What’s So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Compact Discs?

Another Format in the Crosshairs

What’s So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Compact Discs?

I still remember walking into record stores and discovering there wasn’t a single vinyl album left on the shelves. People told me that day was coming, and I believed them, but when it finally happened I had to see the carnage firsthand. Not that I had anything against compact discs, but when the powers that be decided to eliminate a format that still sold hundreds of millions of units a year in order to jack up profits for another format (a strategy that worked wonderfully for a minute but then came back to bite them), I suddenly heard myself harping about the masses acting like sheep being led into slaughter (the slaughterhouse belonging, of course, to those huge creepy record corporations you still hear about occasionally).

Although my rhetoric was over the top, I was, at the same time, right, and I’m pleased to see vinyl experience an unexpected uptick. Strangely, though, at the same time that I’m celebrating the vinyl bounceback I feel as if I’ve time-warped back to the early 1990s, only this time a different format is in the crosshairs—the very format that threatened to put the kibosh on vinyl.

Stating that compact discs still have a place in today’s world will strike some folks as very horse and buggy. If that’s the case, though, vinyl belongs to the Paleolithic Era, and right now we don’t have enough record presses to keep up with demand. As the editor of the music section, I should state that while TAS has embraced the vinyl resurgence and hi-res downloads, we devote far more attention to compact discs than any other format. Also, when we review a CD, we do just that…as opposed to listening to an MP3 and pretending it’s the same thing. This we do out of respect for the musicians, the labels, and our readers. Here, then, are some reasons the CD obits seem premature:

Compact discs are a good value. Humbled by their steep decline in sales, compact discs have come down considerably in price, and now they’re usually much cheaper than vinyl. Increasingly you hear people who are new to the game wondering if they should buy a new compact disc for 12 bucks or an LP of the same record for 30, and that’s a question worth asking. Unless someone has a good enough stereo system to do justice to the vinyl, isn’t the compact disc the better choice? Also, there are plenty of people playing their expensive new Pink Floyd reissues on cheap record players that quickly damage the records. And the cheapest CD player won’t harm your recordings while many inexpensive turntables will.

Deluxe packages at great prices. If you’re not aware that there are all kinds of deluxe CD box sets for sale at soft prices, you haven’t been reading TAS. In almost every issue we rave about the latest bargains, and they’re appearing at unprecedented rates. This is especially true—but not limited to—classical releases. How long can this go on, you ask? Well, as long as people keep buying.

Compact discs are simple and convenient. Recently I perused a 20-page instruction manual pertaining to setting up a DAC correctly. My manual for compact disc players is more concise. It reads as follows: “1. Turn CD player on. 2. Insert disc. 3. Press play.”

When was the last time you listened to a compact disc? One of the most delicious ironies in the history of recorded music is that back when compact discs often sounded artificial and tinny, people were singing their sonic praises (cleaner sound, no surface noise, etc.). By the time the Kool-Aid wore off—something the vinyl resurgence influenced—compact discs had made huge strides sonically. Perhaps instead of writing off any formats the audiophile community should pause a moment to recognize what rarified air we breathe these days. With CDs, vinyl, and hi-res downloads all sounding decidedly better than almost anything you could buy in the late 1980s, we should be high-fiving each other instead of dissing any of these formats.

Niche markets. Just as there are niche markets specific to the vinyl world, certain pockets of the music industry focus on silver discs. One example would be soundtracks, where there are plenty of limited-release and highly-collectible CD-only releases that disappear almost immediately. Although it doesn’t get much press, CD collectors do a lot of gushing over fancy imports and special editions in the same way vinyl lovers drool over hard-to-find black discs. Which leads to my next point:

Compact disc buyers have collector’s blood too. Here I’m not only talking about obscure limited-release packages. For some music fans, streaming and downloads answer their every need, but there are also those music lovers who want something tangible either because they collect a musician, genre, or label or because (as with vinyl) they prefer to have something they can hold in their hands.

Diversity is good. Some genres seem more compatible with one format than another. For example, it makes sense that classical music would place more emphasis on reel-to-reel tapes, SACDs, Blu-ray audio, and hi-res downloads than would punk. Seven-inch 45s are still popular in the indie rock world, but I don’t see a burning need to buy Beethoven’s complete symphonies on small platters (for starters, I don’t want to work that hard). The recent emergence of audiophile labels solely devoted to hi-res downloads is as welcome as CD-only and vinyl-only record companies in the sense that labels seem to be tapping into the listening habits of their listeners rather than imposing or ignoring formats for their own convenience, which is what got them in trouble in the first place—and is starting to happen again.

Do you ever get tired of computers? The other day I talked to a bartender who spends his evenings making fancy drinks for cocktail connoisseurs. When he gets off work, he said, you couldn’t pay him to imbibe anything that involved mixing. Likewise, in Issue 261, Stuart Thomas’ letter to the editor stated, “I work on computers all day, and don’t want to have to do the same at home.” Stuart isn’t alone, and the day may come when he has a lot more company.

If you don’t buy compact discs, you’re going to have huge holes in your collection. One example: of the 12 bossa nova albums I recommended in Issue 259, only one of those releases was available on vinyl.

Compact discs are kind to labels. Cuneiform Records has been around since 1984, so its owner, Steven Feigenbaum, saw vinyl evolve from the dominant format to a blip on the radar. Sales have since increased exponentially, and records have achieved a much higher profile. The numbers are still modest compared to what they used to be, though, and things are different now. “Back when vinyl was the only format, it wasn’t a boutique industry,” he said. “It was easier and less expensive. The lacquers cost a fortune now because there are so few people making them. The setup costs for CDs are lower. It’s easier to price them lower, so it’s easier to make money.” This isn’t to say that Cuneiform has an anti-vinyl bias. Instead the label reflects the diversity of its audience by offering for sale three formats—compact discs, downloads, and (for certain projects) vinyl; it’s that combination that works for the label.

Compact discs are kind to record stores. You might think that record stores would love vinyl records because they cost more than compact discs. Actually, though, store owners are quick to praise the advantages of silver discs over wax. The markup for vinyl is minimal, and it can’t be returned, even if it’s flawed. Compact discs are returnable, and the markup is higher, which translates into fewer hassles and higher profits. Lately people have been showing a renewed appreciation for record stores (and especially the independent ones), which is a good thing in many ways, including free marketing: having posters on the walls and product in the bins is a convenient way to spread the word about musicians and record labels. Cutting non-vinyl artists out of the equation would further diminish their visibility.

Compact discs are kind to musicians. If vinyl and downloads became the only formats that people paid money for, the music industry would suffer more damage, and so would musicians. Also, streaming isn’t going to pay the rent for more than a few lucky souls. It’s funny: at the same time that fans of bands increasingly contribute to crowdsourcing, profits from record sales are plummeting due to streaming and free downloads. As we learn more about the consequences of listening choices that are virtually profitless for all but a few musicians, perhaps people will become more inclined to help out on the other end as well.