I used to chide my hipster friends for buying records. I mean, who wouldn’t? They’re outdated, obsolete, patently impractical and an obvious style statement (so are records). Vinyl somehow makes listening to weird music even more pretentious. And don’t give me that tired spiel about how “warm” records sound, how that olde-fashion’d fuzz makes you feel like you’re rolling a joint with Jimi and Bob. That fuzz is not the sound of authenticity — it’s the sound of the needle rubbing along the groove’s rough edges. So please. Spare us the theatrics.
Said the kid who still buys CDs.
It was a good run, my donut-shaped friends, but it seems that the end is upon us. 2012 is shaping up as the first year in which digital music sales will outpace CD sales, the culmination of a trend that shows no inclination towards reversal. The CD’s decline hit home this summer with the closure of New Haven’s Cutler’s Records & Tapes, a local landmark since 1948. Many new laptops come without disc drives, meaning plenty of Yalies (and other people too, I guess) can get their music only in digital form. When I went to lend a buddy a few choice albums, his response was incredulous: “Who still uses CDs?” asked the friend, whose computer, of course, didn’t have a disk drive.
Um … I do. And you know what? I like CDs.
I like having something tangible, something to turn over in my hand as I read the track listing. There’s something proprietary about it, saying, I own this music and will take it with me. I like bumping a new CD driving home from the store, hearing the songs laid out in order as the band intended. I like putting a disc in the player and not taking it out until the album’s last note has stopped ringing. Opening a new CD invokes the promise of some minute mystery, akin to spotting an unexpected personal letter in your mailbox.
Of course I have an iPod, and my precious CDs inevitably end up gathering dust somewhere in my room like forgotten toys. But I almost always end up liking music that I buy in hard copy more than music I download. A new CD focuses my listening. It is a physical reminder of music that would otherwise disappear into the thicket of my iTunes library. I have many of my favorite albums on CD rather than just digitally, which I doubt is a coincidence. Attachment to music’s corporeal form, holding up a favorite CD and remembering the satisfaction it’s brought you, is without parallel in digital music. Over the summer, a friend of mine nearly went into conniptions after scratching her dad’s favorite Springsteen record. Is this mushy, impractical and materialistic? Check, check and check. But I bet her dad loved that Springsteen record more than he would have loved scrolling through it on a touch screen.
Much of a CD’s allure comes from the potential for swaps. There’s little better than sending off a favorite album for a friend to enjoy, letting them feel the same thrill at prying open the jewel case and marveling at the achievement held between two flimsy pieces of plastic. You can swap music online or on a flash drive or probably in some newfangled ways that I, in my anachronistic haze, haven’t even heard of yet. But a CD swap is more than saying, “Hey, here’s some music I like.” Sharing the experience attached to a CD, the possibility and fulfillment that you felt, makes for a more personal interaction. And comparing notes while swapping back brings the whole exchange full circle.
There is a practical side to my fascination. I love driving, and I think driving and music mix like gin and tonic. But my car has no input jack. So every time I hit the road, I grab a stack of CDs from a rack near the door. There are some CDs, like the Kings of Leon’s “Because of the Times” (their last good album) or Ryan Adams’ “Easy Tiger,” that nested in the glove box until I knew them backwards and forwards and loved every note. A good road CD can become a driver’s manifesto, something you won’t get listening to your iPod on shuffle.
I’m a dying breed in my affection for CDs. But when they finally go, they will take with them music’s last physical container. Without any physical constraints, what will happen to the length of musical releases? CDs and records defined the length of an album. Already, iTunes has encouraged the evolution of awkward, in-between releases of four or five songs, too short for an album but too long for a single. Maybe the fall of physical constraints for music distribution will mean the end of the album as we know it. That, I think, would be a loss to truly mourn.
There is, to be sure, one unequivocal good in the demise of the CD: the end of those fucking plastic jewel cases. You know, the ones with the hinges that break literally as you buy them. My donut-shaped friends, you will be missed. Your packaging, however, will not be.