To CD or Not to CD

With all of the talk about the death of the music industry, I thought it might be interesting to post another installment of “Medialoper Classic,” our series where we resurrect some of our older writings that might provide perspective on subjects we are currently discussing. This one is about how I made the decision to switch from vinyl to CDs.

It was originally published in CSUF’s Daily Collegian on February 3, 1989

I guess that it all started last summer when I spent almost a month trying to get The Primitives on album. I wandered in Tower Records, a place that I have literally haunted for over ten years, and was shocked and dismayed to discover that they only had it on Compact Disc. As a matter of fact they only had everything on Compact Disc. There was barely a record to be found. And suddenly I woke up. I realize that I’ve spent the last couple (OK, several) years in a drunken haze, and that even sober I not exactly cognizant with the real world, but it has just recently struck me hard in the fact that my most favorite vehicle of recorded music — the 12-inch 33 RPM polyvinylchloride long-playing phonograph record — is fast becoming as obselete as the 8-Track tape, bell-bottom jeans, or the Democratic Party. But why, dammit? Why are records dying??

Now don’t lets start quoting techological reasons at me, because while that might explain some of the reasons for this newfound CD popularity, it doesn’t explain the recent explosion in cassette sales, and cassettes are kicking out some serious jams in terms of sales, totally wiping both CDs and especially records in sheer volume of units moved. And everybody knows that pre-recorded cassettes sound sound any better than albums, and furthermore, they are small and therefore easy to lose, and just as prone to glitches as any record. I’ve always thought that cassettes were pretty disposable, actually, when you consider their size and lack of practical storage capabilities.

But maybe that disposability is the key — when you consider that the Dirty Dancing cassette is often cited as a prime example of a mega-million cassette seller. I mean, it’s not exactly like the music on that soundtrack will have a lasting impact on the lives of the millions of people who bought it, or on pop music in general, for that matter . . . “Biffy, put the Dirty Dancing tape on, please.” “I would, Spoosie, but I lost it last week. How about the Cocktail tape instead?” “Rad!!!” It seems to me that maybe the easily disposable cassette is the perfect medium for much of today’s perfectly disposable music. And if true, this can be a corollary to my Dirty Dancing Box Office / Soundtrack Inverse Square Law, which states that the lousier the music on a motion picture soundtrack is, the better said picture does at the box office.

But what about CDs?? And why are people like my ex-roommate Kirk, who swore up and down that he would never purchase a CD player until RCA put Lou Reed’s virtually unlistenable white-noise anti-classic Metal Machine Music out on CD as evidence of his loyalty to records — why are people like this purchasing these monster CD players that can play six CDs in a row?? There seems to be three main arguments for CDs, only one of which makes any sense to me.

First of all, CD’s “sound better.” So what? Since when was clarity the key to musical enjoyment? Making groups like The Rolling Stones, The Clash or The Replacements “sound better” might actually detract from the power of their music. Some music needs mystery and even a little muddiness. A version of R.E.M.’s Murmur where you could understand all of the words would take the fun right out, don’t you think?

Secondly, CDs are easier to store and are practically indestructible. OK, but they are also cold and tiny and plastic and so ruthlessly efficient that a CD collection looks modern and ugly and almost never used. Phonograph records, on the other hand, are big enough to allow for nuances in packaging (think of Small Faces’ Ogden Nuts Gone Flake or Monty Python’s Instant Record Collection or PIL’s Metal Box) that will be unheard of when CDs finally rule the roost. These nuances can make records a thing of beauty, and the very fact that records and sleeves are fragile and become worn out and loved contributes to their beauty. And a large record collection is striking and impressive, like a large collection of books. And you can grab any individual title and just by looking at it, you can tell how much someone has enjoyed it. In fact, record collections are as strong of an indicator of personality as I’ve ever encountered. Can you do that with CD?? Not a chance. Unlike records, which have a come-hither aura around them, CDs just scream “get away — please don’t ruin my pristine virginal beauty!!”

Not that you could, of course, since CDs are indestructible. They can survive hangovers, broken hearts, and Bon Jovi videos. I suppose they can even survive a ground-zero nuclear blast. Which raises and interesting scenario: when the Big One hits, cockroaches will be able to groove to Windam Hill CDs. But will they want to?? My theory is that Windam Hill even makes cockroaches puke. Hey, all that I know is that when President Quayle pushes the button and we get nailed in the retaliation, I wanna go with my record collection, in one gigantic ever-expanding fireball of vinyl and flesh.

But finally, it all comes down to the music, and I guess that’s why, eventually, I’ll break down and purchase one. First, the record companies started putting extra tracks on CDs, and now there are CD-only record companies (an oxymoronic concept, that). The plain truth is that the music I like is increasingly hard to find on LP, and I must keep my options open, since I am, after all, a stone music fanatic. And while I still despise pre-recorded cassettes, and wonder if CDs were just a way for the industry to raise prices without actually raising prices, I think that age 26 is a tad young to be a curmudgeon about changing technology.

And yet, I have this sinking feeling that I’ll not get the rush from opening a CD that I always get every time I open an album I’ve really been waiting for (like the new Replacements), and examine the sleeve, liner notes, label and even the run-out groove (for secret messages) for the first time. And I’ll certainly miss that little bump and click when my needle hits the record. And maybe my life will be a wee bit sadder for it. But at least I’ll still get the music, and the music is quite often the only thing that makes life bearable here in the grim last year of the 1980s.

Shortly after I wrote this, I bought my first CDs: The Replacements’ Don’t Tell A Soul and Television’s Marquee Moon. (My first vinyl album was Elton John’s Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player — in 1973.) The last vinyl album I bought was The (Ex-) Cat Heads’ Our Frisco and that was in like, 1992 or 1993. And the only reason I bought it was that it was vinyl-only, though now, it’s on CD. By that time, thanks to multiple BMG and Columbia House accounts, as well as the awesome Ragin’ Records — my CD collection had already gotten huge.

Some things haven’t changed all that much — it’s still all about the music, and I still worry about crazy Republican Presidents — but I didn’t have the same kind of issues going from CD to straight digital, because I was already ripping my CDs for various reasons long before I downloaded my first songs from iTunes or Emusic. So I don’t even remember what those might be.

But the last CD I bought was Neil Young’s Chrome Dreams II, which should show up from Amazon today.

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