(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Friends and family announced the death of Compact Disc — familiarly known as “CD” — this week. Its remains were said to be scattered over a few dozen remaining retail stores that continued to stock CDs. It is survived by millions of MP3s and thousands of vinyl LP records, which were themselves long thought to be missing and presumed dead.
Compact Disc was born in 1982 in Germany, after some years of gestation in the Netherlands. It first appeared in retail form in the form of Billy Joel’s 52nd Street on Oct. 1, 1982.
CD led a long, expensive and uproarious, if sometimes quarrelsome, life. It was never happier than when accidentally dropped on a hardwood or tile floor. It was then eager to make a disheartening noise upon striking the floor and springing open, scattering all its many pieces across the floor.
The cause of death of Compact Disc was said to be irrelevance. Symptoms of that lingering malady had become more noticeable of late. No memorial services are planned at this time.
Well, it is time to write an obituary for the compact disc. It’s trying to hang on, but the poor critter has just plain outlived its usefulness. Although just how useful it turned out to be is open to debate.
It had become painfully clear some time ago that CD was suffering from a fatal wasting disease, diagnosed by plummeting sales as measured by Nielsen SoundScan. Every iPod sold was a blow against the CD empire, every download a fresh bruise.
CD has staggered along for months as music store after music store shut down. It was burdened anew by the recent announcement of the final closings of all Virgin Records’ superstores in the U.S. The BMG Music mail-order CD club shuts down this month. Remember when you could join that club and get 12 CDs for a penny? Odd, that with its subscriber base, the BMG club never explored the option of selling downloads. And CD was further jolted by such relatively small but repeated wounds as the recent announcement by Warner Bros. Nashville it would henceforth issue media copies of new product only in download form.
Its remains — in addition to the copies in the few remaining stores and mail outlets selling CDs — are in the form of millions of unrecyclable plastic “jewel boxes” and CDs themselves in dumps and landfills. They’ll never rot or decay, unfortunately. Plastic CD cases are plastic, and the CDs themselves are plastic discs with thin coats of aluminum and lacquer.
On a personal level, I will not miss CD. From the onset, I didn’t like the packaging or the more compressed sound or the increasing lack of liner notes and album art. And, I especially didn’t like the price. An $18.98 or so list price for 10 or 12 songs (especially when many of those were dross surrounding singles) never struck me as a fair deal.
CDs can hold a maximum 80 minutes of music, but seldom do. That 80-minute length was originally 74, which was chosen, interestingly, as part of the development process. The CD was technologically initially presented as a 60-minute disc. However, early on, in Europe, the CD was seen as ideal for presenting long classical music performances. 74 minutes was chosen for the first CD’s length because that was the performance time of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the Bayreuth Festival. Those 74 minutes later became 80 as technology improved.
Downloads come as close as any delivery system has yet come (with the exception of live radio or TV performances) to fulfilling what I have always thought is the mission of performed music: namely connecting the music maker with the music listener. The closer the creator and listener can come, without all the impedimenta and cost of all the middlemen in between, then the better the experience.
I like downloads, for convenience and ease of use. But not for music that I want to keep and treasure and have around for generally aesthetic purposes. But, unlike many people, I don’t think of music as being disposable. At least not the music I like. I wish record companies would finally, after all these years, get the download business figured out. Especially for something as seemingly obvious as catalog. The major labels are sitting on treasure chests in the form of catalog. Open those chests up!
Liner notes and album art are another matter. I far prefer the freedom that the larger vinyl LP offers for artwork and liner notes and album credits
And sound is another large issue. Downloads are no improvement over the sound of CDs. I am not an audiophile, but I prefer what I think is the warmer and truer sound of music on analog on a phonograph album. And it’s clear that there is a growing number of vinyl fans. The list of artists issuing their work on vinyl LP now is heartening, and the number of outlets making it available is growing. Slowly, but growing. To test your ears, if you ever get the chance, try to compare, say a Waylon Jennings vinyl album from the mid-’70s with a CD reissue of the same (or of any comparable artist). You’ll hear what I’m talking about.
Vinyl phonograph albums have many limitations. A maximum of about 22½ minutes per side of an LP is one. The relative fragility of the grooves is another — they’re subject to easy scratching. Meaning that you learn to take care of your records. Storage can be a problem. And they’re relatively heavy, as anyone knows who ever lifted a box of them. But phonograph records are vinyl and they come in cardboard. All of that is recyclable.
Vinyl LPs are collectible. Anyone can burn a CD, but few can press phonograph albums. CDs largely are not collectible items — with the exception of true limited burns of rare items, including three-inch or mini-CDs. Bootleg boxed sets remain a prime, if relatively small-market, item. For packaging and shelf purposes, CDs actually do work better for a five- or 10-disc set or even larger. And they can hold more sizable booklets of photographs, artworks and notes.
But, otherwise, I look forward to not having stacks of plastic and aluminum everywhere.
So, for me, goodbye, CD. RIP and good riddance.