I’ve been following with some interest and amusement the recent wave of essays on the burgeoning revival of the Compact Disc as a music format which have been popping up online.
From Paul Riismandel’s proclamations, to other recent pieces from Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and NME, there’s definitely a movement happening. Actually Riismandel’s strength of feeling for the format goes back a number of years and never really went away – his piece from 2019 is evergreen – and he’s been diligently covering the CD resurgence for Radio Survivor lately.
And I promise you these pieces aren’t all coming from writers and publications that you thought were wound up a decade ago! Some of these pieces reference TikTok and talk to university-age kids embracing the CD as a foil to the inexorable march of using screens for yet another area of our lives.
In some ways it seems inevitable: streaming has matured to the point of becoming not just passé but even cancelled by certain audiences, from the way it has for so long failed to properly remunerate artists, to more recent transgressions like employing figures of, if not hate, then certainly division.
So if streaming is off the table, where next to turn for our music fix?
Vinyl has had its own resurgence over the past decade or more, with sales growing year on year, and it looks like that trend will continue, despite huge production and distribution issues as the world’s vinyl pressing plants struggle to keep up with demand. But it’s hard to deny there’s something about the format which makes for a pleasant physical item to possess: that 12″ sleeve artwork, and often liner notes to add to the experience. Playing the music itself has its own romanticism – and drawbacks.
One question commentators often have with regard to the vinyl comeback goes beyond how much vinyl is being bought, and instead asks how much is actually being listened to. It might be interesting to see stats on vinyl ownership as compared to turntable ownership.
And perhaps even when LPs are bought to be listened to, the practice is so involved that for most folks it must surely be a special occasion – a mindful Sunday evening kind of pastime, rather than the primary method of listening to music. The candle-lit bubble bath to streaming’s three-minute shower, if you will.
So if vinyl serves to scratch one certain itch, but perhaps doesn’t fulfil the full-time needs of the music fan, and streaming is vetoed until a more ethical digital platform can emerge*, what does that leave us with? CDs, naturally. The format never went away, of course, and reports state that in the last few years the market has been propped up by a handful of releases by huge artists which have made up the bulk of sales. (It’s worth bearing in mind that the recent uptick in CD sales is tiny, but an uptick it is, and it does point to a change in music-buying habits.)
* I’ve left out the digital unicorn that is Bandcamp for now. It’s true that it has provided a platform for artists to sell their own music directly to fans with, I believe, a much better return. And it even holds regular days – Bandcamp Fridays – where the artist takes all the proceedings. But I have a feeling that it is its own little bubble – a far-from-mainstream marketplace for a reasonably niche set of artists to connect with reasonably small fanbases. And that’s totally fine – in fact, it’s artists of that sort of level that need the direct income the most. It probably wouldn’t make sense for the Adeles or the Taylor Swifts of the world to stick their music on Bandcamp.
Beyond that modest spike in sales, the secondhand CD market has proved popular – a neat give-and-take has been found between the two parties of ‘folks who want to get rid of their vast, unused CD collections even to the point of giving them away’ and ‘folks who will gladly pick up copies of classic albums on a format that’s likely to still be playable – and for a tiny price’.
That secondhand market has matured to the point where your average British charity shop will have its shelves lined with not just tat that no-one wants, but copies of classic releases along with rather more niche CDs that were lovingly collected by genuine music fans at the time, but have been more recently gotten rid of in favour of a new way of listening to music.
And I – and apparently many others – are here for it: this is the prime time to rebuild your music library if you want to step away from streaming. Grab those bargain bin CDs, enjoy the quality and convenience that made the format a success for so long, and rip copies of the albums to your electronic devices to build your own library which is owned rather than rented.
Music discovery will always be a headache, and it’s a two-part process: there the discovery of new music of course, which is now performed primarily by algorithms rather than by DJs, journalists and tastemakers, but there’s also the re-discovery of one’s own music collection – that wonderful “I haven’t heard this in ages!” feeling.
Algorithms go some way in accomplishing this – certain auto-generated playlists have revealed to me that my own achingly individual history of music enjoyment is in fact far from unique – but it can lead to a somewhat uncanny experience of hearing a series of songs that gel perfectly intersected by that one band you could never stand the first time round, let alone now.
One related point on digital music platforms – and this goes for local collections of files just as much as streaming platforms – is the digital fatigue felt by so many over the past year or two. When we spend so much of our day on Zoom calls, remoting in to other PCs, checking emails and staring at a variety of screens, then how much patience have we got for idly scrolling through Spotify or Apple Music for something to listen to?
And so it goes back to the physical formats: give me a rack of CDs (or vinyl, naturally) in the corner of a room to flick through – either to find that one album I know I want to hear right in that moment, or to stumble on that weird compilation I forgot I owned, which sends me off down a whole new and unexpected path – probably leading to me scooping up some cheap secondhand CDs online by this or that other band I never got round to checking out before.
I’m not saying streaming can or should be totally replaced by listening to music on physical formats. As Paul Riismandel points out, there’s room for all these formats, each with their pros and cons. But it’s hardly surprising that the CD is seeing a revival in the face of vinyl shortages and cancelled streaming subscriptions. These things have a habit of coming around again.
As Mark Beaumont concludes in his funny, astute piece for the NME: “There’s a global vinyl shortage underway and very few pressing plants supplying the ballooning demand, while there’s also an overwhelming surplus of second-hand CDs which is threatening the structural foundations of CeX shop basements across the globe. Hence CDs are now the budget – dare we say punk? – music ownership option.”