The Last CD and (Nearly) the End of the World

There’s a great story in last week’s New Yorker by Stephen Witt (“The Man Who Broke the Music Business”) about the process by which CDs were originally smuggled out of factories, sold on the street, and, eventually, shared on (private) top sites as sound files. This owed largely to the scam that was CD manufacturing and price hiking by record companies, selling 20 dollar product that cost 2 dollars. When people asked me– still ask me– how I feel about free, vaguely illegal music (were cassette dubs illegal? were mixed tapes?), I always point to the moment plastic replaced vinyl, and recorded music suddenly cost twenty dollars for an album, and singles and EPs disappeared. If records had stayed at their price point– 7.99, 8. 99, 9.99– I always felt that people would have been less inclined to steal or pushed to developing theft software and other nefarious devices after the obvious greed and avarice of record companies, which became ever more multi-national and devoted to maximizing profits (as opposed to the development of artists, et al). Because new records cost five times what they had before CDs, they priced-out a large chunk of their audience (the last vinyl-only record I bought at vinyl-only prices was They Might be Giants’ “Flood”). The New Yorker piece proves that it wasn’t only a software valley chip-kid who started the technical backlash, but a struggling factory hand who’d become squeezed out by music providers.

In the story, the protagonist– a working class computer nerd line worker named Dell– talks about realizing, suddenly, that CDs were merely zeros and ones printed to disc, and that the music would be the same/sound the same if the plastic was eliminated. By using this technology to milk, and bilk, the consumer, record companies had created their nemesis; death, or near-death, by their own hand. As an artist, I was never a real victim of file-sharing– our royalties were absurdly low, and slanted in favour of the (larger) record companies– but, as a consumer, I remember feeling ripped off and deprived during the CD revolution. They were, and are, garbage to me, and while I’ll always sell whatever product I have in the trunk– those boxes need to be emptied somehow, and owning music is better than not owning music– but the motive behind CDs was always transparent. So transparent, it turns out, that they will soon disappear; a bad plastic dream for creator, maker and  owner.

One thought on “The Last CD and (Nearly) the End of the World

  1. CDs.. at times i’ve loved em, at times not so much.
    i grew up with records, as a kid in the 60s, and a teen in the 70s. then in the mid-80s i went to work in the Rockies for a few seasons. it was all cassettes by then. big and small ghetto blasters (portable cassette players for you file kids). there was a music store in banff called Rocky Mountain Sound that sold new albums on cassette. it was the only format they carried. i can still recall going there on a day off and buying the latest by neil young (landing on water) and bob dylan (knocked out loaded) ( i still enjoy the latter) and sitting by the river listening to them on my walkman. when i moved to calgary in 1990 i bought my first CD player, a sony (still in use!).
    i remember the first CD i bought, it was import of live later period eric burdon and the animals. it was awesome! you couldn’t buy that stuff on vinyl! i briefly considered maybe it was time to let go the vinyl (which had been in storage at my parents place for a few years) and beginning a whole new collection of these new CDs, they were so sharp and shiny and there were some exotic titles out there. as time went on it was the only format of choice.
    eventually i began to miss vinyl. jewel cases got scuffed, yellowed, cracked and basically didn’t age well like trusty cardboard sleeves of LPs. (flirted with keeping all my records in plastic outer sleeves too, then realized it was akin to that greek family downstairs who had clear plastic custom fitted covers for their whole living room suite. i never understood the point of making something ugly so you could preserve its beauty.)
    in the end the CD era was good for one thing: unreleased music. so many CD reissues have included never before heard bonus tracks from an album’s original sessions. (the release of one of my all-time faves the Byrds’ Notorious Byrds Brothers not only had boss extras but also 10 minutes of the band berating the stubborn drummer!) none of this would have been heard i don’t think without the CD era of reissues and boxsets.
    however recently i gutted my CD collection, ripping a bunch to my macbook and selling/trading most of the rest, only keeping some precious faves/rarities/bootlegs etc. now it’s all about the return of the joy of vinyl again! dollar rekkids at the thrift store!! weird canadiana, oddball quebecois, strange easy listening albums. you can’t find this stuff on CD!


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