Saturday, June 2, 2012

Another One Bites the Dust: Loving the CD to Death

As a music collector who has been buying albums for thirty years I have been blessed to have started amassing physical copies of music in vinyl's first heyday, all through the lifespan of cassettes and, largely, in compact disc. Say what you will about the beauty of vinyl (I, too, love the art and audio aspects), the CD has been good to me. With its death knell tolling more and more loudly ever since the advent of mp3 and the like, I'm sad as hell to see it going but, simultaneously, enjoying every second of its demise.

Being someone who really doesn't give a damn about what resides in my iTunes (currently around 50,000 songs), I love music on the shelf. I love to read and re-read the booklets. I love to alphabetize and then reorganize in chronological order. I will admit that I used to sort by record label as well. I like owning something solid that also can create beautiful music. As the CD format dwindles in demand I am amazed at the affordability of top-notch titles as well as some of the insanely extravagant reissues that we have been seeing as artists and labels shoot to squeeze one last sale of any given title on shiny discs (see Nick Mason's comments regarding Pink Floyd's massive "immersion" reissues). Wal-Mart's $5 hobo rummage bins used to be full of no-name, semi-bootleg compilations of dubious origin and quality yet now overflow with the latest remastered copies of titles that deserve to be on every shelf (Mob Rules, Moving Pictures, and Fair Warning, to name a few I spotted recently). Nearly all of Rush's 1997 backcatalogue reissues, for example, currently sit on Amazon at $4.99 each. It has never been less expensive to build and bolster a massive music library.

Two examples stand out for me recently, though; both a little uncharacteristic of what I normally cover here. First, Queen's backcatalogue. Queen is the band that inaugurated my music library and, to this day, Brian May's guitar tone  accompanies every majestic task I undertake. Parallel parking, garbage to the curb, matching my shoes = multitracked wall of majestic guitar sound in my mind. From my Vox amp to hunting down an English sixpence at a coin shop at the age of 12, I have tried (entirely unsuccessfully) to emulate that sound. To the best of my knowledge, Queen is the only band whose complete works I have collected in three major formats - vinyl, cassette and CD - the first two through Innuendo and on CD, everything. Twice. Queen was one of the early massive reissue/remaster launches via Hollywood records in the early 90s in celebration of the band's 20th anniversary and, for the first time, every album was available on CD domestically, remastered and with bonus tracks (admittedly, largely a bunch of shitty remixes). Hollywood followed with some historical live sets (Wembley '86 is stellar) and also handled the requisite posthumous Freddie Mercury releases as well as a seemingly endless series of compilations. Now, in late 2011, they reissued the whole lot again, this time for the 40th anniversary (damn, I am old) and, somehow, they've done it well enough that I have double (quadruple?)-dipped and bought fifteen studio records again. This time, each is a double disc and the original, untouched album sits alone with bonus material (now more alternate takes and live cuts than remixes) sit on a separate "bonus" EP. This is what I love. An untouched, original album I can play start to finish with no new fluff to ruin the continuity and all the bonus stuff you often just play once all on its own. Digital-only formats will also allow us to pick and choose and edit in that manner, to be sure, but the new reality is a singles-driven marketplace and the concept of an album, already antiquated as I type this, will soon be as extinct as the CD, After all, why wait and record a dozen tracks, a few of which are bound to be filler, when you can be timely and drop only killer one or two at a time? I'll admit, 99% of albums - past and present - are largely shit. But some (Sabbath, Zeppelin and, for me, Queen, for example) have stood the test of time as purveyors of full-length slabs of beginning-to-end quality and, as they are, I want them in this format. And with sound constantly improved (Bob Ludwig has somehow improved upon the brightness and punchiness that define Queen's signature sound and, best of all, the rhythm section thunders - all with an impressive dynamic range intact), I'll buy them over and over and over.

Now, the other side of the coin. Madonna. I'm not interested. Really. Well, I kind of dig "Like a Prayer" (as far as pop of its era goes, it's damn near perfect). But - my wife is interested. And, always at a loss come birthday time, I was thrilled to find a box set of her complete studio work through 2008 - eleven records - brand new for under forty bucks. This is no-frills minimalism. All cardboard sleeves, no lyric sheets or liner notes, though, where available, the remastered versions of the discs are included. Under forty bucks. Go into FYE or Best Buy and try to buy three new albums off the rack for under $40. Not easy. These are not bootlegs but instead major label warehouse-clearers and similar sets exist for everyone from ELO to Ted Nugent to Leonard Cohen to the Smiths.

So - I am sad to see the CD go. I have no regrets whatsoever, though, about looting its dying corpse as it expires. I predict there's another five to ten years to go before it's gone altogether and with labels creatively reconfiguring, repackaging and, ultimately, reducing prices, I just may well try to buy damn near everything.


  1. Awesome read, mate. High Fidelity ahoy!

  2. I like physical music as much as you do, but have to accept the reality (it seems vinyl will stay with us). Not all is lost, however. Copy what CDs you have to the computer in Lossless or FLAC. Sure, it takes up heaploads more space, but you can get a hard drive for pennies these days. MP3s will always suck (with the exception of 320kbps with proper encoding), but the CD-quality digital formats have our backs.