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On discs

2012 April 22

For quite some while now I have been planning to write a few notes on discs. I have been collecting links for months now, in fact, and currently have about 18 browser tabs open with them all. One of them notes that this past Saturday, April 21, was Record Store Day, which occasion made this seem like a good weekend to finally sit down and do something with this mess.

The concept of Record Store Day is particularly interesting because, apparently, it might well be called “disc store day.” Per the more-or-less official site

This is the one day that all of the independently owned record stores come together with artists to celebrate the art of music. Special vinyl and CD releases and various promotional products are made exclusively for the day…

So it is about vinyl records, but it’s also about CDs, which interests me because of the odd relationship between the two just now.

It’s hardly news that the now-venerable compact disc seems to be in the midst of a fade-out. I’m pretty sure that sales have been declining for some time, and that I’ve even read that much of the music publishing industry has kind of resigned itself to that fact and begun emphasizing other strategies. One of which is, obviously, digital music. I wrote some while ago about the redesigned iTunes program icon dispensing with the now largely-archaic CD incorporated in its original design. Meanwhile, there’s Automotive News predicting the disappearance of CD players from new cars. And more recently Low End Mac remarked on the prospect of optical drives departing from new computers, a prospect which is in fact already underway; my brother purchased a MacBook Air recently and while its lack of an optical drive surprised him, it doesn’t greatly inconvenience him. I believe that most of his music has been digital for a long time now. Meanwhile, for those whose tunes have not been virtualized, yet, there’s Murfie offering a curious sort of halfway-house assistance toward that point.

And of course, as the LEM item about general-purpose optical drives disappearing from computers suggests, the twilight of the physical disc is not restricted to music. As it notes, Apple seems to be moving away from software releases on disc, and I know that other developers including Adobe would love to lead users down that route as well. The movie industry, by contrast, is having a more difficult time with the idea of a viable business model which doesn’t include physical media and continues to seek new gimmicks to prop up disc sales, but in a larger context it seems like it will be a losing battle.

Indeed, in a larger context, it seems like the sale of physical media is a losing battle. “Atoms” are so 20th century; invisible bits in the cloud are where it’s at now. Digital music, digital movies, digital books, as well as digital finance which like everything else has its winners and losers. In a fascinating multiple-front push for digital media my bank is currently trying to entice me to forego paper statements in exchange for a flash drive and a chance to win a Kindle; meanwhile, the US Postal Service is struggling to survive as mass adoption of such electronic communication has caused its traditional bread-and-butter to evaporate.

And in reading about Record Store Day I can’t help being reminded of Free Comic Book Day, another event which promotes physical-media retail stores and also seems, increasingly, like a bit of a plaintive rear-guard action against obsolescence. Particularly in light of a recent firestorm kicked up by experienced provocateur Mark Waid‘s comments about print comic books being hopelessly uneconomical. The world of comic books, with its small but enthusiastic section of futurists, its opposing body of retailers seeing extinction, and its large everyone-else segment which has significant investment of one sort or another in a physical-product system but isn’t necessarily committed to it so much as just uncertain what to do, probably represents much of the media-publishing economy as a whole.

The one exception might be the music industry, which is arguably largely through the transitional phase by now as a result of being forced, kicking and screaming, to confront the trauma of bit technologies’ impact on atom-based business models before any of its peer industries, beginning way back in the antebellum America of the late 1990s. Things are still evolving, but that seems to be pretty much a given in this era, and with that in mind the music industry is probably about as comfortably settled-down in a world of purely electronic media as anyone right now.

Which is one reason why the phenomenon of the vinyl record album is so completely fascinating.

A feature in The Economist confirms what I encounter anecdotal evidence of all the time: “vinyl is back.” I read about new vinyl record releases on Warren Ellis’s blog, though I read about all kinds of weird stuff there of course. But according to the Record Store Day site there are hundreds of new releases on 7″ and LP, terms which I only vaguely recognize but which are at any rate types of vinyl records. The explanation for vinyl records’ persistence are varied; there are of course die-hard audiophiles who insist that nothing else sounds as good, and a few months ago Neil Young set off the world wide web’s irony alarm when he claimed that digital-music tycoon Steve Jobs was among their number. Vinyl may or may not sound better than CDs or electronic files of one type or another, though personally I’m of the strong opinion that sound quality isn’t really the point either way. The Economist item notes that “Many vinyl records come with codes for downloading the album from the internet” and suggests that “Some think that half the records sold are not actually played.” I have no difficulty believing this; I suppose a good test might be examining whether the rebound in vinyl record sales has been accompanied by any kind of rebound in turntables, although conceivably turntables might also be purchased simply as display pieces.

Either way vinyl record purchases could be perceived as simply a shallow, frivolous fad, though it certainly doesn’t appear to be simply a phenomenon of baby boomer nostalgia. Unsurprisingly, a vinyl album can baffle children born around the turn of the century. And yet they are apparently of some interest to some local college-age youths. Of course it’s probably impossible to fully examine the cultural significance(s) of a vinyl record revival without mentioning the considerable associated risk of being outed as a “hipster.” An “indulgence” of “obsolete” technology seems to be, with some exceptions, one of the fastest ways to earn the dreaded label, though for my part I think that mockery of “hipsters” tends to carry a strong flavor of conformist backlash. A while back I read an article which invoked the concept and one of the comments verged on self-parody with its “uh! can you believe?!” expression of almost offended scorn for the sight of some presumed hipster actually using a typewriter in public. And more recently I saw another item at Slatelantic (the two sites just blue into one for me) attempting to advance a serious argument that anyone still using a pre-smartphone mobile is already verging on hipsterism and can’t have any other plausible reason besides making some kind of silly “statement.” Which, particularly as this would include me, seems to move the threshold for intentional anachronism incredibly close to “anything whatsoever which is not the cutting edge.” My iMac still runs OS X 10.6; does that mean I must be “playing around” on a “retro” toy rather than conceivably doing any serious work? Or does the very fact that I still have a desktop computer at all, rather than relying on a tablet, make me a “hipster” just by itself?

It wouldn’t surprise me, really, nor would it particularly concern me. I’ve written about this a bit already, and aside from a great deal of personal indifference to whether I seem “cool” or whether I seem like I’m trying to be cool by being uncool (or by making fun of those whom I perceive to be doing so) I think the whole concept is rapidly becoming untenable, at any rate when it comes to the idea of anachronisms in technology, fashion, etc.

Ad captioned 'I bought my vintage look in a futuristic way'

Ad photographed in New York which kind of illustrates the situation

We’re rapidly evolving a world in which, at least for most citizens of industrialized nations, technological efficiency is becoming so great that a determination to avoid any sort of intentional “anachronistic” indulgence is going to lead to increasingly pointed questions about what one actually wants to achieve and why. Though to be honest I think anyone would be hard-pressed to even attempt this anyway, given how much ends and means, new and old, decadent and thoughtful have already been chopped up and blended together. Take food and drink, for example. Industrially-produced, processed instant meals would seem to be more technologically advanced than organically-grown, local “slow food,” but I don’t think that too many of the people making fun of typewriters or “dumb” cell phones see an equal pretentiousness in farmer’s markets. And can someone tell me which type of beer signifies a hipster? Is it a) a local craft brew, b) canned Pabst Blue Ribbon, c) both or d) these notions are just kind of stupid aren’t they? I think it’s d.

Which brings me back to discs, finally. In a lot of ways I feel more and more kinship with vinyl collectors. I’m pretty sure that I don’t buy or hold onto CDs for any kind of status display, as I rarely have guests who would ever see my CD collection, though part of the reason I like them is for their display properties, for my own enjoyment. The same goes for books, which I like to have around me sitting on shelves, though it probably doesn’t apply to comic books, which don’t really look either attractive or interesting in any remotely-practical storage set-up. The particular set of reasons for keeping around any given type of physical media probably has partial but not complete overlap with the set of reasons attached to any other type.

When it comes to compact discs, I think the reasons are a combination of practical and emotional, some of which are shared with John Hatchett whose views contrast with those of fellow Low End Mac correspondent Simon Royal commenting on the same technology. Like Hatchett, I like having a physical object which acts as a back-up to information stored on magnetic or flash media, and which I own outright and can, if I so choose, re-sell. I also like having something to look at beyond just a thumbnail in iTunes, and in this regard I find the CD a convenient compromise between the glorious but unwieldy record album sleeve and the anonymous electronic file. For my part, the shelf of CDs actually seems like a more useful and accessible “user interface” than iTunes or an iPod, which is entirely contrary to the conclusions of Mr. Royal. Royal writes that “I don’t listen to music on a home stereo any more, because my music is stored on my iPhone, and if I wanted to do so, I would hook up my iPhone to my stereo, as is it quicker and easier than finding the relevant CD.” I don’t know if his view is right or wrong, or if my own is, but mine is definitely different.

To some extent the technology involved is different; I don’t have an iPhone and while I have an iPod it won’t fit all of my music, and even if it did I don’t really have any device I could plug it into other than headphones, which I loathe nearly as much as earbuds. At home I have an RCA CD player (plus tape deck), in the approximate form of a modest “boom box” device, which is probably close to 20 years old. It seems entirely quick and easy to use, to me; even if I could plug an iPod into it I have difficulty believing that I could navigate through nested menus on a postage-stamp sized window faster than I can find a CD using spatial navigation and plop it into the player’s disc compartment. Of course, not all of my music is on disc and I can’t play those unless I burn them to CD, which I’ve done in some cases but by no means all; on the other hand I have nice speakers hooked up to my iMac and so I can listen to that music very easily most of the time when I’m sitting right here anyway.

I find CDs convenient in the car, too, for what it’s worth. Again, my 2000 Camry doesn’t have an iPod port, though I could probably in theory play music from my iPod with a cassette adapter; that sounds a bit cringe-inducing to me, too, but it’s not really an issue because I prefer to just bring along some CDs anyway. I will readily confess that reaching over to the passenger seat or up to the sun visor for a CD while driving is probably not an ideal practice from a safety perspective, but it’s probably not really worse than fidgeting with most of the built-in controls, particularly as the relevant motions are pretty much reflexive by now. And if I have to take my eyes from the road to pick out one case from another, I’m not sure how this is any worse a distraction than navigating the menus of an iPod could be. Honestly I’m not sure how anyone could possibly attempt that while driving (short of plain texting-while-driving indifference to safety) or even whether most people do. Maybe everyone just hits “play” and doesn’t do any selection while driving? I would find that rather limiting and, frankly, “retro” in an age of on-demand.

The good news, for me at least, is that I think discs are here to stay. At least music discs. I can see a day when my video devices and computer and car have no disc player, eventually, but a personal abandonment of music CDs seems likely to be a lot further off, and not really something I will ever be in any way “forced” to do. My CD player seems like it might well keep chugging away forever, and even if it doesn’t I doubt it will be very difficult or expensive to replace even decades from now. After all, people are still releasing and purchasing new vinyl records. Someone somewhere will make a CD player, and it will probably be cheap thanks to manufacturing technology and easy to acquire thanks to the internet. And I will probably be able to buy new CDs, for similar reasons; even if artists and publishers aren’t making any direct provision for release on compact disc, there will probably be third-party services à la Café Press which they can simply provide a link to which will produce a CD, print packaging, and mail it to me. And for that matter I will very likely be able to do the same thing myself; I can do so right now after all and it’s difficult to imagine this capacity going away if the predictions of personalized home manufacturing via “3D printers” etc., prove remotely accurate.

So, sigh of relief, I suspect that at least some of my stuff is safe.

Three bonus links which I didn’t quite work into the above post anywhere:

  • Mark Evanier pondering what to do with a vinyl collection, as well as a different kind of optical disc which has pretty well gone the way of Betamax (though I would bet you can still view them if you really want to, and for that matter can probably still view Betamax tapes which I’m sure someone somewhere must still have), the laserdisc.
  • A BBC item on even older and rather more thick round audio-storage media, the wax cylinder. Otto von Bismarck speaks again.
  • Paul Graham with an interesting essay from 2007 on the changing significance of physical “stuff.” Fascinating reading, though I wonder if he would still advance the proposition today that “Books are more like a fluid than individual objects. It’s not especially inconvenient to own several thousand books…”
3 Responses
  1. April 23, 2012

    Hmmm. Sounds like a case “these kids today” disease. 😉

    I think the benefit of MP3s that you’re neglecting is the playlist feature. You can fill your iPod (or whatever) with a boatload of songs, but rather than selecting an individual album to play, you select a playlist you’ve already defined that includes all the songs you’ve already culled together, so you don’t have to listen to track 3 off that second album, which really wasn’t very good and even the artist said they only included it on the album because the producer’s wife did some backing vocals for it. You can create not only your personal “best of” anthology, but you can also throw together playlists for “driving long distances at night”, “running a marathon”, “chill out music to relax to”, “holiday themed tunes”, etc.

    Which means that, in a drive from Cincinnati to Chicago, I only have to hit “play” once for the entire trip. Compared to switching out CDs every hour. (Radio is not a realistic option on that trip, especially for a liberal atheist who can’t stand country music.) So, while I don’t have an MP3 player built into my car, I make extensive use of the audio jack to hook up an MP3 player that ends up sitting on the passenger seat for most of the trip.

    I’ve still got my CD collection. I still have most of my cassette tapes for that matter. Nothing wrong with keeping them as “back-ups” since I’ve got the physical space to store them easily. I’ve still got a small stereo system on which I can still play both. But I don’t use it because I’ve also got everything converted to MP3s and listen on my computer — which is usually on with me sitting in front of it anyway.

    There’s nothing wrong with the CD format per se, and I’m not one to change for change’s sake. I didn’t exactly jump on the MP3 bandwagon super-quickly. But I do appreciate when technology does make things better/easier and I’m willing to scrap old habits (i.e. vinyl, cassettes, CDs…) if new ones (MP3s) can provide better benefits.

  2. Matt permalink
    April 23, 2012

    I’m glad that works for you. I’ve just never found much appeal in play lists. I have maybe two or three in iTunes, on my Mac. I don’t really use my iPod much because, as noted and apparently unlike 90% of people, I hate having plastic plugs stuck in my ears or something clamped around my head.

    On long car trips, I find it in no way burdensome to change CDs once an hour or so; having several hours’ worth of audio “queued up” in advance holds no real appeal for me. In fact I think I would find it a nuisance to have to plan that out ahead, rather than be able to make my selections on the fly, depending on my mood of the moment. (Plus, on really long road trips like the drive back and forth to Iowa, I typically get an audiobook or two from the library; I could in theory rip each disc to MP3 beforehand but again this doesn’t seem like it makes my life much easier compared with just bringing the CDs into the car.)

    And really, you should shut down your computer and go do something else once in a while, if only sit somewhere else with a book. 🙂

  3. April 23, 2012

    How could I read a book if I’m not in front of a computer? 😉

    Besides, I think training for a marathon gets me away from the screen plenty.

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