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Saturday, 28 January 2017

Compact disc: the music format that dare not speak its name

As we all know, we're living in an age of hyper-disposability. Don't like that jacket anymore? Chuck it. Got an "old" phone? Fuck that! Get an upgrade. TVs, fridges, cars, houses, even "lifestyles": get something newer, brighter, better. (Even partners. As per the old joke: "He's traded her in for someone younger, thinner and blonder").

Out with the old, in with the shiny and new. Which brings me to the matter of ... er, CDs. Specifically, people just throwing 'em away.

Such is the current contempt for these once futuristic little polycarbonate plastic discs, it's starting to become quite common to see them disposed of in the street. Last week there were two big cardboard boxes of CDs left out on the pavement near my office in east London. There was a scrawled message, something like "Free music CDs. Lots of genres". They were probably all utter rubbish, right? No, not really. Using up a few precious minutes of my lunch hour, I emerged from my quick box-rummaging with CDs by … Low, Jeffrey Lewis, Tarwater, Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Alasdair Roberts, Keith Hudson and Clinic. They might have been dumped in the street, but this wasn't trashy music.

Landfill CDs

So what's going on! OK, I know. Someone's been "digitising". Ripping their embarrassing, old-fashioned CDs so they can walk around with all their groovy music safely deposited on their phones. Yeah, but why not keep the CDs as well, with their liner notes and artwork, and their relatively neat jewel cases? Alright, maybe it's space - not enough room in their undersized, over-priced flats in Clapton or Bow. Could be, but I reckon they're still finding room for all sorts of junk, including - I don't doubt - a 65-inch monstrosity of a TV.

No, it's obvious that CDs have become deeply unfashionable. Compared to vinyl, it's as if CDs don’t exist these days. While everyone is supposed to have now fallen back in love with records, CDs are being left on the shelf. (Or rather, they're being taken off the shelf and ... unceremoniously thrown away). Or, if not thrown away, they're ending up in charity shops in large numbers. I've just this afternoon returned from a (rare for me) little trip to a few charity shops in north London: lots of CDs, very few records. I even bought some (CDs, not records).

It's all a bit peculiar. Take this recent Noisey article on a bloke in the West Midlands who makes a living out of buying music from charity shops then selling it online. The article’s called "From Charity Shops to Garbage Dumps: How One Guy Made a Career Out of Hunting Old Vinyl". And indeed he does. Except one of the photos in the article shows a Status Quo CD, which he's clearly also re-selling. But CDs aren't cool so they're not mentioned in the article ...

... which is itself a strange turn of events. I remember when CDs were so fashionable they were pre-fashionable. In my early record shop days (1984) the place I worked in had a tiny handful of CDs, nearly all classical, and all quite expensive. To me they were a mystery. A colleague said "Oh, the classical music buffs like them because the sound quality's really good and you can't damage them”. Then the success of Dire Straits' godawful Brothers In Arms became a marketing tool for CDs in pop music and ... well, you know the rest. One thing I recall about the early days of CDs was how some of the more "progressive" independent labels went in for them: Factory, 4AD etc. I began to take more notice of these shiny plastic cartons thereafter. A bit like some of the restrained, design-conscious outputs from these same labels, the slightly-mysterious-while-unassuming-but-undoubtedly-modern nature of CDs gradually began to make a little sense. And now they're just junk!

But it's all rather fraudulent really. Despite the supposed "fairy tale revival" in vinyl, CDs are currently outselling LPs 25:1 in the UK, with over 53m CDs sold in 2015 versus two million records. The industry people (presumably with a view to trying to make more money out of it) are even talking about the "resilience" of the format. Yep, so resilient they can even stand being left out in the rain in the street and still sound OK when you rescue them and stick them in the CD player at home later ...

So no, they're not dead. They're very much alive, still embarrassing format snobs and still taking up room (I'm glad to say) in lots of local libraries.

Though I've ended up with a good few hundred of them, I don't think I've ever bought a brand new CD in an actual record shop - and I doubt I ever will. Instead, I'm probably destined to acquire more and more of these plasticky things as they get chucked out in ever growing numbers.

But hark! Can you hear the sound of splintering CD jewel cases? A book (on music) I'm reading at the moment mentions how human beings can identify the direction of a sound to within three degrees of accuracy (an owl does it to one degree apparently). When it comes to that familiar sound (crash, scrape, splinter, tinkle) of chucked-out CDs, I can do it with an error rate of absolute zero. Please, dear reader, kindly dispose of your best CDs in a street near me ...

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