Monday, February 4, 2008

3 More Reasons Why The CD Deserves To Die

We're all well aware of the obvious reasons the CD should die-- it's over-priced and it's ugly. When the digital age was ushered in, consumers were fed the lie that this new technology meant higher manufacturing costs, when in fact it meant far lower costs. A CD can be manufactured and packaged for under $2.00, but CDs were immediately retailed at $15.95 to $17.95.

These days you can download an entire record from itunes faster than you can open the same CD's packaging. And once opened, the average jewel cases lasts about 15 minutes before cracking. Then there's all those tiny liner notes-- lyrics on a Britney Spears CD. Why?

As if we need further justification, I give you some better reasons to wish the swift and ignoble death of the CD.

It Deserves To Die Because It's A Wasteful, Unreliable Storage Device That Sounds Like Crap.

800 MB on a piece of technology that's physically larger than a 250 gigabyte hard drive? I ought to be able to get all the knowledge known to man on something as spacious as a CD. This is the CD's ultimate flaw. It's the same thing as a file that sits comfortably on about a millimeter of your computer's hard drive. At least with an LP you get analog audio, something, uh, different! Why buy a product like this when you can store a hundred thousand songs in your shirt pocket?

The sampling rate on CDs was set too low from the get-go. They sound thin, two dimensional, and all that "clarity" you think you're hearing is just the absence of surface noise. In reality, all the subsonic and ultra sonic frequencies that give audio it's rich coloration are absent from CDs. CDs are mixed and mastered to sound good on a Discman or an ipod with headphones.

But some of you will never believe me. You'll cling to the illusion that the CD is superior. So, ok, for you the sound quality might be debatable. But as for durability, shame on the industry. About half of my older CDs no longer play. And a skipping CD is ten times more annoying than a few skips in an LP. This morning I was trying to rip one of my song cuts onto a new 250 gigabyte hard drive but my ripper didn't even recognize the format of the disc. It was a Warner Brothers CD from 1987.

And just for kickers, here's something you may not know : A 52X CD-ROM drive spins a CD at 30,000 rpm. CDs cannot handle this much force, they start to warp and can explode into millions of tiny fragments. This isn't a myth. Talk to anyone who repairs computers and you'll get the truth-- they can and do explode in some newer computers. Damage is usually limited to the interior metal casing of the CD-ROM drive.

It Deserves To Die Because It Has Fostered A Disposable Music Mentality Among Artists.

The CD did to music what the glue-bound paperback did to fiction. Very few artists are making music for the long haul anymore. Posterity is a word that never gets spoken inside a recording studio. If you consider that everything Alan Lomax ever recorded was recorded specifically FOR posterity you get some idea of how far we've slipped.

Why is the CD responsible? In the 1990s it became so easy and inexpensive to package music that virtually anyone with spare lunch money could afford to press 500 CDs. There was a glut of new music on the market, most of it bad.

Also, the CD is simply an abused object. It gets left on the floor of your car, or in the trunk (these are things you'd never do with an LP). It gets thrown into the back seat while you're driving. They get damaged by being forced into car CD players, yanked out while navigating the Interstate, and left out of the jewel case in the change tray. They get stuck in CD players (when was the last time an LP got stuck on your turn table?)

Then there's the ability of the consumer to randomize playback order, and to pre-program skip tracks, which has made artists think differently about the music they release. There are more "out-takes" and "alternate mixes" and just plain lame songs on the average CD. Not that LPs never had weak tracks. Of course they did. But not intentionally weak, as in, "this wasn't good enough for the record but we'll throw it out there anyway and you can just skip that track".

While some consumers may treasure these "value added" features, it's hard to see any real benefit to the art of record making that has come from them. Artists think less about packaging, track sequencing, and overall concept than they ever did when making an LP. And most of all, they think less about song quality, because hey, it's just gonna get thrown on the floor of the car, right?

So, will it get worse after the CD dies? I don't see how.

It Deserves To Die Because The Potential Was Squandered.

Between the mid 1980s and the mid-1990s the record industry had an unprecedented opportunity to develop new media and create a new golden millennium for artistry. Profits from the re-issuing of LPs on CDs were astronomical. This is information you aren't supposed to have : the reason the record industry is dying is because the CD is dying, and the CD is dying because it was obsolete from the get-go. This was simply a way for the industry to rake in dollars from catalogs of LPs that were earning pennies. They didn't re-license the songs or re-negotiate the artist's royalties. They didn't have to pay studio costs, promotion costs, or produce expensive videos for MTV. They just put the Beatles on CD, jacked up the price by 30%, and sat back to smoke a fat cigar. "We're brilliant" they thought. And where did all that money go? Most of it went into CEO's and shareholders' pockets. The rest went into bad over-budgeted commercial records. The industry became addicted to these profits like Crack. There was no vision, no foresight regarding the Internet, ipods, or the eventual death of the CD.

What should've happened is the record industry should've used the profits to revitalize the art of record making. They should've alloted funds for artists who didn't necessarily fit the commercial music mold. They should've done field recording and sought out more world music. They should have seen the need for a vital jazz and blues arm of the label and fostered these artists by signing them to long term low-pressure contracts. They should've done what the indies are doing now. The consumer is showing the labels what they wanted all along, and it wasn't a dozen Britney Spears clones. It was pre-war blues; it was Blue Note jazz; it was Brett Dennon and Ani Difranco and Gillian Welch; it was Pete Seeger songs; it was Ska, Reagge, and Celtic. It was, strange as this might seem to you major label morons, REAL MUSIC.


Unknown said...

I'd have to differ with some parts of your analysis here Craig. First off, the cost of the CD has barely changed over its lifetime. Twenty five years or so have gone by and the cost in real dollars has actually gone down, which is quite unlike any other form of entertainment that I know of.

Even when you include the price jump in music when CDs were introduced, the cost of commercial music still seems cheap. In the 1960s, you could buy a piece of vinyl for 3 bucks on special (hopefully that piece of vinyl had some decent music on it). Now you can buy a CD on special for about 11 bucks. To put this in perspective, a movie ticket was a dollar, my ticket to see Jimi Hendrix was eight bucks, and my mom's Chevy Impala cost 2700 bucks out the door back in the 60s. So today's CD is actually a bargain.

Of course, a better bargain is free. And that's what most music is now. Free. You can't compete with free. And that's why the music industry is dying.

There is a lot of nostalgia about the "great music" back in the old days. From my perspective, almost all of the music from back then was as junky as the stuff today. I mean, do you remember Fabian and Bobby Sherman? Or maybe the shlock rock of the Moody Blues? Big sellers back then made crappy music. Big sellers now make crappy music. I don't see a big shift in quality.

There is a difference in that today's modern record companies won't even bother to have someone on their label who doesn't have the potential to sell big. But the indie labels have happily taken over that space.

I agree that CDs have bad sound quality, but that's an issue for audiophiles not the buying public. The public listened to cassette tapes for years without complaint. CDs are way better than cassette tapes. And they are better than mp3's, which the public has been happily acquiring for free.

Keep writing. Cheers, Stuart

chromehead said...

Thanks for your comments Stuart.

The cost of CD manufacturing has also gone down in BOTH the inflationary sense and in actual dollars. Also, keep in mind that the only reason the price is still $17.95 is because consumers have rebelled. The story about Trent Reznor being appalled to discover that his latest NIN CD was retailing for $25 in Australia spurred him into his latest experiment with "pay what you want" concept. But I agree that music is, and always has been a bargain at these prices if it's good.

The initial windfall when the CD was introduced was astronomical. The prices were fixed and jacked up in collusion with retailers like Walmart. Many of us got rebate checks a few years ago in the successful class action lawsuit filed by some consumers. If the courts recognized some fraud, who am I to disagree...

I agree there was plenty of crappy music in the days of the LP. I was making a point that there are far more "disposable" tracks issued because a CD can hold 75 minutes of music, and because they're so inexpensive to manufacture. I do believe that the ratio of quality to crap is currently off the scale compared with music of the past.

Here's a quote from the International Herald Trbune from 1996, the year this whole thing began to backfire :

"Now, a CD can hold 78 minutes of material, and labels are filling up that space with whatever previously unreleased tracks they can find in their catalog closets.

Added value is another recurring theme. Paul Verna, review editor for Billboard magazine, said, "The CD being longer allows people to just put more information on there, in order to give the customer what they're paying for — more quantity if not quality."

But that view is not shared by some critics. John Alroy, who manages a Web site called Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews, says fans are being exploited by "ridiculously overpriced" boxed-set packages.

"I can't imagine a bigger rip-off," he said. "Novices pick up what they think is an entertaining greatest-hits collection and instead get smothered with a pile of out-takes and second-rate alternate versions, while die-hard fans shell out a big pile of money to sit through a bunch of hits they're sick of already just so they can have the complete catalog."

Oh, and I forgot to mention remixes. How long before you can just buy Taylor Swift singing consonants and vowels and program her to sing any song you write?

Anonymous said...

Hi Craig - I have to admit everything you say is completely true. Thanks for really telling it like it is in these posts. It really sickens me to see what the music business has become.

I'd love to hear your thoughts in a post about some of the attempts by Nashville that I think are helping bring down the business as well - particularly shows like "Hitmen of Music Row" and "Gone Country".

When I see John Rich strutting around in that fur coat, trying to get Dee Snider of Twisted Sister to write a country song and telling Julio Iglesias that someone like him is the bridge Nashville needs to reach the latino market I'm thinking "What have we become"?

Taking all these celebrities, throwing them into the "machine" of current Nashville songwriting with writers who really should know better and it just makes me sick.

chromehead said...

Thanks Jim. I have to admit I only watched about 5 minutes of the debut episode of "Hit Men" . I know these guys and they are just having some fun at their own expense, but the show puts a dufus face on Music Row.

As for John Rich in his fur coat, it further demonstrates how out of touch some of these "celebrity" artists really are. To set the record straight, the furs John now wears are faux fur (after his apology to PETA for wearing a real one on the CMA Awards). Of course, this still doesn't explain what the "fur look" and country music have to do with one another to begin with. Kenny and John seem to think that rappers are country, too. And why not bring Dee Snider in for further dilution? If everything is country, then country is nothing.

tom said...

i have two problems with the (ultimately inevitable) conclusion you've drawn...

yeah, you're right. the CD will ultimately die. and while i won't miss the media itself, what i will miss is the concept of a collection of songs presented as a unit, sometimes thematically connected, sometimes not...people buy songs now, not albums - and while that makes sense from an economic standpoint, i just can't imagine only owning "at seventeen" while not having given "tea and sympathy" or "in the winter" or "when the party's over"...people's ever-narrowing focus will narrow even more than it already is, if that's at all possible.

secondly - are CD's as a medium of music delivery going to be replaced by...MP3's?

granted, the old 16 bit, 44.1KHz sampling rate wasn't ideal...but at the time the standard was adopted, it made sense, considering the technological limitations at the time. now, fault can be doled out for failing to upgrade over time...but what's replacing the CD as we speak is an overly compressed, low bitrate medium that's inferior to the already-inferior compact disc.

from a sound quality standpoint, we're going from the frying pan into the fire...and we're losing out on what made the concept of the album so attractive to me, personally, as a consumer.

i agree with you, with regard to the CD's demise being only a matter of time...but what appears to be replacing it scares me a little, frankly.

'course, maybe some enterprising upstart over at Apple just might introduce a means to download full-bitrate .wav files for - dare i say it - a slightly higher price?

hey, it could happen.

chromehead said...

Thanks for your comments Tom

I agree this is a sad situation. The industry's denial of the CD's shortcomings has resulted in music delivery being behind the curve. There's no reason why a WAV file can't be sold for download other than the fact that most consumer's don't want them, and the industry has not proven their marketability.

As far as albums vs. single songs, the consumer has been ripped off so many times it's almost impossible to win this argument in a room full of music buyers. So many artists cashed in at the peak of their popularity and made that flaccid multi-platinum disc that the consumer got stuck with, and now they don't believe in the concept of the "album as art". Their mindset is sound bytes, compressed data, single songs, fast edits in films, it's the attention span thing again...

It may be that the artists themselves have to win this case. Some downloads require you to buy the entire "disc", not just one song, but this is very unpopular with consumers. Yet, many of us feel as you do, that some CDs must be listened to in their entirety to really appreciate the work. Examples abound-- Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks", Cat Stevens' "Tea For The Tillerman", the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper", Dylan's "Blond On Blond", Joni Mitchell's "Blue". If more artists took the approach that a CD was a concept work (to his credit Sufjan Stevens does this) I think the consumer would "get it" again. But as long as most artists are just taking pot shots at Clear Channel, stabs at mega-hits, why bother to own a whole CD full of the crap that didn't make it?

There will be two solutions for this, I feel certain. There will evolve a high-quality audiophile standard for certain artists who think as we do. And there will be the ever cheapening disposable compressed media. There will always be people who care deeply about the art of music, and there will always people who just want to jog with their favorite songs playing in the headphones.

Anonymous said...

I'm one of those people who will miss liner notes and lyrics in the CD jewel cases. Being a player myself, I intently follow who the players are on my favorite artists CD's, and I treat my CD collection like a museum. Ever see the movie "Diner?" Remember the scene where the guy reprimands his wife for filing an album incorrectly? To a gentler degree, that "guy" would be me.
But it's true, digital can never match analog, even if we were able to download a full WAV or AIFF file. In the realm of physics, it's an impossibility, because of the difference in the nature of digital and analog. Analog reproduction is a smooth curve, digital reproduction is thousand of small steps trying to emulate that smooth curve, and I believe even if you can't always hear it depending on the quality of the playback source, there is a component to feeling real sound waves, like listening to live music, that virtual can never replace.
It is a crime that so much opportunity was squandered in the amount of money that the industry made off of CD's. One wishes that human nature would have been more conscientious when large amounts of money were made, but as you point out Craig, there are those who deeply care about music and those for whom it is just background noise.

chromehead said...

Thanks TLL.

I can also "hear" those fragmented samples, although to many people this is like claiming to "see" auras. There's an irritable feeling associated with digital listening that I must acknowledge even if I sound like a fruitcake. It makes me jittery.

We are currently stuck with this sampling technology, but that doesn't mean it won't change. Physics is remarkable-- light is particle and wave-- there will be undreamed of solutions to this problem.

The reason I wish the death of the CD is so there can be progress. Right now this is a war of attrition. There will be no winners as long as corporations have a stake in preserving a product that fails to deliver. I believe consumers, although fickle and by no means philanthropic about the arts, are ahead of the curve. They've decided that for convenience, nothing beats a little compressed file that can be zipped around the Internet at nearly the speed of light. In one sense this represents a return to CONTENT-- why ship this little packet all over the globe unless it's, well, worth hearing! I'm actually encouraged by the effect that portability has had on people who love to share cool songs. I'm in favor of this. All that remains is for someone to develop a way in which a file of some sort can be saved on a permanent medium and played back conveniently with the full spectrum of sonic range. Hey, we went to the moon for Crissake...

Tad Richards said...

Craig -- great post. I came here directed by my old pal Marvin Bell, Nathan's father, to look for your Nathan Bell interview, and will go on to read that, but got distracted right away by the first post. One disagreement, along the same lines as Stuart's. Here's something from awhile back on my blog:

Has it ever struck anyone that in the era before 1960, no one making popular music of any sort thought of their work as having any lasting cultural or aesthetic importance, and they produced so many masterpieces that will live forever--and in the era after 1970, everyone making popular music thought of their work as having lasting cultural or aesthetic importance, and hardly any of it does?

The Lomaxes were recording for posterity -- I don't think any of the great musicians they recorded, like prisoners singing work songs at Angola -- or even Leadbelly -- thought of themselves as playing and singing for posterity.

chromehead said...

Thanks for your insight Tad. You raise a good point about the commercial music of the 1950s. It was often brilliant and timeless in its innocence and simplicity, and a great deal of it will survive longer than expected. I would still say that some artists did have cultural importance in the early 1970s-- Jackson Browne excelled, and James Taylor created a few masterpieces, as did Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Tom Waits, John Prine, Steve Goodman, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan and others recorded great, durable work in that period. Disco killed the mid-70s entirely, and that's the period that most people think of when they talk about that decade. But in the late 70s The Clash, Steve Forbert and Elvis Costello came along (among others), and I think these artists took themselves and their work very seriously. When New Wave and Glam Metal hit in the 80s there was once again a lot of vanity schlock, pretentious music that was nowhere near as good as the simpler eras. If you follow certain lengthy careers you can see, for example, the effect that the disposable mid-70s trend had on the work of The Rolling Stones ("Miss You" is garbage), Elton John (all of his mid-70s work), David Bowie, and others, who completely caved in to the notion that music was only something you dance to. I suppose there are examples of art, endearing commercialism, and garbage in each decade. I hear an awful lot of music these days that just wasn't worth the trouble of recording. But, because it's so easy to record and so cheap to deliver it, it gets recorded.

Tad Richards said...

Yeah, I weas in a bilious mood when I wrote that. There's always going to be good music.