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PMMR's Corner: Does The Humble CD Have A Future?

‘I was there!’ I often say when people talk about CDs being launched onto the public. We all sat in awe watching Tomorrows World as this shiny futuristic metallic disc was fed into a machine and
seconds later crystal clear digital sound filled the studio. With bizarre promises of being able to ‘smear them in jam and they would still play’ we all looked at the dusty pile of records next to our aged turntables and thought their time was up. No more crackles, hisses, jumps or scratches. No more broken needles and no more of that aged analogue sound cultivated from a groove on a piece of vinyl. We were staring at the future and immediately started making enquiries on how we could get this new format into our lives. I wanted one straight away, I couldn’t wait. It was the future, it was better, and it was sexy. The CD was our new rock and roll. Our parents could keep their cassettes and record collections (thank you Mr Ant) we had the shiny indestructible perfect sounding disc.

I saved and saved until I could afford a Sentra Music system with a CD player-built in. 2-way speakers and a soon to be redundant turntable sat on top. Next to the CD player was a fantastic twin tape deck, still useful as there was no way at the time of listening to a CD in the car or on my Walkman…

Fast forward a couple of years and the Sentra was sent to the great retirement loft in the sky (well above my room) and I had started work and bought a Technics amplifier with four speakers and a CD player. No need for anything else. Music was on CD and this was it. My collection of records was put in the loft next to the record player and I have no idea where all the cassettes went!

We all started our collections with Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ and then tried to look all cool by buying ‘Brothers in Arms’. Our parents looked on with shaking heads as we blew our wages buying albums we already owned on vinyl on the reasoning that they were somehow ‘better’. We would try and explain how it all worked even though in truth none of us really knew. Apparently, a kid at our school took the laser out of the player and killed his pet hamster! I am pretty sure this was a urban myth of the 80’s.

The future was CD and no one or nothing could change that.

The record shops disappeared and were replaced by characterless shelves
of CDs in supermarkets staffed by kids who didn’t know anything about music. We didn’t notice at first but a little bit of why we buy music was dying with vinyl. I remember standing in the record shop waiting for the delivery as I had ordered some Thomas Dolby records and vainly hoped the Record company would deliver them (they didn’t they just said the fateful word ‘deleted’). The feel of buying vinyl and getting home to listen to the whole album and study the cover was replaced by selecting tracks and a cover so small you couldn’t read it. I am sure artists must have wept as their arduous work was overcome with a ‘skip’ button.

Over the years various things arrived that were pretenders to the crown. Mini disc (yes, I bought the player) didn’t catch on. DAT was a strange tape-based solution to a problem that no one cared about as well.

Then it started happening. My First CD wouldn’t play properly because it had ‘degraded’. You could scratch them, and I never tried the Jam thing… I know someone who did, and it didn’t end well. I won’t name you, but we know, don’t we?! The car CD player would ‘skip’ when you hit a bump and more than anything I would occasionally get the records out the loft, they were too good to get rid of, so they would sit there for years. ‘Perhaps my children would like to look at them in years to come when vinyl is no more’, I would think whilst reading the cover to a George Clinton album for the 500th time.

Then We all got computers!

I remember my first visit to Napster. I got every record ever made by Thomas Dolby. Every mix, every live version and even ones with tenuous links, I am still not convinced that he worked with Falcao, but it said so, so I downloaded it and burnt it onto CD. I was never buying a CD again. Ever.

Then it got shut down, but it was too late. The public was on this bandwagon good and proper. Apparently, we were killing music, but no one gave a damn. As it turns out now it was mostly the record companies that were making money anyway, the artists received very little for their efforts.

Everywhere was selling dodgy CDs! Why pay full price! The CD revolution had turned into a futuristic nightmare for the suddenly ‘ailing’ records companies.

We didn’t mind though. Cheaper CDs for everyone. But something had gone again. A little bit more soul had been eroded. The Cd wasn’t even printed, and you had no cover now (or a cheap colour copy of the front cover) that was it.

The next stage took it to a new level.

Why have a physical copy! Download the MP3 straight onto your music player. Fill the memory with tracks you like (either legally or not) either way you can carry all your music in your pocket. Listen to the tracks you like, no need to listen to the album, pick and choose. There’s no cover there’s no credits there’s no story. You don’t need to speak to a knowledgeable man in a shop you can listen to the first 30 seconds of the track and if you like it buy the rest. The future really was here and like the book 1984 we lost our choices, our imagination, our free will. CDs were dead now and everything they killed was history. Your music was on a little white box in your pocket, you don’t need to share it, no need for the amplifier with 4 speakers blasting in your bedroom! Put the earbuds in turn it up and shut up. If you want something to read, get on your social media. And don’t share anything or you will be visited by the man in the cloud who polices the entire world…

Then something happened…

Vinyl started to raise its head. Like all the very best things from history it wouldn’t lie down and die. It had a following and it was growing.

I remember digging my records out the loft and showing my bemused son. He looked at me with wonder as I put the needle on the record for his first listen of vinyl. Some years later he has a collection which puts mine to shame. He hasn’t bought a CD in years and listens to a streaming service in the car or at the gym. In his life the vinyl record is king. And it would appear it’s not going away.

When I started looking at vinyl we could buy it for 50p at car boots, two years later they were asking stupid made up prices for scratched vinyl.

But then the experts arrived again. People who spent time with music and appreciated the format. Record shops started popping up again. Smaller better shops with enthusiasts running them who seemed half in it for the money and half to build the biggest collection ever. Artists started releasing their new material on vinyl again, to start with as collector’s editions then just as the main format again. Inevitably the big corporations noticed this, and the major chains started piling their shelves with vinyl again, normally cheap vinyl copies of the CD version but it was there, and it was selling.

My son pushed me into buying him a decent turntable and sound system, out came the earbuds and the house came alive with the sound of music, at that time mainly rap but as his vinyl collection grew so did his taste. Following producers and genres rather than select artists developed his taste. Live gigs aplenty followed and so on. History repeated itself as this is exactly what I did some 40 years ago. He would sit on his bed and read the album cover just like I did and decide what he wanted to listen to next, rather than being told.

So, I return to my original question ‘is CD dead?’

Well I listen to vinyl a lot now as well. But when I am writing I like the convenience of streaming. I can listen for hours without moving. Perfect. But then whilst in the loft I found my bags of old Cd’s and thought I can mix this altogether. The collections can sit side by side and I can play what I like, when I like. Perversely I have some albums on CD that will probably never be available on any other format.
I recently bought a new release on CD for the first time in years, orchestrated by Midge Ure. It was cheap, very cheap. It sounded perfectly good and I enjoyed it. I own it now and I can listen to it whenever I like. I don’t like the cover as much and its never going to have a resale value, but I haven’t bought it for that purpose. The reason that I didn’t buy the vinyl version is that is was just shy of £24! Its never going to be worth that again.

It also answers the question of longevity. A lost contact of mine who’s a photographer puts forward a very strong argument for printed photos being the only format that people should keep pictures in. The same as our grandparents did. No one is going to go in the loft in 50 years’ time and find a memory stick with some long-forgotten photos on. Perhaps the same applies to music. No one cares what I stream but when anyone visits my office they are drawn straight over to the records! And what if you lose the ability to stream? Records will play, CDs will play but without the internet streaming is useless. Perhaps on this thought its worth ‘backing up’ all those saved recordings on your long forgotten ipod?

I want to listen to music.

That’s all I wanted to do really.

My CD collection is coming out the loft and going back to work. There’s some stuff in there I haven’t heard for years and I am going to add to it. They are amazingly cheap, especially compared to vinyl on a new release.

My first love is vinyl. I will continue to buy vinyl but there’s no risk. No more taking it home and realising its a terrible album (we have all done that) I will have a quick listen on line and buy it on merit. Then settle down with a coffee and read the cover whilst the album crackles and jumps in the background.

As much as some things change they stay the same.

Follow Peter on Twitter to see his brilliant album of the day series!


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