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On the "Death" of the Compact Disc

This was first posted in 2008, before the dominance of "streaming."

Both the mainstream and the "tech" media have been telling us for some time now that the compact disc is doomed, and that it is just a matter of time. They cite the slowing sales of major label CD's and the increase in legal and illegal digital downloads of music, and there don't seem to be any dissenting voices. I would like to be one. CD's still work well, and they are the best consumer format ever developed, and there is not a replacement yet that is clearly superior. I think that if they succeed in killing it off, we will wish it was still around, and I really hope that they don't stop pressing CD's altogether. There are still plenty of consumers who want them, but record companies are increasingly finding that they don't want to bother with keeping much of their catalogs in print and available to sell. If you want to own some real CD's of music you want to keep around in your life, you may have to buy them right now, if it is not already too late.

My gut said to hang onto my vinyl records when the CD came along, and I am glad I did. For a while there they seems like they were heavy and easily scratched and hard to manage, but now I see them as are the most durable format ever devised. Whether or not you agree that they sound better than CD's, they have a lot of advantages, including esthetic ones. It's just plain pleasure to hold them and play them and prop the jackets up on the couch when they are playing. And you can leave them on a shelf for 50 years and they still work. 78's from the 1920's are almost a century old and they still work. CD's have proven that they last 20 or 25 years, but we'll see about 50. Vinyl records are the only part of the music business that is growing now, a surprising number of artists are making new ones, and a surprising number of music fans and collectors are buying and trading older ones.

My gut unequivocally says to keep my CD collection even though I am putting more and more music onto my computers.

My gut also said to go ahead and toss out most of my cassettes. They were a pretty durable format, and as I have been going through the old cassettes in my studio, only a couple of them, that were the cheapest tapes made at the time I recorded onto them, failed to play back when I tried to transfer them to digital format. A lot of 25 and 30 year-old cassettes still worked fine. But it is clear that they will rot and that they hiss a lot, and the only reason to keep a cassette is because it is the only copy you have of that music. If you can find the same music on CD or vinyl, you can toss the tape.

It is clear to me that reel to reel tape is also temporary (but less so), and I just finished transferring all my old reels to 24-bit digital, and though I can't quite bear to toss them in a dumpster, I doubt I will ever listen to them again. My 1976 tape recorder has never hiccupped in 30 years of use, and I had no problems when transferring tapes from the late 1970's, since I luckily had not used the brands of tape that are known to disintegrate quickly. I recently successfully transferred some 50-year old reels of tape from my father. I am also greatly disappointed at how poorly digital tape has performed. I am trying to archive some of my older DAT and Sony F-1 tapes from the late 1980's that are barely 20 years old, and I am already losing things. The tapes are drying and crumbling, and the machines are sensitive and fussy and hard to clean and keep working properly.

Which basically leaves 2 formats still standing. The CD and the digital download, which just appears as a file on your hard drive and/or iPod. CD's were superior in many ways to LP's. Hardcore audio people have always sworn that the sound is better on vinyl than CD, but once the vinyl record gets warped and scratched it is moot. I used to sell vinyl. They weigh 4 times what a CD weighs, and are expensive to make and ship, and more likely to warp in the heat. And the records you really like end up being the ones that get scratched the most. Random consumers never got it right with bad needles, wobbly turntables, and as a musician I really felt good when people had my CD because I knew that they were hearing what I wanted them to hear. That was never clear with vinyl. Anyone who owned both a cat and a record player ended up with more scratched records than dog owners. Cats used to like to sharpen their claws in the spines of LP collections, too.

The mp3 file has pretty much two advantages: 1) you don't have to buy (or steal) the whole album & 2) they take up essentially no space in your life. They don't sound as good as a CD, and there are no liner notes or art work. It's easy to take a thousand songs in your pocket to a party, but you can't easily leave a stack of mp3's lying on a coffee table to remind you to listen to them, or so that your roommate will notice them and be intrigued. You can loan a CD to your brother. You really can lose your whole digital music collection in a lightning storm or with a hard drive crash. Real packaging also matters. A nice edition of a book is way more pleasurable than a xerox of it. It is simply not a slam-dunk case that the digital download is a superior way to store and enjoy music, the way it was with almost everyone who is switching from VHS to DVD. Mp3's are clearly better for some people and worse for others. The world really should allow us to have both of them, but it appears that the digital download is winning this round, and they are growing while CD's are shrinking.

And now the situation gets murkier as we find out that even the CD and the DVD have expiration dates. It is vital to understand that there is a fundamental difference between a manufactured or "replicated" CD and a "burned" CD-R. The replicated CD's are stamped from a "glass master", and there is a physical process that encodes the information. They are also then varnished, and are thus significantly more reliable, durable, and scratch-resistant than home-burned CD's. There are also all kinds of thorny software issues that mean that unless the home-burned CD is made to certain standards, it may not play properly in a lot of CD players. Replicated CD's are generally much more durable and universal. And the CD burning machines like the Primera Bravo that more and more musicians are using to make short runs of discs to sell to their fans print the art work on the disc with an ink-jet printer that smudges when it gets wet. A "real" replicated CD is printed with silk-screening, and does not smudge.

I still have the first commercial CD's I bought in 1985 and 1986 and they play just fine, but the home-burned CD's use a different process involving dyes that fade over time. Nobody can say for sure when a given CD-R will die, but all sources I consult assure me not to totally trust them. I just lost some music I put on a CD 5 or 10 years ago. I am now starting to move the data off the CD-R and DVD-R discs I have been burning as back-ups and archives for the last few years and back onto hard drives. I have had a lot of hard drive crashes in my life, and I had come to look at hard drives as fragile and ephemeral. But because they are so cheap and easy to use and access, it may be easier and safer to just copy everything to a new hard drive every couple years, and have multiple hard drives and keep duplicates of everything. I just bought a new 500 gigabyte hard drive for $49. Actually I bought two. I am trying to remember how much my first hard drive cost about 20 years ago. It was 25 megabytes, and cost about $2000. My new drive is 20,000 times as big, and costs 1/40 as much, which means that disk storage has dropped in price by a factor of 800,000 in about 20 years.

While I was looking at my vinyl collection, I was listening to an old Tammy Wynette record, and her really great version of "Just A Closer Walk with Thee" came on, and I jumped to the internet to see if the CD was available for that record. Nope. So I looked in the iTunes music store-- lots of Tammy Wynette but no luck with that track. Hmm. Over the course of a few days I was listening to an odd assortment of music including: Wayne Newton's 1964 "Hit Songs" record, the jazz guitar giant Lenny Breau's "Live at Shelley's Manhole" record, (which some people consider the best jazz guitar record ever made) LP Price's "Bluegrass Breakdown" mandolin LP (which has the first acoustic guitar recordings by flatpicking god David Grier, done a full 8 years before his first solo record came out), and Sabicas "Flamenco Puro" (which many people feel is the best flamenco guitar record ever made.) And guess what? No CD exists of any of them that I could easily buy. And add this to the fact that I got one of the last copies of the limited CD pressing of "A Child's Garden of Grass" and the fact that I had a devil of a time over the last year trying to round up CD copies of Buck Owens' early work with Don Rich from the early 1960's. A lot of music I was looking for, recorded by pretty well-known musicians, and owned for the most part by established record labels, was simply not available on CD other than used copies on eBay, and much of it was also not found on iTunes. I found some music by those artists, and some greatest hits and boxed set collections that had a few of the tracks I wanted, but for the most part I hit a brick wall when trying to buy a lot of songs I wanted to own.

I also had an interesting experience trying to track down the Fred Gerlach 12-string guitar album from 1962. It was originally on Folkways Records, which is now owned by the Smithsonian and is called Smithsonian Folkways. They offered to sell me a digital download of the record for around $10, or a CD they would mail to me. I opted for the CD, and after paying $21.73 I got a burned CR-R in the mail with a generic (but reasonably professional-looking) cardboard package and disc art. They apparently had a bunch of cardboard CD sleeves made with their logo, and made a generic logo to put on the disc, and they sent me a 5-page PDF file of the old LP art. Needless to say, I was not at all as pleased as I would have been to get a "real" CD that was replicated (pressed) and that came with "real" art work and liner notes. I feel like I got a glimpse of the future of music collecting, and I did not like it.

What is going on? Am I just old? Fussy? Here is what I think is happening. The convergence of a number of forces is working against the music-loving record collector. Some of us like to actually own music, like we like to have books in our library in case we want to refer to them. It is an ancient thing to do, and might not be an obsolete idea. When we own a record or a CD, we own it and we can sell it or give it away if we don't want it any more. If you sign up on iTunes, they make you agree to an 80,000 word legal document, and you basically forfeit the right to re-sell or give away the music when you are done with it. This is not a trivial concern. (And now with streaming from Spotify or Pandora, you never even possess it.)

To understand what the music business is about, you have to understand that the music people listen to (and the products in general that they adopt) when they are teenagers is the most important music in their lives. If you own the music that defines a generation, you can sell that music to them in various forms until they die, either as recordings or in movies or ads. This also means that music and entertainment for today's teens is top priority, and selling older music to older people is way less vital to the bottom line of the big record companies. Record labels have made scads of money, especially in the last 25 years, selling vinyl, cassettes, 8-tracks and CD's to teenagers. Now that teens are downloading and not buying anywhere near the amount of CD's they used to, this has caused huge changes in the record business. Record stores are disappearing, and leaving Wal Mart, Circuit City and Best Buy to sell the lion's share of recordings. As videos and computer games and other digital toys increase, there is less and less shelf space for CD's, which means that even important music from the past is not found on store shelves at even a fraction of the rate it used to be. There are hundreds of thousands of records out there, and even a big CD store might have a few thousand of them for sale. This may be OK with the record companies and with the teenagers, but it is not OK with me, and I suspect that there are millions and not just thousands of music consumers like me who are also not happy about the direction things are going. Hardware stores are already in the throes of the "new economy" where you are only allowed to buy the most popular and readily available products, and most of us have discovered how hard it is to buy something that is out of the mainstream. Now it is clear that music is switching very fast to this model, and those of us who want to own things that are outside of the mainstream are going to have more and more trouble. Let's hope that they can be archived in "print on demand" formats. (So far the CD version of rhis requires "burned" rather than "pressed" CD's, and there is a big difference in durability even though the sound quality experience is the same.)

Now that iTunes has become the world's largest music store, another big change has taken place. Record companies have started to make significant amounts of money by selling digital downloads. It does not mean that everybody wants downloads, but a lot of people do, and it is really easy money. According to an article in the New York Times, the record company pockets about 70c of the 99c you pay for a song on iTunes. Without them having to manufacture, print, ship, warehouse, account, or distribute anything, and without worries of damaged or returned inventory. And with the ever-shrinking profit margins in dealing with the retailers like Wal Mart and Best Buy and their practice of discounting CD's as loss-leaders to get customers in the stores, there is no way they ever made anywhere near 70c a song by pressing and selling a CD to Circuit City. They wrote off the costs of making them, plus the chargebacks from damages and returns and the hassles and expenses of keeping track of them and shipping them all over the place in hopes they would sell-- this explains why 95% of recordings failed to break even.

So the record companies, who complained so loudly when Napster appeared, have now shut up and are busily not pressing CD's. It's probably considered hard to reach the market for older, more obscure music, so it is ignored. Why should they bother to keep warehouses full of CD's that have to be manufactured by the thousands to be economical? They want to sell song rights to TV and movies, and make piles of easy dough from iTunes. The record labels probably have a financial interest in no longer making CD's that exceeds the desire by consumers to enjoy the convenience of digital downloads. Which means to me that if I intend to own any music on CD to keep in my collection, I better buy it soon. If you are going to get CD's at all, there may be more and more CD-R burned discs and less and less replicated and professionally printed. If you love music and like to have a music collection I suspect that you will find it increasingly hard to find what you want on CD. Who knows how long there will still be CD manufacturing plants. The one near me that I have been using for 20 years is now closed.

I have a stack of vinyl records in the corner that I am saving and not playing until I install a new needle and cartridge in my record player, and then I am going to play them once into my computer, and spend at least an hour or two per record scanning the album jacket and hand-making a CD copy of these great recordings. I even found an unopened vinyl copy of the Wayne Newton album I was looking for on eBay. The only consolation is that once I have done all the work I can easily burn another one and spit out another laser print of the art work. Maybe I can find an on-line community of music lovers so we can trade them without breaking laws.

It makes me want to keep my own CD's in print and bite the bullet and keep piles of boxes of replicated copies of all of them, because I suspect that there will be music lovers around the world who feel the same way I do about CD's. I was among the first to sell real CD's to people who care, and maybe I will also be one of the last. It's a whole different business than selling truckloads of CD's to teens, which may never happen again.

Dec 2008

ABOUT ME I have been selling recordings for my living since 1982, and I have been selling CD's since 1989. I have made over 30 of them, which qualifies me to be more than just a gadfly. I also believe that I may have made the first so-called "indie" CD when I released "Of Wind and Water" on my 1-man record label in 1988. As an independent musician who plays and sells "unpopular" music, I have noticed that all discussions of the music industry and the fate of recorded music ignore the viewpoint of artists such as myself. The first discussions of the downloading problem when Napster shook up the music world were particularly poignant since they always described the situation as one where the record companies made money and the artists got ripped off by their record companies. A lot of us artists are our own record companies. I sell thousands of CD's every year. So do thousands of other independent artists like me, and our sales figures do not appear on Sound Scan or in Billboard. But if thousands of artists are selling thousands of CD's, that means that millions (1000 x 1000= 1 million) of CD's being sold "below the radar" of the music business. The "indie" slice of the record business pie is a lot larger than anyone thinks it is, and there are no easy ways to know how big a slice it is. I would suspect that the trends in CD sales in my corner of the music business are not the same as they are for the major labels. CD's still work for a lot of music consumers

©2008 by Harvey Reid

5 Fernald Ave York Maine 03909  USA
phone (207) 363-1886

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