Words and photos by Rafe Arnott. Base image above courtesy Wallpaperflare.
In a world which has quickly embraced value predicated on unadulterated convenience and popularity measured in obsequious plaudits, where is there room for the archaic compact disc? Indeed, digital content shackled to physical media and hardware-specific playback lacks the catalogue of streaming and offers none of the analogue romanticism of vinyl records. It is neither a coveted anachronism for collectors, nor the preferred medium for sonic voyeurs reliving past moments of musical influence. Yet, despite these perceived shortcomings, the CD continues to resolutely ask listeners to reconsider its place in history.
Hailed as the future of music playback, it turned out to be merely a transition from the analogue realm to the digital one. This was a future – not foretold – where physical ownership of music was seen as an impediment to the expediency of listening to it. The advent of the Internet, advances in compression algorithms, and the hard-fought monetization of music in a landscape no longer bound to the constraints inferred by physical media resulted in a global shift in consumer consciousness. It fundamentally changed, forever, the concept of music ownership and access to music.
Photo above: The used compact disc market is, by all accounts, considerably larger than the new release one.
In this environment of extremes – LPs at one end, and cloud-based music services at the other – the CD seems to be still struggling to find its place. Online sales numbers can be misleading though, as they only take into account purchases of new physical media, used sales are not factored into their equations. Still, an RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) report showed streaming music revenues outpacing physical sales in the United States at roughly 10-to-1. With total U.S. physical sales (CDs, records) generating $1.139 billion in 2020 compared to $10.1 billion for cloud-based services. There’s no denying the popularity of streaming music – especially with audiophiles who want the convenience of millions of albums at their fingertips without the space limitations large collections of physical media infer. The fact that services such as TIDAL, Qobuz and even Spotify offer high-resolution streaming options has removed the legitimate issue of sound quality from the equation for all but the most discerning listeners.
Photo above: Many CDs in my collection fill in album gaps, or were purchased in lieu of pricey or unavailable LP pressings.
And while these numbers are informative to a degree, to put the CD in context with my own experiences, I know almost no one who buys them new, but many who buy them used. Unlike their vinyl brethren, whose value has remained fairly constant for the past 10 years (or gone up exponentially – depending on the pressing), the price of a used CD hovers between the $2~$10 mark. Rare or limited runs, of course, fetch higher prices, but it seems much of their value with audiophiles is linked to the time, effort and money invested in large collections curated over the past three decades. These album libraries, like LPs, can number in the thousands and grew out of a time when the CD was heir apparent to vinyl. Owning CDs is also the route many take as an option to owning Unobtanium LPs. My copy of Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter on CD, for example, cost me $8 – considerably less than the $1,000 a near mint first pressing is currently going for. Adding to my collection this way still allows me the satisfaction of physical ownership of Drake’s work.
Photo above: The simplicity of a CD-based sound system is hard to argue with.
Over the years, as my CD collection grew, I couldn’t help but notice I was purchasing just as many used CDs as used LPs. And while the vinyl record still remains my preferred medium of choice for serious music playback, it would be disingenuous of me to diminish the compact disc’s demonstrable fidelity to source – with enough CDs besting their vinyl counterparts for quality of recording to keep my blind love of records in check. CD done properly, like streaming, is a sonic benchmark in and of itself with high-end players and transports well into the five figures. While the price of (what the individual decides is) peerless sound quality can approach that of real estate in this hobby, another tick in the plus column of the compact disc is that very capable players can be had on the cheap. The used market, in particular, offers warm, detailed and analogue-sounding players (by Denon, NAD and Sony) for anywhere from $50~$150: bargains in high fidelity to be sure.
Bandcamp is an Internet-based platform where artists are able to build a storefront for the promotion and sale of their music and associated merchandise. It is also a barometer of wants and needs in the independent and small-label music scene, a niche market to be sure, but growing exponentially and hugely influential. And there, amidst the private pressings of ultra-limited 300-copy runs of LPs and ubiquitous digital album options, is nestled the ability to purchase the humble compact disc – also in limited quantities. Five years ago you would rarely see an option to purchase a compact disc. It was either record, mp3 or FLAC, yet a demand for CDs is flourishing in this very vinyl/digital-centric online platform and many rare groove merchants seem savvy to the CD’s appeal.
All of this seemingly points to the compact disc enjoying a second coming – or renaissance – of sorts. While neither resolutely analogue in its ceremony of playback (close but no needle), nor digitally omnipotent in its algorithmic offerings as streaming services, the CD has become the little silver disc that could. Available for a fraction of the cost of vinyl pressings and offering an experience that, similar to putting an album on a turntable, is about slowing things down, taking in photographs and artwork, reading liner notes and deep listening as opposed to convenience. The CD, to a lesser extent than the LP, and despite its early-digital peerage, has managed to stay ingratiated in the hearts and minds of music lovers the world over – and it seems to be making new converts daily.