Our arbiters of culture have started to move en masse to sound the death knell for the compact disc. It is going the way of the Dodo, of the 8-Track, of the cassette and the vinyl record. Physical media is doomed. As newspapers fail and book sales decline, so too diminishes the once mighty compact disc, but please, pay no heed to the resurgence of vinyl and the ridiculously regressive return of analogue tape because the CD’s trajectory into ruin has been plotted – never to rise again.
The con is complete, replete with no resale or collectors’ value and no trade-ins.
When compact disc’s first came out, analogue purists were tripping over one another to tout the warm glowing superiority of a vinyl record’s sound compared to the cold soul-sucking abyss of digital. That was a lie. Records are garbage, but I understand why people like records. I keep a few hundred on hand myself for when the ritualistic mood strikes me: slowly slipping the black vinyl, inch by inch, from jacket and sleeve, lowering it gently over the turntable’s central spindle and softly settling the needle into the groove. It’s an experience, man.
Connoisseurs of the vinyl medium often address the size of the object, to hold this big thing in their hands and gaze upon the large twelve square inches of art. It’s why I bought Ghost’s second album, “Infestissumam” on vinyl when perusing records at a shop in Stockholm. The beautifully rendered illustrations come alive in their oversized dimensions. Artwork has always been the compact disc’s major failing, but it isn’t just artwork that creates a bond with physical media. It is the thing itself. It’s essence as a thing. It’s thingy-ness. Das ding an sich, as our German friends might say.
I don’t want to come across as a crotchety old grumbling Albini…
In the 1995 documentary film So Wrong They’re Right, 8-Track aficionados muse on the loop of tape, endlessly playing around and around, and as the magnetic information stored on it slowly fades away into blankness it is transferred into the listener’s brain. The tape loop has been run through the music appreciators’ head and has become a part of her. There’s a certain poetic beauty in that idea. Too bad 8-Tracks are the shittiest audio medium ever shat, but it does demonstrate that if people can wax nostalgic for the truly awful 8-Track tape, then maybe CDs aren’t really going to vanish from the market place after all.
“Motherfucker! Where the fuck did Carnivore’s cover of Hendrix’s Manic Depression go?”
The last cassette tape I bought was Testament’s debut album “The Legacy,” and the first CD, Suicidal Tendencies’ “How Will I Laugh Tomorrow When I Will Still Be Busy Trying to Spit Out the Name of This Ludicrously Lengthy Album Title?” And that second salvo fired into the field of heavy metal by ST still sits on my shelf and still plays perfectly all the way through without skip or stutter. As for “The Legacy,” it grew brittle and snapped. I replaced it… on CD. I could have gone for a digital download, but I’m a bit of a materialist and I find music disembodied from corporeal physicality too intangible, ungraspable, a diaphanous illusion. I forget about music sitting on my hard drive. My first generation iPod, which got plenty of use in the band van on the aught-three and aught-five tours of the States, has split at the seams and spilled a library of musical bytes into the ethereal haze, but still that Suicidal Tendencies’ disc plays. Even before that iPod’s battery rebelled and grew fat with age, it developed the annoying habit of dropping data, seemingly deleting songs at random. “Motherfucker! Where the fuck did Carnivore’s cover of Hendrix’s Manic Depression go?” It also nuked Apocalyptic City off Testament’s aforementioned “The Legacy.” Both sides of the technological divide between CDs were betraying me. Yet still Mike Muir Trips at the Brain clear as a bell sans crackle and at precisely the correct speed – the former a problem of vinyl and the latter of audiocassette tapes.
Slowly slipping the black vinyl, inch by inch, from jacket and sleeve, lowering it gently over the turntable’s central spindle and softly settling the needle into the groove.
I’m not making a plea here to halt technological progress. I’m no neo-Luddite. How could I be? I already told you I listen to Carnivore (RIP Mr. Steele), and I was the first kid on my block to rip MP3 files and buy an iPod. I don’t want to come across as a crotchety old grumbling Albini condemning the “Richman’s 8-Track Tape,” which, by the way, I can go over to the collection, take down off the shelf from betwixt Biafra and Big Business, stick in ye olde ghetto blaster, and it plays just as fine as the day acquired back in 1989. Yes, we are old. That was well before Albini recorded Nirvana, which means it was probably before you heard of him, but nevertheless, maybe in his misguided rage against the compact disc, Mr. Albini was onto something after all. We are entering “the next phase of the market-squeezing technology bonanza.”
For now the record labels must be delighted, they get to rake in the cash, and sell us nothing. There is no physical component. There is no warehouse to rent, no manufacturing materials, no factory workers, no shipping fees, no dock clerks, no shops. All they do is pay the recording artist a pittance and sell us the air we breathe. We get nothing. Oh, we get the music. I am aware that that is something, but we are the losers. The con is complete, replete with no resale or collectors’ value and no trade-ins. What you own is a house you can neither live in nor rent, and it is this immutable aspect of digital downloads, which, in all likelihood, will prevent the CD and other physical media forms from kissing off into oblivion, thus proving the current forecasters of the compact disc’s demise wrong in their prediction. Unless, it’s simply what they want, and there really truly is no way to stop them.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, my Victrola needs winding.