Rob Sheffield on the joys of CDs, music’s least glamorous format
In 2021, CD sales increased for the first time in 17 years. That’s mostly down to Adele, whose new album has sold 898,000 of these shiny little records. The last time CDs were this popular, Usher, Ashlee Simpson and Hoobastank were the ones selling them. Now it’s Adele, BTS and Taylor Swift. It’s part of a general revival for physical media – vinyl is on the rise. But for those of us who love the humble compact disc, it’s a question worth pondering: are we finally seeing the renaissance of the CD? Why are music fans falling back in love with the gadget that once promised “perfect sound forever”?
Compact discs were never about romance – they were about function. They just worked. They were less glamorous than vinyl, less cool, less tactile, less sexy, less magical. They didn’t have the aura that we fans dream of. You didn’t necessarily get sentimental over your CDs, the way you fetishized your scratched old vinyl, hearing your life story etched into the nicks and creaks. Your copy of spice world Where Life after death sounded like everyone else.
But the CDs work. They just do. You insert the disc, press play, the music plays. They delivered the grooves so effectively that they became the most popular format of all time. If you’re looking to focus on something cool for an hour, without getting up every 20 minutes, the compact disc has what you want, bigger and louder. It gives you room to lose yourself in the music.
Ever since they arrived in the 1980s, experts have complained about it. (So soulless! So cold!) But fans loved these jaw-dropping records, packing over 70 minutes in one place. It was less hassle than vinyl, a huge plus for casual fans who didn’t want to worry about styluses or tonearm resonance. You can program your player to avoid misfires. (Astral weeks is just better without “The Way Young Lovers Do”, don’t @me.) You could blast hip-hop favorites without the skits. You can customize your own version of any album. The Beatles’ Revolver? Glad you asked! Program it 9, 13, 7, 4, 14, 5, 3, 12, 10, 1, 8, 2, 11, 6, then come back to repeat 9 and 14. Trust me, a whole new experience.
I’ve always loved CDs and never trashed my collection, even when the format fell off a cliff in the 2000s. streams. But the CD has its unique charms, especially for longer and deeper listening. No format has ever been more conducive to time-consuming music. It’s the CD that turned animal sounds and another green world and In the heart of the Congo and Astral weeks in widely appreciated classics, as opposed to cult objects; it was the format that ultimately made Lee “Scratch” Perry a mainstream hero. An LP already famous as kind of blue has become a whole new phenomena on disc. The quintessential classics of the box era — D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Radiohead‘s Child A, at Missy’s Supa Dupa Fly – would have flopped as a stream.
I spent much of the summer of 2021 listening to my dad’s CDs on his old Discman – it was a tangible way to remember him. It’s become a ritual for me to run his copy of Willie Nelson red headed alien on his inexpensive Sony D-F200. My shelves are overflowing with box sets, bootlegs, mixes from old and new friends, young bands whose albums I buy at the merchandising table at concerts. Any drive still performs like it did in 1986, 1994 or 2007 – no software updates needed, just press a button and go.
But the CD dropped in the post-Napster years. MP3s seemed tiny in comparison, but they were convenient and (usually) free. Yet a funny thing happened: those downloads got lost in the whirlwind of data migration. This is the time when SquireDave Holmes memorably summed up the “suppressed years”. As Holmes wrote, “Everything you bought from 2003 to 2009 is stuck on a dusty iPod that can’t find a charger, or a MacBook there are three MacBooks. Whether you bought the entire Kaiser Chiefs debut album or just shelled out the 99 cents for “I Predict A Riot,” you don’t have it anymore.”
Part of the reason people are discovering the joys of physical media is because there’s something transient about streaming culture, where whatever music you “have” is at the mercy of corporate whims. A few years ago, MySpace accidentally erased all the music ever uploaded to the site with the press of a button. Your photos are probably the following. It’s like Chris Rock’s joke about SNL on still owning CDs: “When the government shuts down the cloud, I’ll have Luther!”
Physical media also means that artists get paid. And that’s where records have an advantage over other formats: they’re cheaper and faster to produce, a major problem in the great vinyl famine of our time. These days, there simply aren’t enough pressing plants to meet consumer demand for LP. (Please forgive me if I’d rather gnaw my fingers than say “vinyls” or “one vinyl”. That’s impossible.) Indie artists pioneered the analog resurgence, but now they are often trapped in the vinyl bottleneck, waiting a year or more for their albums to come out, because they are stuck waiting for some factory to place them between major label hits.
In the 2000s, the UK New musical express had a quiz every week, asking the latest trending band, “Vinyl, CD, or MP3?” It was a running joke that no one ever picked CD – the split was about 90/10 in favor of vinyl. I think it was only the Art Brut dude who hung on to the CDs, though he admitted, “I realize it’s like choosing George Lazenby as your favorite James Bond.
But it’s an indisputable fact that music sales peaked when the CD was king. No audio device has done a more precise job of separating fans from their $20 bills. People loved buying these digital discs, in numbers that seem crazy now. We all spent the 90s going to the “record store” (“CD stores” never existed, even though most record stores didn’t have vinyl), browsing the shelves , to take home something weird, to listen to throughout. You invested time and emotional energy, instead of giving up quickly like you do with streams. The record encouraged you to turn off your “meh” reflex and let yourself hear whatever weird shit was going on. He got fans hooked on German psychedelia, Japanese prog, West African soukous, Kingston dub.
Don’t even get me started on the CD box set – the best format ever invented for exploring artists or genres with a long history. Ray Charles’ The birth of the soul? The 1998 Nuggets box? The American Folk Music Anthology? The 1994 Rhino doo-wop box that finally made it easy and accessible for my parents to dance around the living room to their college favorites at the push of a button? The Dylan bootleg box I’ve been coveting for years, collecting all of his 1966 gigs, that I finally nabbed after years of eyeing it behind the counter at Bleecker Street Records?
People still liked to rave about how hipper vinyl was, even if, behind closed doors, they were doing their actual listening on record. Pearl Jam sang “Spin the Black Circle” in 1994, when it was the Silver Circles that made them the biggest band in the world. “I still listen to wax, I don’t use the CD!” boasted the Beastie Boys minutes after the start of their classic Bad communication, an album they knew hardly anyone would hear on wax.
The CD era culminated in the year 2000, when ‘NSync broke all sales records by selling 2.4 million copies of No strings attached in its first week. But it turned out to be a goodbye kiss. A few years later, Justin Timberlake was in a movie playing Napster co-founder Sean Parker, sneering, “You wanna buy a Tower Records, Eduardo?”
Napster was the file-sharing iceberg waiting to sink the five-inch Titanic. But it should be noted that the two guys who invented Napster, Parker and Shawn Fanning, were avid consumers who constantly bought CDs, mostly electronic trance and trip-hop. I spent time with them in the early 2000s for a rolling stone profile and their bachelor pad was crowded from ceiling to floor with records. They certainly didn’t listen to MP3s – they saw Napster as a way to discover new albums worth buying. What they didn’t see coming — no one saw it — was that people would actually stick with MP3s. ZShare, Megaupload, Gnutella – all those people, all those lives, where are they now?
Of course, there was always something to complain about with CDs. The packaging was a mess, with those useless plastic jewelry boxes. Tearing the gummy tape off the top was a nightmare. Originally, they were packaged in the “longbox”, a 12 x 6 inch cardboard plate that served no purpose except to make them more difficult to shoplift. People rightly complained, so much so that EMI Chairman Sal Licata wrote a comedy classic in 1989 Billboard op-ed, “Why We Should Keep the Longbox CD.” The long box was such a joke that Spinal Tap released their 1992 album in the 18-inch “extra-long box”, calling it “an eco-friendly product that uses more of our valuable recycled resources than any other compact disc packaging!” But how the tables have turned – now, if you buy an LP online, it ships in a package that’s basically six long boxes.
You might well ask, “Why would 70 minutes of music in one place mean anything, compared to streaming?” The answer might be that streaming isn’t a “place,” but a barrage of constant options that many fans find less than optimal when you’re in the mood to focus and listen. You’re probably also streaming on a device that’s nagging you about messages you need to reply to right now. Like the physical book, the physical disc simply takes you deeper into the story.
Look, CDs will never be as sexy as vinyl albums. I understand. They never even had a groovy nickname, like how the record demons talk about “flats” and “white labels” and “piles of wax.” If you’re just looking for fan merch to display on your shelf, a 12-inch LP sleeve has more style. Really, there’s only one thing CDs have ever done well, and that’s make music. They get the job done, which is why they’re still around – the Hyman Roth of audio formats. And that’s why, for some of us, the CD has a special 70-minute place in our hearts that nothing else can fill.