Declaration and Defense

July 21, 2010

Image from zen @ Flickr

What is people’s deal with trying to declare stuff dead? I mean, I understand why a performer like Jay-Z would declare “Death of AutoTune,” to separate himself from the younger, up-and-coming performers who have used the plug-in and establish himself as a more “classic” artist (btw AutoTune is still alive like GLaDOS, Hov). It was basically drawing a line in the authenticity sand, a branding ploy. That’s cool.

But knocking consumer devices? That just serves to push people away from a way of interacting with their stuff in which they are comfortable. Game consoles? Desktops? For your information, I just bought a desktop and I love it: cheap, big screen, not sitting on my legs overheating, etc. Likewise, I don’t and won’t trust cloud computing game services like OnLive until there is a legal guarantee that the server will stay up no matter what, because I want to be able to work digitally or play video games no matter what, even if a server crashes or Comcast decide to be jerks. Plus local gaming means instant gaming with no lag. Until the United States pulls a South Korea-like overhaul of its broadband systems (and it has far more pressing problems that it needs to solve first), reliable media activity service models will not be viable. You know who benefits from that hype? Phone companies.

But today I’m here to defend a music format: the Compact Disc. CNN has an article up called “Is the Death of the CD Looming?” The article cites the declining sales of CDs compared to the increase in digital album sales in the past year. I don’t disagree with this data, and the overall trend with how we consume information and media seems to be all-in-one devices streaming info over the internet. But I would hope that physical media still keeps getting made.

In the mid-2000s when I was a DJ at a radio station, I had to defend the CD format against the other dance music DJs who were often vinyl purists. Now I feel like my format is getting heat from the other side. I feel like I need to defend my choice, so here’s why CDs are a good format.

  1. They are physical without being cumbersome: I like physical media. I like something I can hold in my hands. I like packaging and liner notes. I like looking at a big media collection. I like grabbing a stack of CDs to play in my car. While vinyl has an artier quality to it and carries that air of authenticity, its size and durability make a large stack of them much harder to carry. Their size makes them portable. Vinyl is not portable.
  2. They are physical which can become high quality digital. For straight-up pure audio quality, vinyl is the best format to go, but they are tethered to the record player. CDs can be rocked on boom boxes, DVD players, and car CD players (which seem pretty common). They can also be ripped to a computer as long as it has a CD/DVD drive and you can get mp3s that sound great. Vinyl ripping, while possible, is much more difficult to get really good stuff. Your records can’t be scratched, you need good needles and/or cartridges, and your turntable has to be hooked up to your computer in just the right way. It’s possible, but it’s a hassle if you’re anything short of an audiophile.
  3. Not everything is up on the digital marketplace. Licensing deals, industry politics, and collapsing labels force iTunes and eMusic to take stuff off of their stores all of the time, which is so crummy. If I need to find a busted-up band or a mid-90s film soundtrack, I know I’ll have a much better shot of tracking things down at a good used music store. And I want to own my music, not keep paying some company money until my internet goes down or they go down and I lose everything in the end.
  4. CDs will be your backup discs. In 2008 my hard drive, which held all of the music I acquired from 2002 to 2006, crashed into an irreparable state. The cost to recover the data was too much for me, but luckily I could simply re-rip anything that I originally acquired on CD. Twas not the case for my iTunes purchases (and they make you re-buy anything you want to re-download). If you don’t have a spare hard drive around to be your backup disk, CDs will be there for you.

In short, I liken buying CDs to moving to the suburbs vs. the city or the country. In the country, there is untouched nature, open space, and freedom to move around. However, there’s no people, not a lot of places to go, and not a whole lot of stuff to really do. Plus the only internet you can get is dialup. Vinyl is the country: pure, simple, high quality, niche, and difficult. In the city, there’s a lot to do, places for all kinds of interests, a wide variety of resources at your fingertips, and the feeling that one is on the cutting edge. The clubs and the broadband are in the city. However, sometimes it feels like there are too many people in the streets, there are more thugs and muggers, you rent property, and it feels like no space is truly your own. Digital music is the city: diverse, quick, overpopulated, and dangerous. The suburbs are in between: more amenities than the country via big box stores and malls, more space than the city through neighborhood planning. CDs are the suburbs:  versatile, good quality, there are a lot of them, there’s some risk of damage, and there’s a sense of blandness. They’re in the middle, with all of the comfort and lack of risk that entails. Like the suburbs, CDs get a bad rap, but there’s a reason for how they got to where they are in the first place.

I don’t mean to come across as some luddite or oldster. Every music format has its advantages and disadvantages. I just think that every music consumer should have multiple options to how they buy music and support artists. Don’t hate, don’t exclude, and unless you’re a coroner, don’t declare things dead.


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