB version of the iPod Classic. Says Will Dunn, editor of Stuff:

The iPod’s days have been numbered since the first iPhone, and the subscription model shows no signs of slowing down. Apple itself is transitioning into music subscriptions with iTunes Radio, and Google has just started trialling YouTube Music Key.”

Still, despite the pressure, many consumers prefer to own rather than rent their music.

Here’s Dunn again: “There’s still a huge affection for the iPod Classic and it’s not hard to see why – Spotify might offer 20 million songs, but 120GB of music is more than most people need, and your iTunes library doesn’t carry data charges or a subscription fee. Also, I think the Classic is a more distraction-free listening experience – I’m more likely to get through a full album on one.”

Music geeks have driven up the price of used iPod Classics on eBay and Amazon by hundreds of dollars more than their original cost.

Apple isn’t alone. Auto manufacturers have signaled that new cars will soon come with MP3 players, not CD players, standard.

2014 was a disastrous year for the music industry, with sales of both compact discs and MP3 downloads way down — to historical lows — as streaming gained steam. “Digital track sales are falling at nearly the same rate as CD sales, as music fans are turning to streaming—on iTunes, SoundCloud, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and music blogs,” reports Derek Thompson of The Atlantic.

Before you sell all your CDs on eBay, however, you might want to think twice. Compact discs have a number of distinctive advantages over streaming and digital downloads.

CDs Win on Quality

“Steve Jobs was a digital pioneer, but when he went home, he listened to vinyl,” Neil Young noted in 2012. Audiophiles who know the difference say vinyl offers the richest, most textured listening experience. Though vinyl is decidedly superior to compact disc, the CD is better than MP3 as we know it.

Downloads and streams music is highly compressed in order to keep the data flowing and maximum storage space, but that efficiency comes at a cost. “True CD-quality files take up anywhere from three to 10 times as much as space as an MP3 or AAC file, depending on the latter’s bit rate; 24-bit files take up even more space,” according to PC Magazine.

Owning Beats Renting

Digital data is easy to lose. If you don’t believe me, Google “lost my iTunes music library.” Yes, sometimes it’s possible for the poor souls who somehow managed to erase thousands of dollars of music from their devices to restore them. Other times, not so much. Either way, the one thing you can be sure of is that it won’t be painless.

A friend – she was the first person to show me how cool the iPod was – got rid of all of her CDs after ripping them. Then some jerk broke into her apartment and stole both the player and the laptop to which she synced it. Just like that, she became a music pauper.

True, if she had downloaded all her songs from iTunes she could have gotten them back. To me, however, the bigger lesson is, I trust myself more than I trust some company. She should’ve held on to the CDs.

The Physicality of Music Is Rewarding

A woman from England wrote to NPR’s music blog: “When I was a teenager, I saved up to buy music, bought one CD or record at a time, and listened to the crap out of it. I knew all the lyrics, I knew melodies and bass parts, I had different recordings of the same track — all that. Now, I download a heap of music: some albums, some singles, some random tracks that catch my fancy. I listen to them a few times, and then they get lost in the iTunes pit of despair.”
Downloaded MP3s aren’t songs as much as they are items on a list. Stuff you stream on Spotify or Pandora doesn’t even rise to that level; it’s just something that you hear in passing the middle of a bunch of other stuff. Unless a song really stands out, you’re not going to pay close attention. The odds that a tune will grab you enough to learn the lyrics, much less change your life, are radically diminished by the combination of abundance and randomness inherent to post-compact disc formats. 

I recently reorganized my extensive CD collection – aside from being a bit of a music addict, I reviewed records for many years and so have thousands of them – and found myself falling back in love with the physical form of the CD. While the artwork and liner notes in 5-inch booklets pale in comparison with their 12-inch vinyl predecessors, they’re better than nothing – and nothing is what we get when we stream or download. Like it or not, visuals matter.

Albums Force Serendipity

Remember the joy of discovery? On a vinyl album or a compact disc, the listener is “forced” to sit through “lesser” songs that, when they don’t work out so well, are viewed by fans and critics as contract-fulfilling filler. But that’s hardly the case for every band. In the digital age you can always download a single for 99 cents and avoid the dross — but what if the songs that never made it as hit singles for whatever reason turn out to be great? Odds are, you’ll never know. With a CD, you get to experience the full creativity of your favorite musicians as they experiment and stretch free of the constraints that come with trying to score that big hit.

Support Musicians, Not Streamers

Obviously you want the bands and musicians whose work you enjoy to make as much money as possible so that they’ll be motivated to soldier on. Unfortunately, digitalization has hit creative people hard, and musicians are no exception.

It’s pretty clear that, for the average band with a decent sized but not crazy fan base, compact discs are far more lucrative than digital radio and other contemporary formats.

Streaming services like Pandora and Spotify are notoriously parsimonious with artists, and at this point anyone with a conscience really shouldn’t be supporting them.

You Can Sell CDs …

Although the price per song is roughly the same when you compare a 99-cent download to a $14 CD with 13 songs on it, the price differential changes radically when you consider the fact that you can easily sell a used CD. If you have good taste, in fact, you could probably make a pretty good living investing in CDs – I’ve noticed that many of the CDs I bought for $12 way back when are worth $50 or more to collectors.

That’s a better rate than I got on my 401(k).

You could even make a habit of purchasing physical compact discs, ripping them at the highest possible quality to save and sell them. In many cases, you would probably be getting a dozen songs for just a couple of dollars. And then you wouldn’t be stuck with all those discs to store.

Just make sure to keep a backup hidden away in case my friend’s burglar drops by.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Nick Lowe Ruined My Summer. Then He Changed My Life.

Overplaying is a crime.

It is as tragic and as wrong as the contempt that lovers sometimes allow to transform their partner from an object of passion into a monster whom they behold only with scorn.

As a tween I couldn’t get enough of the Beatles; now I can’t run fast enough from any speaker spewing their music. What changed? Not Ringo plus those three other lads — if anything, they sound cleaner and crackle-pop-free and remastered through the sound equipment I can afford as a middle-aged adult. Objectively, they’re still a great band.

It’s all me.

Mostly to blame are countless DJs and their corporate masters at the hundreds of radio stations I’ve heard play the Beatles thousands of times. Add the breathless hype with which every unearthing of an alternative version of a lost demo is greeted — there was a reason those versions weren’t originally released.

As with chocolate and water and everything except sex, repetition begins as obsessive joy and ultimately turns everything sour.

But I’m guilty too. When I discovered the Beatles, I played them over and over until I knew every note and every word. As I did when I found out about Blondie. Did the same thing to the Ramones. And the Dead Kennedys. And Barcelona. And Ganymede.

But it’s different with the Beatles. You can overplay a song or a band without dead-ing them to yourself. I still feel happy when I hear the Ramones.

Overplaying is a zillion times worse when someone else does it to you. Free will is what makes it different. There’s a big gap between self-indulgence and — there’s no better word — torture carried out by others.

I have suffered two epic episodes of Being Overplayed To.

The first took place Thanksgiving weekend of 1982, when I was a sophomore at Columbia. Most students went home to their families; since I was a broke scholarship kid, I stayed at school. I shared a two-bedroom one-bathroom suite with an Israeli guy who, before he took off Wednesday afternoon, left a 45-rpm single of Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Come On Eileen” on auto-repeat. He locked his door, and left.

My solidarity with the oppressed people of Palestine was never fiercer.

As though it happened yesterday and hot oil were dripping on my eyes, I recall every note and every word of that accursed song as though it were Thanksgiving 1982 all over again: “Come on Eileen / Oh, I swear what he means / At this moment you mean everything / You in that dress / My thoughts I confess / Verge on dirty / Oh, come on Eileen.”

Objectively a great song. A great song that makes me want to die.

I made it all night Wednesday, all day Thursday and all night Thursday. By Friday morning, having heard “Come On Eileen” more than 600 times (“Come on Eileen / Oh, I swear what he means”), a crazy idea presented itself. There was no other way: I climbed down to the steam tunnels beneath the building, found the circuit breakers for my dorm, killed the power for a minute, and turned it back on again.

Song over. Years of recovery began.

A second, worse musical trauma was vested upon me by two roommates during the summer of 1984. We were fans of, among other things, the British pub rockers Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe. So when Lowe — to the extent that he is known in the States, people may recall “Cruel to be Kind,” and the Elvis Costello track “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding” was originally his) released the most raucous LP of his career, “Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit,” it was occasion for celebration at our various short-term sublets.

Unfortunately for me, I was the only one in the apartment with a job. The lion’s share of celebrating therefore fell to Dan and Chris, who stayed up until three or four in the morning, drinking and smoking and blasting Lowe’s Tex-Mex-meets-?-and-the-Mysterians apocalypse “Half a Boy and Half a Man” you guessed it, over and over.

Rarely if ever did we they ever make it to side one, track three, “Maureen,” a paean to a “skinny little hill of beans.” Another objectively great song.

Dan and Chris had an understanding. I would go through the motions of going to sleep at midnight, setting the alarm for six am. Dan and Chris would blare “Half a Boy and Half a Man” for an hour. I’d go out and yell at them. They’d turn it down. Ten minutes later, back to full volume.

This was our life.

Over the last three decades, I have continued to hold the work of Nick Lowe dear. I have replaced my vinyl LPs with CDs. I have seen him live. I have even tolerated Lowe’s current, late-period, slow (i.e. dull) lounge period. But there was one LP I never replaced. One CD I never bought. The thought of hearing “Half a Boy and Half a Man” again triggered the same feeling as reading one of those Facebook messages from an ex-girlfriend who wonders if you’re divorced yet, as though you had broken up by accident.

Until a few weeks ago. I was at Amoeba Records, the best music store in the U.S. There it was: a used copy of “Cowboy Outfit” for $24.99. (It’s out of print and hard to find.)

I hesitated. Was I ready? Finally, I decided that this was one of those existential “what kind of person am I?” dilemmas. Am I someone stuck in the past, who allows the traumas of the first Reagan Administration to scar me for life? Or someone ready to move on?

I bought the CD.

It sat on my stereo cabinet. Then, last night, I put it on.

Damn it’s good.

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