A Love Letter To The Humble Compact Disc

CD may be dead, but was it ever fully appreciated, and should its demise be sorrowfully mourned?
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CD may be dead, but was it ever fully appreciated, and should its demise be sorrowfully mourned?

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On Tuesday night I found myself engrossed in Alan Yentob’s latest episode of the BBC’s Imagine series; Books – The Last Chapter? The series has covered some pretty fascinating subjects since it began in 2003, whether it was Michael Epstein’s piece earlier this year documenting John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s move to New York, or Yentob’s chronicling of The Bolshoi Boy a few years ago - an intense portrayal of Henry Perkins’ experiences in Moscow. The series has done justice to some emotive and thought-provoking issues.

It provided some decent viewing, with some interesting ideas put forward by some interesting people. A general consensus was achieved during a conversation between Yentob, author Ewan Morrison, publisher Gail Rebuck and legendary literary agent, Ed Victor. They each voiced their concerns for the future of their trade, but admitted that there was exciting potential in the electronic revolution that cannot be ignored – regardless of romantic attachments. The printed page will still exist for years to come, but in what kind of circulation? Ed Victor summarised the whole discussion quite well when citing William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade – “nobody knows anything” – indeed, we don’t.

The show did strike one major chord with me - not grief at the potential loss of the leather-bound word - but as a means of reminding me of a time gone by; the time of the Compact Disc. This is a loss which is proving particularly difficult for me to deal with at Christmas time.

Beginning Secondary School in 1999 I was learning my trade as a future adult; how to do my hair, maximum length of school tie, what height to wear my backpack, how to conceal an inconvenient a stiffy – tough stuff. But the most significant learning curve I ventured on was finding my musical leanings – a condition which was, and has been, entirely moulded and manipulated by the development of the CD.

Beginning Secondary School in 1999 I was learning my trade as a future adult; how to do my hair, maximum length of school tie, what height to wear my backpack, how to conceal an inconvenient a stiffy – tough stuff.

My school career flowed as normal, and after months of various lunchtime discussions later I found myself aware of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and then in possession of a loaned copy of Californication – it blew me away. Not because of any real awareness of lyrics or musicianship – just the experience of the CD. Being able to listen to something in private over and over again was incredible. I felt like I was part of a secret that no one else knew anything about. I could read the lyrics as I listened – I felt like I was singing. This led to me asking for my own copy of Californication for Christmas – how amazing did it look when I found it under the tree? Wrapped in plastic, stickers everywhere, not a tear or crease in sight on the album inlay, the initial stiffness on first removal – it smelt amazing too. This was the start of something special. The following Christmas I found myself in possession of not only a CD collection of WWF entrance themes, but all six of the Chili Peppers’ previous albums. I might not have understood the intricacies of the funk, or the delicate nature of Anthony Kiedis’ tortured lyrics - but some of the track names provided killer MSN screen names (‘Catholic Schoolgirls Rule’ has just signed in...) I never looked back.

Weekly trips into the town with my friends allowed for us to buy CDs ourselves, occasionally overlapping with our purchases, but trying our best to buy different albums so we could lend them to each other throughout the week. A midweek purchase of an album from a supermarket was an event which tended to require a group text and a discussion in registration the next day – the CD may have even got brought into school to show everyone.

As I got a little older, music started to get listened to in class – there were a variety of nailed-on techniques for concealing Discmans and headphones and listening to Is This It during maths without picking up a detention. As the frequency of listening increased, so did the length of the Christmas lists. By the time I was 13-14 my festive requests tended to include around fifteen albums. Elephant by The White Stripes was major - another discography requested. I began to get experimental and take risks. I enjoyed the video to ‘Float On’ by Modest Mouse so scribbled down each of their albums.

Some of the track names provided killer MSN screen names (‘Catholic Schoolgirls Rule’ has just signed in...)

My girlfriend’s brother is 13 and he loves music, I rarely see him without his headphones plugged in, and he asks me all sorts about what I am listening to. But there were no CDs on his Christmas list this year. It doesn’t mean he isn’t into music – quite the opposite – but that old cliché unfortunately rings true, times are changing.

As a part time DJ I think it is important to embrace the digital revolution. Being able to download and burn tracks minutes before a set is a great way to introduce yourself, and your audience to stuff that might otherwise have gone unheard. I have music in my record box which might have taken me months to discover by trawling through display racks – I might never have even heard it. Surely that’s a good thing.

The point of this was not to discuss the need to accept change though; it was to celebrate the beauty that was the CD age – an appreciation for the artwork, the desperation to own someone’s latest album, the sadness of cracking a case and trying to replace it with the case of a less-loved disc; the ultimate challenge of burning the perfect mix for a bus journey to the Metro Centre and managing to fit it into 700mb. People say its evolution, but it’s moving too fast for me. Vinyl enjoyed centre stage and dominance for the best part of a century. The CD was meant to be the future. The CD was built to last – I mean, this thing survived the onslaught of the minidisc; it was the greatest creation of all time.

And to me it always will be – I might not purchase physical music at the rate I used to, but the feeling of material ownership can never be beaten. Am I being overly-sentimental? Probably. When was the last time I played a CD for myself? A while ago. But that’s not the point. The CD hasn’t enjoyed the lifespan it deserved. Did it ever reach its potential as a medium? I don’t think so. It has become a victim of the mentality that created it; a quest for perfection that will ultimately never reach a satisfying conclusion. We strive for quality that will never be achieved. We can speculate as to where the music industry is going in terms of distribution, how copyright laws can be enforced, how we will enjoy music, but like Goldman taught us, “nobody knows anything” - not until it has already happened anyway.

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