Graham: As CDs die, so does the way we consume music
Compact discs are dying.
They’re not dead, but if you want to say your final goodbyes, you should probably plan a visit. Say a few nice words. Tell them how much they’ve meant to you.
The report last month that Best Buy will stop stocking CDs in their stores later this year, effectively a death knell for the format, was barely a blip on the cultural radar. A few surprised tweets were logged, but the news was barely met with the faux-outrage of a Facebook redesign.
The death of the CD has been a long time coming. The shiny little discs, prone to scratching and skipping, have been rendered obsolete as music has gone digital. When the monthly cost of a Spotify or an Apple Music subscription costs less than a single CD, the numbers no longer add up.
CD sales have fallen off a cliff over the years, from 800 million in 2001 to 89 million in 2017. Those 89 million sales are enough to keep CDs around, but that’s only because it takes a long time for media formats to truly die off. Up until a few years ago, you could still find blank VHS tapes on the shelves at CVS.
During a conference call with reporters this week, Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly was asked about the removal of CDs from store shelves. While he said plans were not final, he asked a question of reporters on the line: “Does anybody remember the last time they bought a CD?”
Even die-hard music fans might have a tough time answering that question. And as CD players are no longer standard in new car models and computers aren’t built with CD drives attached, even if you bought a CD, where are you going to play it? That old jambox in the garage?
As CDs die, the full album listening experience is dying with it. CDs — like vinyl and cassettes before them — demanded a listener’s attention and investment. If you liked one song on the radio and sprang for a whole CD, at a cost of anywhere from 12 to 18 bucks, you were going to get your money’s worth out of that purchase. That meant multiple spins of a full album. And that meant pushing past the singles, into the deep cuts, and deep cuts are where true music fandom is born. Anyone can like “Cherub Rock,” but where are you on “Sweet Sweet?”
The digital utopia of Spotify — where the history of recorded music, give or take a few omissions, is available On Demand — has significantly altered our listening habits. In a way, it has killed off the spirit of discovery that came from investing in a new artist or album. It’s no longer just you and those 12 tracks on the album trying to get to know one another on a long car ride or in a darkened room. Don’t like a song? There are literally millions of others just a screen away.
And where we used to define our tastes through and take pride in our CD collections — organized alphabetically by artist and chronologically by release date, where the albums we didn’t choose to own were just as important as those we did — those collections rarely exist anymore, or they’re collecting dust in the basement. Sure, there’s been a rise in vinyl sales in recent years, but those are mostly sold to collectors as keepsakes. For the most part, everyone’s got all the same songs on their phones. No one is showing off their collection of cool playlists.
The album format — a singular, defined body of work from an artist — largely took shape with the release of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1967 and has carried through for the last 50 years. Now it’s waning. Artists are releasing new music as EPs (John Mayer is one of several artists who released his latest album in several short waves) and even playlists (see Drake’s “More Life”) as they try to keep up with changing listener habits.
Today’s fractured listening, based heavily on singles spins and curated playlists, is tailor made for our short-circuited minds. The ease and convenience of streaming music has made it easy to listen to whatever you want, whenever you want. When it was harder to listen, whether digging through a pile of vinyl or scanning the used CD aisle, that struggle made for a stronger connection between artist and listener. Pride of ownership was a badge. The connection today is not as strong, and the music is suffering.
My answer to the Best Buy CEO’s question, by the way, is Jay-Z’s “4:44.” That was the last CD I bought, and it was the only CD I bought in 2017. It hasn’t left the CD player in my car since I picked it up in June, and that’s where it will remain until I pick up something new.
I’m guessing it will be there for awhile.