MiniDiscs (a repost from 2009)

Cor! The last few hours I’ve been having a session going through my MiniDisc collection. It’s not a huge one, but the music contained on the discs is so evocative of what I loved aged 16 or 17. I got the MD Walkman for my 16th birthday (2001). In the middle there you can see “Paul’s First MD – Internationalist” – containing Powderfinger’s album (which I actually still love today).

Beyond that, there is a whole load of pop-punk and nu-metal. It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to think that I had blonde spikey hair at this time, especially when you realise the music I was listening to was all Silverchair, Green Day, The Offspring, Blink-182 etc.

Along with all this delightful teenage angst, you’ll also find a lovingly-prepared set of MDs – seen above with labels and pink ink – made by Sara and containing all manner of New Zealand music. I have her to thank, for the most part, for my obsession with a lot of that stuff. Without her effort and energy, I might never have come across The Clean, The Verlaines, and a hundred others. It’s a strange thought really. Thanks Sara.

Keeping on the NZ theme – why not! – I also found something I’d forgotten about: a brief audio journal of the 2002 trip. As with a thousand other projects I have started, it is unfinished; it only actually contains about 8 minutes of speech, almost entirely on the flights over, with two entries recorded in Papatoetoe, Auckland. But just like I seem hideously unable to complete things I start, I also still have the mindset that any small portion of something is better than nothing at all. Those 8 minutes of me incessantly updating the non-existent listener of our flight-time and approximate position are priceless simply due to their uniqueness.

In so many ways, this little collection is so important to me as a time capsule of my life between the ages of 15 and about 17. The music is evocative as music so often is. The device itself immediately transports me to particular places I’ve used it, people I’ve used it with, and things I’ve used it for. I remember, almost instantaneously, all its idiosyncrasies. The discs themselves have a tangible quality all their own – the handwritten sticky labels, the different colours, cases and designs, and the shabby state some of the older ones are in (‘Paul’s First MD’ has a crack in it and the disc door is loose, but it still plays perfectly).

I didn’t have an MP3 player or CD walkman until many years later. For me, this little box of tricks came at a time when MP3 players weren’t really affordable, and when my music collection on CD and on my computer was just aching to be made portable and enjoyed in as many places as possible – or perhaps in the case of the green MD containing Marilyn Manson’s Holy Wood and Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled, to block out a world which wasn’t dark or angry enough for this 16 year old. Sigh.

Digital files have some of these features, just in different ways. It is possible, at least to some extent, to trace the origins of files (especially where they have been sent to you) and histories and transfers are locked into the files. But I’m getting something out of this MiniDisc reminisce that I don’t think I’d be as able to with MP3s. Besides anything else, this is a physical package that fits neatly into a small bag.

Special mention should also be made to my sole surviving pre-recorded MD. Silverchair’s Frogstomp. I vaguely recall buying it at Virgin or HMV on Piccadilly Circus in a vastly-reduced section, not knowing much about them, but wanting a pre-recorded MD to play with. I remember having a Manic Street Preachers MD but seem to recall losing it or returning it for a refund… Either way, I got a jolt of nostalgia and decided to investigate the pre-recorded MD market present day.

It’s not pretty. Very quickly you start to see that what MiniDisc had in technological innovation, it sorely lacked in ubiquity or mass-market appeal. The paltry selection of titles available (at least today) reek of a handful of major labels attempting to make their releases available on as many formats as possible so as to best make money off them. I also vaguely recall that MDs suffered that early-adopter tradition of being off-puttingly expensive, but never making it to the mainstream. The titles available now are either unloved, million-selling pop albums (see Barbara Streissand, Destiny’s Child and George Michael – available for a couple of quid), or are still relatively cool and have ironically become collector’s items due to their scarcity (see Blur, Radiohead, Kula Shaker and more, £5 to 30 a pop).

I decided to treat myself to Generation Terrorists by the Manics, in an attempt to redress the balance. Only a couple of quid – good thing too, as shortly afterwards I realised I already own it on CD. Still, the exotic form factor will make it worth having.

Coming home for this holiday has taught me one thing for certain – as bad as it can be to hoard and keep far too much stuff, it is actually worth it for the wonderful odd things like this little collection and the stories they can tell.