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Compact discs aren’t going to disappear overnight. They still make up a large portion of sales for music labels, and are the dominant format for music in a physical medium. But it’s also undeniable that digital music—along with more and more fans of physical formats turning to vinyl—ensures that the little plastic discs are on their way out. Old music outsold new music for the first time ever last year, and as the majority of new music slowly shifts to an online or downloadable method of consumption, the primary means of listening to your favorite artists for two decades is entering its twilight years. So we asked our contributors what they love most about the singular medium, and what they’ll miss as it slowly transitions into obsolescence.
While great record stores remain an excellent source of window-shopping for new music, there’s one area in which looking through vinyl albums simply can’t compete: the sound. Not of the actual music, mind you, but the sounds of the physical CD-case format hitting others of its kind. The telltale “clackety-clack” as your fingers flipped through plastic case after plastic case was always a deeply satisfying experience for those of us who fetishized the material properties of the medium. While you can still find stores that house enough CDs to perform this ritual, the big ones have largely faded, and smaller music stores either cater more directly to vinyl fans or don’t have enough stock to really allow for much more than 10-15 minutes of this process. (Unless you want to do it at Wal-Mart, which, c’mon.) If you still live near a store that can provide this experience, treasure it; the rest of us have to make do with reorganizing our home collections.
In the dark days before the internet became a ubiquitous tool to learn about music, the insert booklets that came included with CDs were indispensable. Not only did they add a satisfying element to the physical CD—contributing a weightiness with their bookish form—they were packed with useful information. Mostly, it was how you learned the lyrics quickly and efficiently. But it could also be a place for artists to write about their craft, or send a thank-you note to fans who supported their music. It was also where credits were listed, leading to the revelation that my favorite band (at the time I was reading CD booklets), the Backstreet Boys, didn’t actually write their hit songs. But mostly the information was the opposite of dismaying: I discovered an extra verse in the Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week” while trying to learn all those lyrics. The verse didn’t make it into the song, but it included a line about “Yoda.” Where else would I have found that insight into the Barenaked Ladies’ songwriting process, printed by mistake? Not the internet, that’s for sure.
One of the many ways the recording industry screwed themselves over not long after screwing most of their customers over was price point: For years, the suggested retail price of a compact disc hovered just below the $20 mark. A belated reaction to downloading briefly led to a small CD price-drop revolution (some new major-label artists had CDs going for $6 or $7 apiece for much of the ’00s), but it was too late to halt the sales slide. But while normal download pricing ($10 to $12, or a few bucks less with sales) is certainly easier on the wallet than a CD in 1996, only the cheapest download sales can compete with a good used-CD section, where sometimes great albums could be bought for a-near literal song: 99-cent bins could offer overlooked but great albums like Liz Phair’s Whitechocolatespaceegg or overstocked but great albums like R.E.M.’s Monster. Those willing to pay up to $7 could find even more, all while supporting a local business (or guy selling his stuff online). No format can rival used CDs in the cost-effectiveness of building a music library, combining the whims of record-store purchases with the budget of an Amazon flash-sale. Downloads, of course, have no secondhand market, probably something record labels consider a major upside to the digital turn.
Also, old-school vinyl LPs more or less demand a full-album listen; you can try to cue up a particular song on a record, but it’s a fool’s game, and you might as well just play the whole thing straight through if you’re going to the trouble. New-fangled MP3s allow you to shuffle everything you own together, only upload your favorites, and/or even delete the songs you don’t particularly like; more or less the same goes for streaming, often with the added “benefit” of ads. That leaves unfashionable CDs as a pleasing middle ground for those who still prefer an album-centric experience: They encourage an artist’s work to be experienced more or less as originally intended, in a particular order at a particular length, without demanding careful needle-drops or flipping onto a second (or, in the case of longer works, third and fourth!) side. But albums are rarely perfect, so there’s an easy out in the form of the skip button. If you really need to get to the good stuff as soon as possible, it’s there, but you’re probably not gonna throw on a CD with the intention of skipping most of the tracks. CDs gently encourage increased attention spans, rather than immediately and uncompromisingly demanding them.
The portability of compact discs made playing them in the car a breeze—you could slip a couple dozen of them in a sleeve that fit under your car seat, then easily access them with one hand while driving. And while the capacity of those CD travel cases has been dwarfed by the nearly infinite digital libraries that MP3 players and smart phones offer, those newer technologies have yet to match the simple, dependable interface of a CD player. Bluetooth-enabled stereos have eliminated the need for obnoxious USB and auxiliary cords, which is a start, but especially for those of us with older or more modestly equipped cars, queuing music on your iPhone requires either the equivalent of texting while driving or relying on hit-or-miss voice recognition commands (go ahead, just try asking Siri to play Susanne Sundfør, let alone SBTRKT). One day streaming albums in our cars will be as headache-free as loading a CD into a stereo. We’re not there yet.
Digital music supplanted CDs because of the convenience of carrying hundreds or even thousands of songs around in your pocket. But those songs, all-important indicators of your exquisite musical taste, are buried away, invisibly, on a hard drive. CDs, lined up on a shelf in a prominent spot in your living room, allowed you to impress the world with both the quantity and quality of your music library. Unlike the millimeter-thick type of vinyl LPs, CDs actually let you see at a glance which albums were where. Better still, any time you visited someone else’s home, you had the opportunity to look at their music purchases and silently judge. Generation Z might live their whole lives not knowing which of their friends owns the complete works of Demi Lovato. But in the ’90s, if you had multiple Hootie & The Blowfish albums on your shelf, your shame was there for all the world to see.
While CDs aren’t indestructible (search YouTube for the phrase “CD destruction” to get some pointers on media obliteration), you have to actively try to destroy them. Getting wet doesn’t faze playback—dry ’em off, and they’re as good as new—while surface scratches are fine, too: It takes a deep cut to render discs unplayable. And as anyone who’s left media in a hot car knows, CDs tend to hold up infinitely better than cassettes and vinyl at high temperatures (e.g., they won’t melt). Perhaps most important these days, there’s no danger of a hard drive crash wiping out an entire CD collection. Score one more point for physical media.
That said, opening a CD has never been easy. During the early days of the format, the discs were packaged in cumbersome, eco-unfriendly longboxes that needed to be ripped open to get to the CD itself. After these were phased out—to the chagrin of many, as this vintage MTV News segment reveals—the more compact plastic jewelcases had extra sealants added. These took the form of a gummy silver side tab (which always left sticky residue on the plastic) and, later, an adhesive label on case’s top spine featuring an artist name and album title. To add insult to injury, many CDs were then shrinkwrapped, which added even more waste and delayed gratification even further. The effort involved with having to physically tear through so many layers of plastic actually makes you feel like you’ve earned the music contained within, however: Finally cracking open a CD case delivers a specific kind of satisfaction that just isn’t there with the click-and-download passive process of buying a digital album.
When it comes to sharing music, nothing was easier than picking up that durable, informative little jewel case and placing it in a friend’s hands. They could instantly listen to it on the car ride home and easily burn it onto their computer—a less-than-legal alternative to purchasing music that nevertheless felt less immoral than downloading it. Nowadays, of course, there are still technological ways to share music, whether via email, a Spotify playlist, or a thumbdrive. But it’s a messier process with more steps to screw up (songs purchased on iTunes can only be played on authorized computers, not everyone has Spotify offline listening) and a whole lot more work on the sharer’s end. So even if the digital revolution has given everyone access to a wider array of musical choices than ever before, the fact that music recommendations now come in the form of, “You should check out this album online” makes for a less personal, less tactical exchange.
If you’re too young to have made a mixtape, you will never fully appreciate the supreme bliss that came with making mix CDs. Back in the horse and buggy days, we hemorrhaged money on Maxell UR-90 cassettes to laboriously crank out mix tapes. High-speed dubbing was a welcome advancement, but I remember sitting in my bedroom with a blank cassette queued up, waiting for my favorite song to come on the radio. I’d have to sit there, get pissed if the DJ rambled into the opening of a song, and physically hit record and stop to essentially bootleg my favorite Top 40 tune, as I was too young to go out and buy it myself. The mix CD was a godsend: It eliminated the rewind/fast-forward function, digital music was easily accessible, and you could get creative. Because of the larger format, you could decorate the disc and no longer experience hand cramps squeezing in the track listing on those tiny cassette booklet margins.
The CD committed many aesthetic sins, most of which can be blamed on the jewel case, with its many delicate parts and cover-art-diminishing dimensions. But, damn, if jewel cases don’t look good with their spines lined up in neat little rows. With their standardized height and width, mass-marketed jewel cases made CDs the ideal format for shelving; naturally, a cottage industry of luxury furniture dealers and SkyMall merchants sprung up, catering to neatnik music fiends in elegant wood finishes and contemporary silhouettes. The rise of Digipaks in the early 2000s threatened to put an end to this era of 177.5 cubic-centimeter organization, even as singles and albums that required no packaging at all started eating into sales of CDs and related accessories. The MP3 performed one major service for tidily arranged jewel cases, though: Once a disc is digitized, it never has to leave the company of its identical comrades again.
Although CD sales aren’t quite as grim as many people think, jewel cases—the standard packaging method of the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s—seem to be on the downslide in favor of cardboard digi-sleeves. While the latter is a more environmentally friendly (and less brittle) alternative, it doesn’t offer the same kind of visually striking color options. In other words, differently colored cardboard doesn’t look as cool as different-colored plastic. One band to embrace this was Alice In Chains, who released its 1995 self-titled album in three different shades of transparent jewel case: monochrome, dark purple, and yellow-green. If you bought those last two, the effect was something else, as if the three-legged dog on the CD jacket was wrapped in a different flavor of Fruit Roll-Up. Whether that was grape or lemon-lime (or perhaps mystery fruit if you went with the monochrome), the variants had the power to make your purchase feel unique upon exiting Sam Goody.
And if the CD tray is opaque, try removing it (with care, always with care). There’s a good chance a musician has hidden something behind it for the most adventurous of fans to discover. Maybe it’s an Old World map dotted with lyrical tie-ins, the frontman’s influences, and even two islands named after the heads of the band’s fan club. That’s what’s tucked beneath the tray of Weezer’s Pinkerton. Or maybe it’s a whole additional booklet scrawled with the crudely apocalyptic artwork of Stanley Donwood. That’s what’s waiting to be unearthed in Kid A. While vinyl will always have its larger scale working to its advantage in the visuals department, the bigger size also means that Easter eggs are a lot easier to find, and therefore not as immediately satisfying once uncovered.
As wonderful as the digital medium may be when it comes to saving physical space, it’s also been responsible for the death of the box set. It’s not as if compilations and complete-album collections will go away with the demise of physical media, but the loss will be felt in the absence of creative packaging. Take, for instance, Rhino’s Brain In A Box: The Science Fiction Collection, the winner of the 2002 Grammy Award for Best Boxed Recording Package, which was covered on three sides with 3-D lenticular images of a brain floating in bubbly liquid. Digital booklets are all fine and well as a way of distributing liner notes, but with box sets, it’s never been about the information as much as it’s been about the time and effort put into designing the overall set, from the outside of the box to the essays and photographs in the booklets, all the way down to the artwork on the discs themselves. Even a touch as simple as slipping the CDs into reproductions of the original LP sleeves can be a cheap thrill. Oh, sure, the songs contained within are important, too, but anyone who thinks that box sets are just about the music isn’t looking at the whole picture… and when the CD is completely dead and gone, they won’t have to trouble themselves with looking at anything at all.
Thanks to their low cost and ease of replacement, CDs have a disposability that few other formats can offer. Unless it’s a sentimental mix CD or a lovingly handcrafted album from your local favorite ska band, compact discs are, on the whole, undistinguished, interchangeable slabs of polycarbonate plastic. Who would weep to find one irreparably scratched or lost, the way you would to discover that your cherished, limited-run vinyl LP has become warped, or was apparently “borrowed” by an ex-roommate, never to return? Simply head down to Best Buy and pick up another, completely identical disc. Hell, get two—one to put in the microwave, just to see what happens. It’s pretty cool!
During impromptu dinner parties or late-night gatherings when beer cans and wine bottles fly around the house, energized guests might slam down their cups and glasses all over your wooden furniture. CDs make perfect, colorful, convenient coasters: In fact, I still keep some around in my front room just for that purpose alone.