In Defense of the CD
Are we being too quick to toss out an old friend?
I expected David Bowie’s death to make me nostalgic, but not this way.
Like many people, I spent the days after his passing relistening to Bowie records I hadn’t played in years. One night, it felt time to revisit Low, his 1977 plunge into Berlin weirdness. I plugged in my swanky new wireless boombox, called up the album on a streaming service and, as I’d done numerous times before, prepared to be enveloped by sound. Instead, I was swallowed up in a digital nightmare. Whether it was the wireless connection or some other technical gremlin, it took what felt like an entire day at Coachella for the music to start up, and when it finally did, the connection cut in and out, the volume lurching from soft to loud each track.
Finally, in frustration, I returned to a now-archaic ritual: I went to the shelves, pulled out my copy of Low on CD, slid it into the player and – boom! – listened to the album straight through, with zero issues and lusher sound. As it was playing, I couldn’t help but wonder: When and why did the CD become public sonic enemy Number One, the most reviled audio format since quad? Why, again, are we abandoning these things?
I know it sounds insane at this point in time, but it wasn’t that long ago – two decades, more or less – that many of us actually lauded the arrival of those shiny round discs. Our vinyl was growing scratchy and warped, and cassettes, for all their portability, had serious audio flaws and could break easily. Those gleaming sonic coasters weren’t just smaller than LPs; they made music old and new sound clear and clean. Proud anti-digital warrior Neil Young will disagree, but it was time for an audio upgrade, and what we heard – clarity of sound, separation of instruments – was damn impressive in those early CD days.
Yes, a CD cost more than an LP did in the late Eighties and early Nineties, and those soon-dispatched cardboard longboxes were a massive waste of paper. Every so often, I’d buy a disc – the initial pressing of John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow, for instance – that sounded brittle and shrill compared to its vinyl predecessor. In its first CD incarnation, Derek & the Dominos’ Layla was picked so clean that the desperate, sweaty passion of its performances was almost lost. But in my experience, those were exceptions. And thanks to the way labels dug into their vaults to exploit the CD format, a tremendous amount of out-of-print or never-released material was suddenly made available. (Elvis Costello’s Live at the El Mocambo, originally a rare promo, jumps to mind.)
Right now, nobody seems to remember any of those upshots. In fact, people don’t seem to be just tired of the CD; it feels as if they’re actively calling for its demise. When vinyl began dying off in the early Nineties, many people, me included, mourned its passing on many levels. But we didn’t dance in the streets that it was in its death throes, the way so many seem to be doing these days with the CD. A friend recently called to ask what he should do with his shelves of discs, since many of his friends were strongly urging him to chuck them. That’s right: People were actually saying he should throw his CDs in the garbage. (You can recycle them, you know.)
Where’s all this hate coming from? Partly it’s about cost: You don’t always have to pay (or pay much) for music anymore, and even the monthly fee for a service like Spotify is the same price as a single CD. (On Amazon, for instance, you’ll still have to shell out $12 or $13 for the latest Adele, Bowie and Charlie Puth albums on disc.) If I were to do an extremely diligent vacuuming of my home, I would probably find dozens of broken plastic tabs from CD cases that hit the ground and broke, so there’s that annoyance, too. No wonder CD sales continue to drop with each year; not even those two-plus-million CD sales of Taylor Swift’s 1989 can stave off its imminent death.
In some ways, CD loathing feels like a manifestation of anger toward the music business establishment – the Jeb Bush of entertainment media. As anyone who bought new releases or replaced old vinyl on CD will tell you, the major labels experienced a huge financial boon thanks to the compact disc. And as those Amazon prices dismayingly prove, CDs didn’t really get much cheaper later on, despite what we were once told to believe. In a world in which “major label” and “A&R executive” are often considered evil phrases – no matter all the momentous, enduring records released by majors and all the wheat-and-chaff separating done by skilled A&R execs over the decades – the CD is the symbol of music biz avarice, the one-percenter of pop.
All this said, I do love streaming. My boom box usually works just fine, and I don’t remotely miss the thought of carting along a small container of CDs on buses or airplanes or to the gym. But as I experienced that night with Low, it’s time to hit the pause button on CD disgust.
Despite dire warnings about oxidation (“disc rot”) that would make the discs unplayable, they still sound damn good – better audio than most streaming services, at least right now. (Old CD-Rs, on the other hand, are problematic.)
They still offer up music-geek necessities like credits and liner notes if you want to know who wrote that song or played that guitar or which song was sampled within the track.
They remain the last format to truly honor the idea of the album, which, for those who still care about long-form works, matters as much as cherry-picking a few songs off one record and then another.
And they still take up less space than LPs.
So remind me again why we’re sending the CD to the firing squad?