Medium Uncool: The CD Turns 30

Pitchfork presents an interesting article featuring its staff marking the 30th anniversary of the compact disc with stories of second-hand triumphs, pesky scratches, insidious CD burning schemes, and more.

Read the entire article after the jump.

In May 1981, a Sony employee played Billy Joel’s “Honesty”, the first track from his multi-platinum 1978 album 52nd Street, for a room of label executives. The crowd was wowed– not by Joel’s vocal delivery, but by where the music was coming from. This was a demonstration of the compact disc, a new medium that labels were banking on in order to reverse their rapidly deteriorating fortunes. They loved the crisp sound of digital music and were taken with the absolute lack of surface noise compared to vinyl LPs, but as journalist Steve Knopper tells it in his book Appetite for Self-Destruction, the thing they were most impressed by was “watching that little drawer open and close” on the Sony CDP-101 player. The object disappeared into a sleek black contraption, where, they were told, lasers did the work of translating code to music. All that was visible was a digital readout on the front of the player.

Knopper places the CD boom between the years of 1984 and 2000, when, thanks to MTV’s “Total Request Live” and big box retailers, sales of compact discs reached a never-to-be-topped record of 942 million. Then, the bubble burst. The allure of the little black drawer, digital fidelity, and the capacity to create a huge collection without taking up too much wall space were eclipsed, seemingly overnight. Home computers were being sold with CD burners installed in them, WinAmp and iTunes interfaces made the digital readout look as old as the gramophone, and accumulation was easier than ever. For years, music listeners had been removing CDs from their packaging and exploiting them not for their materiality, but their (relative) durability and portability. But once their digital code could be shuttled into a format that really felt invisible– and stored in devices no larger than a pack of cards– what was separating these formerly revolutionary objects from frisbees, or coasters?

Thirty years after its introduction, the CD is still everywhere, but its appeal, like that of 52nd Street, has long faded. Which raises the question: What is the CD’s legacy as a music format? Sure, it was foisted on music consumers by a greedy recording industry seeking to sell fans the same albums they already owned. But it’s undeniable that during the 1980s and 90s, these discs also shaped hundreds of millions of individual musical habits and expectations. Like radio, LPs, and the cassettes that came before them– and the mp3s and streams that followed– compact discs helped determine how we bought, listened to, cared for, collected, stored, copied, and shared our music. — Eric Harvey

This is a story about a strange thing called the mix CD. In high school, I made mixes on cassette tapes; CD burning wasn’t common practice yet. My tapes had custom covers, usually collaged out of magazines and discarded library books. They were unique objects, impossible to replicate. When these cassettes broke, or went through those cruel airport magnets, they were gone forever.

Mix CDs were different. They were easier to make and copy, but I also spent less time on them: no custom covers, sometimes no tracklist, no gifting ritual. After a certain point, my CD mixes didn’t even come with jewel cases. I used to make tapes on special occasions, like birthdays; I could make burned CDs on Friday afternoons, before going to a friend’s house to drink beer. Most of these CDs ended up warped, busted, cracked, or otherwise unplayable. Most of the time, that didn’t matter: the playlist survived, and it could be burned again.

In 2001, I made my then-girlfriend a mix CD of my then-favorite band, Pavement. The mix was called Pavement Ist Rad, a phrase I had borrowed from the liner notes of their 1995 album Wowee Zowee. I thought it was a fairly accurate statement. I wrote it in black sharpie on the CD, which I gave her without a case.

The 2001 date is important: This is before the band had gotten the deluxe-reissue treatment, and several of the songs on the CD had been ripped from EPs, bootlegs, and other nerdy sources. This was also before the ubiquity of mp3s. I knew what file sharing was, but it seemed bizarre and complicated, not to mention that most of what was being shared over networks like Audiogalaxy sounded like it was being played underwater.

My girlfriend liked the mix, but music wasn’t a life-or-death issue for her. She would listen to it in the car, or with friends at parties. That didn’t bother me; our relationship was staked on more important things. Around this time, both of us had become fascinated by a book calledCodex Seraphinianus. Explaining the book here would take too long, but suffice it to say that it was beautiful, mysterious, and at the time, completely-out-of-print and selling only in rare-book circles for thousands of dollars. Improbably, her college library had a copy. We took it out; pored over it; cherished it. Eventually, the book was recalled. Honeymoon over.

A few months later, she met someone at a party. They got to talking. “Have you ever heard of this book called Codex Seraphinianus?” he asked. The coincidence was uncovered: He was the recaller. “The weirdest thing,” he said, “was that when I took the book out of the library, I found this amazing Pavement mix stuck in the pages.” My mix: Pavement Ist Rad. “So that’s where it was!” she said. She was a space-case; I always liked that about her.

I imagined this guy finding Pavement Ist Rad like a hidden treasure. I imagined him confused, curious; I imagined him coming home and putting it on. I imagined how excited he was to feel like he was living in a world where you could still discover things so accidentally. In these daydreams, I almost never imagined the actual music, because it wasn’t the music that drew us together, it was the object: that blank CD with my handwriting on it.

We became friends, the three of us. Close friends. Does it seem too fitting that eventually the two of them started dating? Maybe. It happened though. At the time it was pretty painful, though it doesn’t seem so bad in retrospect. The relationship had run its course. Soon, CDs would be meaningless. For the moment, though, they still seemed capable of being as singular and precious as the tapes I’d made in high school. We didn’t know that then; we were transitioning too. — Mike Powell

My first argument with a record store clerk happened in 2001. I was buying Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump, based on a few spins of the song “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot” off a CMJ CD compilation. I’d never really had “words” with a counter denizen before, but when the register jockey mumbled something about “a Bowie knock off,” I hastily stammered out a reply, shocked and unable to comprehend that a stereotype had just been fulfilled.

Of course, my drive home was filled with more appropriate and detailed ripostes. The most crucial comeback I should have lobbed at this poor guy had nothing to do with the music itself, but where he worked. I didn’t buy The Sophtware Slump at a hip record store, but a used CD store called Disc Go Round, located in a strip mall in Greenwood, a suburb on the southeast side of Indianapolis. How could I not have used this clerk’s woefully uncool place of employment against him? The math was clearly in my favor here: a record-store clerk is only as cool as the stock s/he is able to pull from the racks and recommend (or order). Disc Go Round offered this guy no such cultural capital. He was surrounded not by dusty rarities or cool new releases, but liminal leftovers priced between $3.99 and $8.99. His argumentative power was contingent on the whims of promo-laden radio DJs looking for some extra change and young adults purging their collections of embarrassing teen purchases.

More than any independent music outlet or big box chain, used CD stores facilitated my d/evolution into a collector of music. Between about 1993 and 2002– or my first job as a college radio DJ and my initial cautious exploration of dodgy Mac-based peer-to-peer platforms and the launch of– these fly-by-night venues allowed me to cautiously dip into catalog building, in a major way. As someone who was much more interested in completing personal canons than keeping up with the relentless churn of newness, it only made sense. Between 1993 and 1996, I probably made about $1,000 selling duplicate promo copies of radio station CDs to one particular Bloomington establishment– I estimate anywhere from 10-15% of their stock at any given time comprised my full-art handouts, legal warnings be damned. Between about 1997 and 2001, I was able to complete the entire XTC, R.E.M., and U2 discographies via used stock– still a point of pride. One time, I got the first two Neu! albums on CD from a “just in” bin (apparently someone got a birthday present from a music nerd). Used CD stores were where I was introduced to Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips, Frank Zappa, and Sloan, among countless others. At the peak of my CD collecting, when my library numbered in the thousands, close to 60% were bought used.

The formerly omnipresent used CD store is now a relic of the past, a victim of the same internet and mp3 takeover that stuck a pin in the recording industry’s massive self-created bubble in the early 21st century. Like so much popular music in the 90s, these stores were the product of sheer excess. The same major labels who courted any band with shaggy hair were supplying far too many discs to meet the demand of the ginned-up Alternative Nation. The infinite CD copies of MonsterFile Under: Easy ListeningGod Fodder, New Order’s Republic, and Come On Feel the Lemonheads circulated as the opposite of collectibles. They were the devalued media products of a vastly oversaturated music market, created by a recording industry that thought itself too big to fail; they were what Tusk, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and Springsteen’s Live 1975-85 were to vinyl bins at the same time. But this doesn’t mean that I don’t have countless CDs with individual stories attached to them, that can send me off on minor nostalgic reveries, even taking me back to the long-gone store from where they were purchased. I still have that Grandaddy CD– it still plays perfectly, too– and now that I think about it, I still hold a grudge against that counter clerk. — Eric Harvey

When I was young, I had pretty bad OCD. Unfortunately, it didn’t extend to the way I kept my room and took care of my things. And the majority of my “things” were CDs– stacks upon stacks that infuriated my mother, who was positive I was wasting my money. (Turns out she was about 40% right– I actually bought this.)

Due to my general messiness, I encountered an issue that almost every CD owner has had to deal with: scratches. It’s no wonder: discs were strewn across the floor, stuffed into cracked jewel case, sometimes upside down, sometimes three-deep. The only real remedy was to work backwards and figure out a way to try and buff-out the dings. My go-to method bypassed bullshit wipes and sprays and instead involved a paper towel, a dab of Dial soap, and screaming hot water. It was good enough to turn a full-on skip into a slight tick and, for a lazy teenager, that was good enough.

Thinking about those dusty discs recently, I realized there was a lot of stuff in my collection that I wanted to rip– after all, I can’t find that first Pink Grease EP on iTunes– so I decided to do a little research on how to really and finally fix those scratches. Even in the age of the mp3, it turns out there is still a wealth of fairly ludicrous solutions, from toothpaste, to vaseline, to peanut butter, to some wind-turbine-looking thing, to a lamp, to yes, a banana peel. So I figured I’d try an experiment and take a fresh, unloved promo CD, scratch it up, and then Colgate the living shit out of it. But before I could take a quarter to some unsuspecting aluminum, I stopped short, realizing– at the risk of whitening the disc drive of my already-temperamental laptop– I didn’t have anything in my apartment to play the damn thing on. — Zach Kelly

On one hand, landing a DJ gig at the alt-rock radio station was my biggest career accomplishment at the time, if not the only one. Having a primetime Thursday night shift granted me about all the minor celebrity my 21-year-old self could handle. Moreover, there was an unattended CD burner at the station, along with a tremendous library of music that included a wealth of indie classics I couldn’t scheme out of Columbia House. On the other hand, what good was owning the entirety of Hüsker Dü’s recorded output if no one could see that I had it? My giant CD rack wasn’t just the biggest piece of furniture I owned at the time, it was also the window from which I wanted people to peer into my soul.

Feeding that delusion resulted in what is hands down the absolute nerdiest thing that ever accompanied my CD ownership, which is really saying something. (I had been known to surgically remove guaranteed-buyback stickers from The Wall and glue them on scratched CDs originating from Sam Goody.) Armed with a new batch of pirated gold at the end of every Thursday shift, I’d stop at the school library, find that one site that kept an archive of printable CD inlays and then go to work, sometimes in color, sometimes in black-and-white. Then came the diligent cut-and-Scotch-tape job in the blank CD cases I would buy by the dozens, hoping that the art was actually sized correctly.

Of course, things like serious relationships, moving across the country, and becoming an adult would soon prove that keeping however many thousands of shamefully burned CDs wasn’t something I needed, spiritually or physically. The collection ended up back where it started in the early 90s– at my parents’ house. One day, in hopes of saving space, they unwittingly tried to sell my stash to Disc Go Round. And then, the call: My rattled mother couldn’t figure out why she got laughed out of the store. Apparently, burned copies of Weezer’s Maladroit that skipped starting with “Slob” weren’t worth much. Three months later, that Disc Go Round became a nail salon. — Ian Cohen

My Saturday shopping decisions used to come down to this: one CD single, or two cassette singles? The most frequent way the CD triumphed was if it had bonus content; a video or photo gallery that was sure to crash our clunky family PC. That’s why Tatyana Ali’s “Boy You Knock Me Out” was my first self-bought single (over Emmie’s cover of Roxy Music’s “More Than This”): Ali’s MaxiDisc promised me at least 15 stuttering seconds of video before the computer suffocated. And once I started buying CDs, I was obsessed: I opened the bank account I use to this day because I got a free Toploader album for the privilege.

I got a job as a kitchen porter when I was 14, and earned so little that I was very discerning about what CDs I bought– I was cleaning toilets and picking cold baked beans out of the sink for these things. I went through a phase of obsessively buying, burning, and returning CDs from and to a local supermarket (I felt this was less reprehensible than doing it at a proper record store, where I knew all the staff). Some of the lies I told the nice people at Sainsburys: “I got two of these for my birthday!” “My auntie gave me this, but I don’t really like it!” “I think there’s something wrong with the CD!” “My mum says this album isn’t appropriate for me to listen to!” At my peak, I’d say that one tenner got me about six CDs.

I eventually started slipping behind the counter to work unofficially at a record shop called Solo Music, and eventually got a job there in my late teens. We didn’t keep the CDs in their boxes out on the shelves; they were stored in little cardboard sleeves in racks behind the counter, alphabetized and in genre sections. On quiet afternoons, we’d pull sleeves out at random in case we found a previously undiscovered gem, to little reward. These things were old– scribbled with dates stretching back to before I was born– crumbly, liable to fall out in large sections at once, and smelled like home. All old record shops do.

What remains of my teenage CD collection lives in the attic at my parents’ house, a seven-hour drive away from where I live now. I didn’t take it to university because it was too big, nor when I moved to London to work, and I think my brother stole half of it. I have a few here in my new house in Manchester (where I live with the last person to make me a mix CD), but I only keep the ones that have some sort of meaning, and rarely buy them; the last one I bought was a copy of a National EP that’s so rare, it’s illegal, according to the label that released the record in the first place! I get them out again when driving back at home; my grandma usually lets me borrow her car, and as I don’t have one of those iPod connector things, I pick out a pile of CDs that I think will suit my mood when winding around Cornwall’s lanes for a week, or about what the person in the passenger seat will want to listen to. But so far, I have not found anything in my old collection that the owner of the car herself would want to hear. “Ooh, turn it off!” Sorry, Paul McCartney. — Laura Snapes

Growing up a music fiend in the 90s– especially on a relatively low budget– meant scouring the used LP bins when I couldn’t afford CDs. And if there was any discrepancy between the two formats that made the more technologically advanced option look hopelessly second-rate to me, it was the difference between the 12″ sleeve and the jewel case. So much about CD packaging was weirdly botched: the infamous longbox, meant to provide a stopgap to stores that needed to stock CDs in deep shelves previously meant for vinyl; the stickers plastered across the top of the case that served the dual purpose of security measure and album/artist indicator while also proving aggravating to remove; the cases themselves, more brittle and quick to shatter than their cassette-tape equivalent.

But nothing made CDs look cheaper than the record companies’ flailing attempts to update the album art of their back catalogs. Going from 12 square inches of space to less than 5×5 was bad enough for sleeves with lots of detail– think Pedro Bell’s manic hundred-joke comics on Funkadelic sleeves, or Jim Fitzpatrick’s delirious Jack Kirby homage for Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak. And after a couple of decades of bands finding new, innovative gimmicks for their album art– the Warhol zipper of Sticky Fingers; PiL’s infamous Metal Box, the sandpaper cover of The Return of the Durutti Column— most labels failed to find a way to carry that playfulness over to the CD era. Usually their idea of a bonus visual element was an extra-thick booklet that was doomed to be damaged by the very tabs meant to hold it in place.

And then there was the matter of not even reproducing the album’s original artwork in the first place. Sometimes this was a matter of necessity; shrinking a back cover to a quarter of its original size inevitably rendered it completely illegible, so substitutions had to be made. At best, they were inoffensively bland cut-and-paste jobs; at worst, they looked like the painful Who atrocity at the top of this piece.

In some ways, updating the packaging came across like it was intended to modernize the music itself, bringing what could otherwise be cheap nostalgia into a current context on an advanced new format. After all, they change book covers with successive editions– so who’s to complain when this becomes this? The worst of it was when companies came out with up-to-date, super-hi-fidelity remasters, thus creating what they claimed was the definitive version of the CD to own– and then gave it hideous new artwork.

That’s not to say there weren’t good covers in the CD era. Part of the appeal of Kid A when I first bought it was discovering the “secret” booklet under the CD tray, and lots of covers did a lot with less space– think minimalist classics like Dig Your Own HoleMezzanine, or Ready to Die, not to mention the busily over-the-top iconography of Björk or No Limit. It just took a while for labels to adapt, just as it might take awhile for someone to take advantage of the more nuanced possibilities of album art in the mp3 era. (A$AP Mob’s animated GIF version of the Lord$ Never Worry cover was a good shot at it.) And mp3s let you pick any album art you want for your files, so if you want to make it a 1000×1000-pixel resolution photo of the original sleeve, there’s nothing stopping you. It’s not exactly the same as spinning that wheel in Led Zeppelin III or leafing through the huge booklet of astounding Graham Hughes photos in Quadrophenia, but it’s something. — Nate Patrin

I bought my first CD player in 1987, with my bar mitzvah money– and since it was a Sony model, a special offer entitled me to a voucher for a free CD by a Sony/Columbia recording artist. (Hooray for corporate synergy!) I opted for Rewind, a Rolling Stones cash-in comp covering the years 1971-1984. I already had Hot Rocks 1964-1971 on vinyl, so this conveniently brought my Stones collection up to date. With CDs, I was most excited about the ability to skip directly to the tracks I wanted to hear by remote control– a great boon to an aspiring couch potato like myself.

Since CDs were obscenely expensive back then– $27.99 for Houses of the Holy!– I had a rule that I would only buy one if I knew at least five songs on it already. But services like the Columbia House CD club afforded me the opportunity to take more of a chance on bands that I had only read about at that point, like Jane’s Addiction or Red Hot Chili Peppers. And then in high school, my CD collection benefitted enormously from a friend who worked at a mall chain store that had yet to install security barriers; he often completed each shift by smuggling out a full knapsack. We’d place orders with him prior to a shift, and then he’d distribute the bounty at school the next day. (He quit before the store performed its seasonal inventory check.)

Prior to my last year of high school, I got a summer job delivering auto parts, and in retrospect it was crucial training for my future career path, because it allowed me to listen to music nine hours a day. My delivery van only had a crappy AM radio, so each day I would build my own sound system– a Discman connected to two little portable computer speakers, all duct-taped to the dashboard, with the speakers plugged into the cigarette lighter. And since it was still possible to save for a university tuition on summer-job wages in Toronto back then, I had some leftover disposable income that would go straight to my favorite record stores, Rotate This and Record Peddler. Each week, I would go downtown and essentially acquire entire discographies: every Sonic Youth album, every Hüsker Dü album. And then I would drive around the city all day and take it in.

In the spring of 1998, I became the proud owner of my first ever credit card, with a $500 limit, which I dutifully paid down to zero after every use. That summer, after amassing a then-unprecedented $450 balance and taking several weeks to pay it completely off, I decided to reward my good behavior by going to Rotate This and using my credit card to buy three CDs: Cornelius’ Fantasma, Mogwai’s Ten Rapid, and Pussy Galore’s Live: In the Red. I remember these titles clearly, because that day marks the last time I was ever debt-free. — Stuart Berman

I’ve been buying CDs since I was 14; they still cover most of a wall in my office. In 1994, all I wanted for Christmas was a CD player. I was sinking deeper into an obsession with music that had begun with hearing Pink Floyd’s “High Hopes” earlier that year, and when that CD player finally arrived, it kicked open a floodgate.

I’d had cassettes, and continued to tape songs off the classic rock station, but CDs were the first medium I ever collected. My first shelf held 87 of them in little slots (85 if you had two of the the ridiculously over-thick double-disc sets like The Delicate Sound of Thunder), and I wondered how I would ever fill it. Less than a year later, it had been joined by a second shelf, which I had to return because the composite material it was made of was off-gassing formaldehyde something terrible.

When I got my first wide shelf and lined all my CDs up, alphabetically, then chronologically, on its four tiers, I looked at it from across the room with immense satisfaction. I was a curator. That shelf is in a landfill now, just another casualty in a long parade of units that were outgrown and cast off, left on Salvation Army loading docks.

Today, I buy a lot more vinyl than CDs. Both are space-consuming media, though they consume it differently. As much as I love the square foot of a record, when CDs are on a shelf together en masse, spines lined up neatly, they have a visual heft that no other medium can claim. And we’re living in the CD-packaging enlightenment, especially for reissues and compilations. Perfect binding, slipcases and other innovations have vastly improved the CD’s ability to serve as an art object on par with an LP, or at least one worth keeping on a shelf. — Joe Tangari

Two cents...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s