The original intention of this article was to defend the compact disc format against those who see it as pointless, outdated, or superseded. However, during the course of my writing I came to realise that it wasn’t the format I wanted to defend, it was the choice offered by the format. Specifically, the ability to choose between different versions of the same material in order to make an informed decision when acquiring music.
by Robert Cowlin
Much as vinyl was kicked to the curb in the nineties by the music labels who saw it as unprofitable; the media who saw it as uncool; and the general public who saw it as cumbersome next to the by then fully established compact disc format, so today the wheel spins and it is the turn of the CD to play the industry scapegoat. In our post-Millennial world of streaming and downloads, those humble silver discs of yore appear antiquated and useless to the average consumer. Indeed, if music is simply a thing you hear to pass the time during your commute, or in the background at restaurants or at work, then yes the CD is probably completely useless and a Spotify account will do you just fine thank you very much. If, however, you’re are an actual fan of music, then the CD can be a very useful tool in your exploration and acquisition of music, in just the same way as vinyl, cassettes, and downloads are.
This entry is primarily inspired by a recent Noisey/Vice article entitled, “Does Anyone in the World Still Buy CDs?” It’s your typical run of the mill click-bait from Vice in which they pick a hobby and get an ill-prepared journalist to produce something of little substance and zero prior research. A cursory glance at Google will reveal that, as of 2015, UK CD sales accounted “for two thirds (66 per cent) of all album sales (excluding streams)“. So there you have it, one Google search has answered Vice’s question. Not only do people still buy CDs, but CD remains the most popular music format in Britain. Look a little further afield and one finds that, in Japan, “the second biggest music market, CDs still make up 85% of all music bought“. To Vice’s credit, they did interview shoppers in HMV, Fopp, and Rough Trade to get their take on why they still buy CDs. However as is always the case with these articles, be it CD, vinyl, or cassette buyers, the answers are always the same: “I like having a physical object”, “I like stuff to read like a booklet”, “I just hate downloading”, “I like the feeling of rummaging through CDs”. An alternative purpose for CD acquisition is presented below.
The problem with the findings of articles like the Vice one (the BBC ran a similar article a few months ago about the vinyl revival) is that one sees, time and again, people resorting to this concept of attachment to the physical object rather than the music contained therein. It seems as though the physical object takes precedence over the music when in reality it should be the music that dictates one’s purchases. If one approaches music acquisition from the standpoint of music first, the way in which one interacts with music changes as one’s purchasing habits become more concerned with the manner in which the music is translated rather than the form in which the music is presented. When I say “translated”, what I actually mean is “mastered” (or, more simply, how it sounds), but I’ve banged that drum quite a bit recently so I want to approach this from a slightly different angle here.
Let’s look at vinyl for a moment as that seems to attract the most amount of interest from object fetishists. Imagine you want to purchase Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath and you’re presented with three purchasing options: a vintage pressing on WWA Records from 1973, a recent reissue on translucent red vinyl, and a seemingly run of the mill reissue on Rhino from 2010. I’ve purchased all of these in the past for around £15 (yes, collectors, the WWA one too) and the eagle eyed amongst you will note the specific absence of an original Vertigo pressing in this scenario (a mint condition example will set you back at least £450). The purchaser driven by physicality might note the vintage pressing’s gatefold sleeve, or the reissue on red vinyl, or the Rhino’s lack of any special packaging. Perhaps they’ll purchase the WWA because it’s vintage, or perhaps they arbitrarily collect coloured vinyl. All the while, the comparatively ordinary looking Rhino pressing sits on the shelf. On the other hand, the purchaser driven solely by the sound of music, might note the fact that the WWA pressing uses the original Vertigo stampers, the coloured pressing’s lack of any provenance, or the Rhino’s hype sticker stating that it has been “cut from the original analogue masters”. In this example, it is possible to see how the music fan driven by sound quality is more likely to make a satisfying purchase than the one driven by packaging. The vintage WWA pressing is essentially a cheap way of obtaining a first pressing Black Sabbath as it reuses the original Vertigo pressing stampers from 1970 (though they’re slightly worn sounding), likewise the Rhino reissue is a cheap way of obtaining a freshly cut all-analogue pressing on high quality modern vinyl, the pressing on red vinyl of dubious origin is an expensive way of getting a turd. A far cheaper way of obtaining Black Sabbath in excellent sound would be to purchase the original mid-eighties Castle Communications CD (not the abysmal mid-nineties remaster also on Castle) from Amazon Marketplace for less than £5 at the time of writing. Here’s where the music fan who sees sound quality as paramount really wins. The packaging itself is abysmal, the jewelcase is cheap, the artwork is barely reproduced, there is no booklet to speak of, and the CD doesn’t have a pretty picture on it. It is the very definition of vanilla. However, it sounds just like the original Vertigo record without the associated imperfections of vinyl or eye watering price-tag. The result is that the sound-driven music fan enjoys a far richer exchange between themselves and the artist because they’re focused on enjoying the music from a listening perspective, rather than enjoying music for its packaging. After all, when a band makes a recording they are primarily creating something to be listened to, they’re not designing a box.
Time and again one sees music fans ditch the best sounding editions (often old CDs from the eighties or early vinyl pressings) in favour of lavish new box-sets with zero provenance and a big REMASTERED sticker on them. If you ever want to buy a recording on the cheap, wait for it to get remastered and head to your nearest charity shop wherein you’ll find copious copies of the album you’re after, donated by the object fetishist!
There are exceptions to the rule. The recent Beatles In Mono vinyl box-set is a perfect example of modern packaging design and audio engineering combining to create a truly marvellous release that trumps the originals in every way. Such releases appeal to both types of collector and, considering all of these classic albums have been paid for long ago, there really is no excuse for record companies that get sound or packaging wrong.
Even when the music fan approaches musical acquisition from the goal of absolute sound, s/he still ends up with a sizeable collection of objects, however they stem primarily from a desire to connect with the music. Consequently, such a fan would also have a healthy collection of lossless and high-resolution downloads as there are plenty of recent examples whereby the download is actually the best sounding version of a particular recording (or the only version). Such a fan might also have a collection of first pressing LPs. The reason why an original Vertigo pressing of Black Sabbath is so expensive is not because of its gatefold sleeve, but because it is the best sounding version of that record. The original sound is what collectors are paying for. Much like the bibliophile would seek out an unabridged version of their chosen novel (regardless of how it is presented), the cinephile would seek out the best presentation of their chosen film, so too should the music fan seek out the best sounding version of the album they want to hear.
Try it. Next time you want to buy an album, do some research and see what other music fans think of the various versions available. Also consider your playback set-up and focus on the format that is best reproduced in your listening environment. In the case of catalogue titles, there will often be a variety of safe bets depending on your budget and format of choice. Focus primarily on sound quality rather than packaging or newness. You’ll probably still end up with a physical object of some description, though it might not necessarily be the best looking box in the shop. The key element in this article is the notion of connecting to music for music’s sake, rather than via an object or ritual (e.g. the act of playing a record, or rummaging through discs). Many listeners say that the rituals associated with music playback facilitate their connection to the music and that’s absolutely fine, as long as the ritual isn’t the driving force behind the acquisition of music.
Lastly, here are some cool pictures from the early days of CD…