First Click: I think I'll switch back to CDs

March 8th, 2016


I’ve been traveling a lot lately and it’s made listening to music tricky. Without a stable mobile connection, I’ve frequently found myself locked out of my own music. I pay for Spotify and I download albums to my phone, but for some reason, the app often demands a working data connection before it lets me in. I’ve had the same issue with Apple Music, and it’s also a problem when I’m at home in London. Commuting to and from work on the Tube, I’m several stories below any decent mobile signal, and unless I remember to access the app before I head underground, I’m scuppered.

It’s a small issue, I admit, and an intermittent one. But at those times when the world seems full of agonizing and unreasonable things, and when the only cure is listening to "The Winner Takes It All" by ABBA on repeat, it suddenly becomes extremely pressing. The solution — I’m slowly, reluctantly, starting to believe — might be CDs.

This may sound silly, and pretentious as well. But I’m aware of the strengths and faults of my own character (some of them, anyway), and CDs are probably a good fit for me. They’re consistent, removing the unreliability of streaming music; they’re tangible and collectible, without being awkward to store and move like vinyl; and they remind me of the time in my life when I first discovered music. When I was 10 or 11 my parents bought me an Argos own-brand stereo and my first CD. It was a best-of compilation album by Swedish rock band The Hives (chosen by my big sister no doubt) and I obsessed over it. Alone in my room, for the first time in my life, I went out of my tiny mind listening to music, throwing myself at the furniture and screaming "hate to say I told you sooooo" at the world in general. I still own the CD.

Being able to collect CDs is important too. Not only can I have my ripped songs arranged DRM-free on my hard drive, alphabetically sorted into one pleasingly portable, compendious folder, but I’ll be able to create a physical collection too. Just think: rows upon rows of plastic spines, with CD cases compressed tightly together like a box of translucent staples, each CD ready to be removed, rearranged, and hey, maybe even played. And CDs are cheap! I can buy them in bulk online, and rummage in second hand stores, to create a library of truly monstrous proportions.

At this point you might say the CD is a doomed medium, that it's stuck in the past, obsolete, and of little relevance to today’s songwriters and artists. And I can only reply: so is my music taste. The only contemporary music I listen to is rap, and although Kanye West has threatened to stop making CDs, that’s probably still a while off. In the meantime I’m still super into The Kinks and Thelonious Monk and Handel and Philip Glass, and they’ve (mostly) recorded all the music they’re ever going to. And sure, I still get hooked on the occasional new song that could tempt me into downloading a single, but if I can survive my "Love Yourself" addiction by listening to the track over and over again on YouTube, I can cope with any future earworms.

I can even buy a CD player and some good speakers, and turn listening to music from a passive background activity that filters in through my earphones, to a little life-affirming ceremony. I can stand in my room, sore from the day’s minor catastrophes, and actually browse the albums I own. I’ll look, I’ll think, I’ll take one out and place it neatly in a waiting CD tray. And then, in that moment, as I needlessly adjust the volume dial and skip to a favorite track, I’ll be able to tell myself I’ve got my life together. (Is it strange that my main visual reference for this pompous little fantasy is that scene from American Psycho? Yes it is, very.)

What attracts me most to CDs, though, is the inevitability of nostalgia. We tend to romanticize the things that we’re exposed to in our youth, and for me, my discovery of music and the strange things it does to you, started with CDs. My parents' generation romanticize the pop and hiss of vinyl, but for me, it’s not the defects in the recording, but the clatter and clicks of CDs and cases. Maybe in 15 years time, we’ll even be talking about the resurgence of compact discs in the same way we currently do of vinyl, with people writing paeans to their shining spinny-ness, to their unbreakable format, and to the joy of navigating 80-minute-or-so albums track-by-track. At least then I might be ahead of the trend, rather than stuck in the past.

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