I saw my first compact disc for the first time in March 1983 when the radio station where I worked received its first player and half a dozen discs.
We were so enamored with the new technology that we launched an album features program on Saturday nights when we played a CD in its entirety. It was a pointless exercise, really, given that the high-fidelity capabilities of CD far exceeded those of an FM radio signal.
Still, it was cool to be on the cutting edge of something.
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We – and I can’t stress this enough – have also DONE with vinyl. It’s no exaggeration to say that the records we were buying in 1983 were far inferior to those bought in 1969. The quality of the material used to make vinyl records had dropped since the oil crisis of the early 1970s. oil was becoming more expensive, petrochemical by-products were also increasing. And that meant looking for ways to reduce the cost of making the discs.
Standard procedure was to use recycled polyvinyl chloride, which introduced impurities into the mix, resulting in clicks and pops straight from the pressing plant as well as annoying low-frequency rumbles.
The discs were thinner, scratched easily and wore out faster. “Cue burn” – that irritating, crackling sound you heard when you first dropped the needle on a record – developed earlier. So when CDs arrived with the promise of perfect sound forever, music fans were hooked.
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My collection started slowly and didn’t start in earnest until I was able to buy my own CD player in 1987. After that, an unreasonable amount of after-tax income was spent on buying compact discs. Today, I have what I call my “CD vault” which holds almost 10,000 records on bespoke shelves and drawers. As you can see it is overflowing now. I haven’t had any space for a long time.
I don’t know when I started falling in love with CDs. It may have started when I discovered the illicit thrill of the original Napster. Then came the legitimate cheap downloads through iTunes, which eliminated the need to rip CDs on my new iPod. When streaming started popping up in the late 2000s, I was buying fewer and fewer digital songs and albums. Physical product purchases were limited to vinyl and box sets. I became annoyed with bands insisting on sending me CDs, instead insisting on links to an online source.
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Heck, I didn’t even notice that my last two cars came without CD players. And when I accidentally discovered that my last vehicle had one, I was even somewhat miffed. Why am I paying for something I’ll never use?
Then last week, I was offered an unreleased CD from an artist I greatly admire. On the way home, it occurred to me that I could listen to it in the car. If I’m being honest, it was pretty cool – and it sounded good.
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It made me think: why did I so ruthlessly abandon CDs all those years ago?
Well, their shortcomings, obviously. Who were …?
- The plastic jewelry boxes burst and broke, starting with the hinges. But this situation was resolved when almost everyone switched to more environmentally friendly cardboard sleeves.
- The vegetable dye ink used to print packaging and booklets smelled bad. But that smell eventually went away.
- The CDs were taking up too much space. But the vinyl I was buying took even more.
- Listening to CDs on the go anywhere outside the car is a pain. True, but have you ever tried installing a turntable in a vehicle?
- Streaming services offer almost endless variety. But when will I find the time to listen to an endless amount of music?
The fact is that CDs just work. You push them into the slot or drawer and they automatically start playing. The audio quality is excellent and only depends on your speakers or headphones. CDs almost always sound better than an audio stream. They come with artwork and liner notes, just like the vinyl. Once you’ve purchased a CD, it’s yours forever. You can listen to it as many times as you want forever without worrying that it will suddenly disappear from your collection. CD players don’t break down, taking all your music with them. And finally, the artist takes advantage of it. The return on revenue from CD sales is far greater than any artist sees on streaming.
CDs become even more attractive when you look at the current price of fresh vinyl. Supply chain issues pushed the retail price of new records well over $40. I’ve seen regular single issue albums sell for $60 or even $70. It’s insane, especially when you can buy the CD version of that same album for less than $15.
So it’s time to reassess things, obviously.
A quick look at the most recent Canadian sales data from MRC (watchers of all things music consumption) shows that CD sales are up 21.3% from this point. last year. Granted, the number of raw units is a fraction of what it was 20 years ago, when the compact disc was at its zenith, but enough products are still sold for labels to justify manufacturing, warehousing , distributing and selling music in this way.
(Inset: The three major labels currently collectively see about 65% of their revenue coming from streaming. CDs are lumped in with vinyl and a few other categories in the rest.)
Maybe then it’s time to revisit our CD collections. We might find that we will fall in love with them again.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.
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