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 Matt O'Neill

Remembering The CD

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CDs

By Matt O’Neill

When I was 16, I had a teacher called Mr Reeves. While I always suspected he thought I was a bit of a loser, he was my favourite teacher – not least of all because he knew a lot about music. At the time, he seemed to know a lot about everything. Compared to a 16-year-old, he probably did.

In retrospect, a lot of the opinions he held about music seem a little strange. When I asked him which Nick Cave album I should start with, he suggested Henry’s Dream. When I asked him his opinion of Pink Floyd, he told me the best album they ever made was A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. When he discovered I liked Metallica, he asked me why I didn’t just listen to Iron Maiden.

(I did listen to Iron Maiden and, consistency-wise, they are probably a better band – but the idea that one could handily substitute them for Metallica was and remains a strange and stupid idea. Sorry, sir.)

The most shocking opinion he held at the time, however, was his attitude to CDs. They almost seemed a burden to him. Not in the sense of vinyl elitism but mere practicality. When I asked him where he recommended I should start with My Bloody Valentine, he just gave me their discography the next day. A friend of mine once asked him about Jeff Buckley’s Grace and was given a copy the next day. He once spontaneously offered to give me PJ Harvey’s entire back catalogue.

He explained it to me after I graduated. I’d just bought Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and was extolling their virtues to him on a spontaneous visit to the school. I suspect I mentioned I’d just cracked 300 CDs or some other meaningless landmark because I remember him saying something along the lines of, “Yeah, but what do you do with them? They just clutter up my house.” I thought this was a stupid comment.

Five years later, I was in that exact position. I hadn’t even really been aware of the transition. All I knew was that I had a couple of thousand CDs (and their respective cases) and a house ill-equipped to deal with them. Years of reviews, interviews and simple consumerism had paved the floor of my bedroom with plastic and press releases. There were piles and piles of random junk just strewn around my lounge room. It was annoying.

Now, I could have sorted them but I decided I’d rather just throw them away. I kept most of the CDs in document wallets but the cases were chucked. I think the eventual toll was about four garbage bags worth of CD cases (which, by the way, are non-recyclable). Friends of mine expressed shock at this callous attitude to my once prized possessions but I simply explained packaging was irrelevant to me. I liked the music. I didn’t need the window dressing.

I firmly believed it, too. Despite my high school commitment to stay true to CDs (am I the only one who made one of these? Too true for downloads, too cheap for vinyl), I no longer saw the point of package fetishism. I never looked at the cases and, even if I had, they were tiny, mean, little plastic things. I’d never been one for vinyl, really, but I could always appreciate the expanded scope and luxurious viscera of vinyl packaging – but CDs didn’t even have that. They were thumbnails.

However, like most beliefs formed in adulthood, these ideas would eventually be complicated by convictions held by my younger self. I recently decided to clean up my studio space and finally place my studio monitors on stands after years of other musicians frowning upon my set-up. In the clean-up process, I found yet another surplus of discarded CD cases and, again, was preparing to chuck them – before I hit upon the brainwave of using my old CD cases as construction devices.

It was brilliant (albeit completely untested). I could build my monitor stands out of CD cases. I’d have new monitor stands and I wouldn’t have to put up with all those CD cases. Plus, my studio space would look all DIY and pseudo-retro and shit (it was late when I had this idea – I also had a cold). Half-delirious, coated in phlegm and giggling like a madman, I set to work building my stands – only to be completely blindsided by an absolute tsunami of nostalgia.

See, I thought CD packaging meant nothing to me. I’d forgotten that hadn’t always been the case. Because of my earlier cull, the only ones left were from when I first graduated high school and my early years as a reviewer (2005-2008, roughly) and each case I put in the stack was burdened with a whole array of memories. I remembered when I first discovered The Young Gods – I scoured eBay for months to get all of their CDs.

I distinctly remember one of them arriving on my 19th birthday. I think it was TV Sky. I’d gotten trashed the night before, lost my keys and magically locked myself in my own apartment. Melodramatically, I was imagining it to be the worst birthday ever. When I found my keys, I went outside and discovered a package waiting for me. It felt like God had been playing a good-natured birthday trick on me (I have a strange relationship with birthdays).

There were so many stories like that, too. I remember finally finding a copy of Miles Davis’ On The Corner at JB Hifi and sticking it in the CD player on the way home. It was everything I’d been searching for in music for years. I distinctly remember turning to my sister and decrying Omar Rodriguez Lopez of the Mars Volta as a rip-off artist. Between this and the copy of Can’s Tago Mago I’d bought with the money from my first ever job, I had all the proof I needed.

I even found myself recalling CD cases that hadn’t survived the cull. I remembered the copy of Ephel Duath’s The Painter’s Palette I’d waited weeks to get from the Ipswich Mall’s Cosmic Music. I remembered realising I had 15 spare minutes between debating photos and choir photos on photo day at school (yep – I was a badass) and sprinting nonstop to the mall and back to purchase The Bronx’s self-titled debut album.

The list goes on. I remember going completely without food at musical rehearsals (so badass) in high school purely to spend the money mum gave me on CDs. I remember the sheer joy of coming to Brisbane for the first time as a teenager and discovering Skinnys. I remember giving up buying CDs for lent and then having to buy two (Opeth’s Deliverance and Damnation, from memory) the day my best friend was expelled from school for nunchukking another one of my friends. Long story.

I could go on but, really, the story just gets sadder – because, eventually, the memories run out. Eventually, we catch up to where I am at the moment. Now, intellectually, I know a CD case is really a lot like a home. It isn’t the building you’re attached to but the meaning attached to it. Furthermore, with music, you get to decide how much meaning you attach to the medium. Still, it’s not the same for me.

Oh, I still discover music I love. I still have stories and surprises. Just recently, I uncovered an album I was supposed to review back in 2009 and never got around to – Minuit’s findmebeforeidiealonelydeath.com – and it’s since led me to discover the band’s brilliant and quirky back-catalogue. Earlier this year, NAPT’s N-Funk series of singles fuelled an exercise obsession that changed my life. Again, though. It’s not the same. It feels like I’m missing something.

I read a lot these days about how CDs are a dead medium. It’s all going to be vinyl and downloads from now on. Personally, I’ve always thought that a complete load of crap. I’d be surprised if some lo-fi weirdo isn’t planning on releasing his next five albums on Betamax. Mediums are like genres. They don’t die. They just stop being cool. Still, if that is true, I suppose I just hope people don’t think of the CD solely as some cheap, historical blunder. There’s a lot of love in there.

Well, there was for me, anyway.

5 Responses to Remembering The CD

  1. simon December 18, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    Great read. I totally agree with the (2nd) last paragraph, and I don’t think they will die out as quickly as some believe. In 5-10 years they will probably be hip and retro.

    I still feel weird about paying for mp3s. Apart from their ephemeral nature (what happens if my computer and/or external hard-drive crashes/breaks?), and my lack of disc space, not everything is even available to download (legally). Plus sometimes mp3s are actually more expensive.

    Earlier this year I was browsing the clothes section in Myer, having just bought the Smile Sessions 2-disc box set from Rockinghorse (too cheap for the 5-disc set but needed as many bonus tracks as possible!). One of the shop employees engaged me in a brief awkward conversation about what I’d bought, and said something to effect of ‘I’m surprised you buy cds’.

    I laughed it off but her words have stuck with me.

  2. simon December 18, 2011 at 8:04 pm

    Edit: I don’t know if ephemeral was the proper word to use – non-physical probably works better.

  3. Andrew Stafford December 21, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    I think Matt and I have disagreed about this previously after an earlier piece I wrote, but that doesn’t matter. At the rate technology is moving, and since neither of us is Nostradamus, it’s hard to predict how music will be consumed in five years’ time let alone 50. I would not like to go out on a limb and predict vinyl will survive in the long term as it’s already a boutique part of the music-buying market.

    However, for now it’s certainly a growing niche and the reason that it has survived, despite being completely written off when the CD was in the ascendent, is very simple: enough people prefer its sonic and artistic fidelity, in terms of both sound and packaging. Some may not see or hear the difference, but the point is enough people do value these things to keep vinyl alive, for the forseeable future at least.

    One thing I do know from history is that different mediums certainly can and regularly do go the way of the Dodo. Cassettes are an obvious example (although there are still journalists that prefer them for interviews!), and going back further, 78 records (as opposed to 33s and 45s). I don’t know of anyone producing VCRs anymore, either. Of course you can still play these things if you have the old technology on which to do so, but no one bothers manufacturing that technology these days.

    At the moment all we can safely say is that CDs are being supplanted by downloads for people like Matt, who only care about having the songs and are unfussed about the format. Matt’s story about throwing out all his CD cases (as he points out, they are tiny, mean plastic things!) actually highlight why the format is struggling. Vinyl, conversely, is making enough of a comeback in commercial terms to justify its continuing viability, as long as there are enough people who do prefer the packaging and better sound (to my ears and many others).

    In closing, let me only add that in around 20 years I’ve collected probably 800-odd CDs, and the vinyl collection is only now beginning to catch up. I’ve reached my conclusions about the relative merits of the two over time; I haven’t held onto vinyl since the beginning while turning my nose up at the new technology. In fact there were many records I did sell when I replaced them with CDs, which I lived to regret – especially when I started buying them back on vinyl at twice the price I initially paid for them (and sometimes more!)

  4. Darragh December 22, 2011 at 8:39 am

    Aside: Andrew mentions cassettes here. Seems like a few niche bands around Brisbane are keeping the format alive (or at leas trying to). Lots of stuff from Negative Guest List gets released on tape.

    Try find a player that can play tapes seems increasingly difficult though.

  5. Matt January 1, 2012 at 10:29 am

    See, Andrew, I actually think the very idea of a medium going the way of the dodo pretty much ensures that it never will at this point.

    I know that sounds like a strange sentiment but, to elaborate, musicians will always seek to present their music as a unique commodity – extending even down to the packaging and presentation of their music. To this end, the less popular a medium becomes, the more likely it is that it will eventually be exploited.

    Darragh raises a good example. Plenty of Brisbane bands and labels have begun releasing cassette albums, mini-albums and mixtapes. Room40 – one of Brisbane’s most successful labels in regards to international renown – just celebrated their tenth anniversary with a ten-part series of specially curated mixtapes.

    Speaking very broadly, I think the increased accessibility of music and recording facilities over the past decade has lead to the fetishising of anything that offers a point of difference to the immediacy of the culture – vinyl and cassettes are two examples but you also have the general fascination with lo-fi recording and the increased prevalence of one-off musical products (see: The Flaming Lips’ recent output).

    I definitely see your point. I just think you underestimate the perverse wankery that drives modern independent music 😛 Like I said above, I would be genuinely surprised if someone wasn’t preparing to release an album on Betamax. Fuck, I’m thinking about doing it just for shits and giggles.

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