The Rise and Fall of the Compact Disc

I'm nearly 45 years old.  Music has been a mainstay in my life for the past 32 years.  Really, it would be fair to say that music has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember.  Some of my first vivid memories were associated to music.  First, there was the Autumn morning, laying in my bed, smelling the burning dust of the long inactive furnace, all while listening to the beautiful refrains of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly".  Second, there was the trip to Calgary, and the moment where we were driving through Glacier National Park, in Montana, while hearing The Beatles' "Something", which is, to this day, still my favorite Beatles song.

My music collecting really began when I was a youngster.  I don't remember exactly how old I was, although it must have been no later than 6th or 7th grade.  My father, who was never a wealthy man, invited my siblings and I to select an 8-Track tape of our choice, while shopping at the local Musicland.  This was a dream come true.  Having grown up listening to the sizable stash of 8-Track tapes that littered our truck (ABBA, Bread, America, Fleetwood Mac, The Doobie Brothers, to name a few), it was an invitation of significant proportions.  Being a child that was primarily influenced by my father's music tastes, I felt it appropriate to pay him back by picking something that he, too, would enjoy.  What found it's way from the shelves of thousands of 8-Track cartridges to MY eager hands was "The Beach Boys Live in London".  In retrospect, that was also my first exposure to a live recording... and my first disappointment in hearing how dissimilar some bands could sound, when NOT given the luxury of a recording studio and multiple takes to get the job done.

Over the next couple years, I had my first exposure to vinyl.  Well... that isn't a fair statement... my first exposure to vinyl was the dusty box of my dad's records that were neatly boxed away in the living room closet, buried beneath stocking hats, scarves, and a plethora of tacky early 70's cool weather apparel.  As far as MY first LP record, it was, once again, a record purchased by my father.  In retrospect, I can only imagine that his generosity was associated with a recently acquired tax return or financial increase above and beyond his normal payroll.

Again, I found myself flipping through the troves of vinyl that made Musicland THE music retail establishment of the late 70's.  Again, I wanted to find something that would make my father proud of me.  The aural nugget that I eagerly presented to my father was the 13th offering by one of his favorite bands..... CHICAGO.  If, for no other reason, I was drawn to album by it's incredible artwork.  To this day, Chicago 13 ranks as one of the most incredible album covers, in my opinion.  

I listened to the record over and over, since it was, after all, MY first record.  To me, there has always been a sense of pride associated with the actual ownership of a record.  Even as a teenager, I always had a nagging feeling if one of the records in my collection truly belonged to my brother.  Rich and I shared a room, and sometimes our collections would just merge together.  I'd get a pang in my stomach every time I flipped to Echo & The Bunnymen's "Porcupine", because it was HIS record and not mine.  I only owned the cassette tape of "Ocean Rain", which OBVIOUSLY was a superior album... but "Porcupine" was vinyl... and it was his.  Damnit.

From the moment I first truly fell in love with music (which, for those of you who are new to the blog, was when I first purchased the cassette tape of CHEAP TRICK's "In Color" from the bargain bin at the very same Musicland), I had opened the floodgates.  From that point forward, I would never be able to own enough music.

Because I was a man....well.... boy on a fixed income, I had to set out to work in order to pay for the aural bounty that lay out there in...well... musicland.  I did odd jobs for my aunt (who was part owner in a precious metals foundry) as well as slaved as a paper boy for a local newspaper.  All these tedious, sometimes illness-inducing tasks were in the name of more music.  I even recall one particular afternoon where my aunt left me with the task of running the acetylene torch to melt little silver tabs off of chunks of copper.  For those of you that don't know, copper fumes, when past their melting point, can be toxic.  Obviously, I am still alive, but I do remember, on this particular occasion, being sick to my stomach...  throwing up... then asking Aunt Ruth if she could run my by K-Mart, on the way home, so I could purchase AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap".  It was all worth it, my friends.

Because my mobility was limited, my vinyl purchasing was only possible when my younger brother and I would take the bus to the Valley Fair Mall.  Ofttimes, we would even find ourselves walking all the way home, but, because we were able to get a "Nice Price" LP with whatever pocket change we had, it didn't matter... even if the last dime went to the record, cheating us of our needed bus fare.  Yes, folks.... bus fare was REALLY 10 cents, back in those days.

My only other option was to join Columbia House Record Club, which I did do.  My mother was good enough to pay the bills, as long as I reimbursed her from my paper route earnings.  I still recall with fondness the plethora of records and tapes that I owned in my early days of collecting.  

Kansas:  "Dust in the Wind" (cassette)
Cheap Trick:  "In Color (cassette)
Cheap Trick:  self titled (LP, from one of the several mall excursions)
Peter Frampton:  "Frampton Comes Alive" picture disc.... yeah.... I'm proud of it.
Joe Walsh:  "But Seriously, Folks"  (LP.... a very warped LP)
Ted Nugent:  "Free-For-All"  (LP...... wait...... that belonged to Rich.  Damnit.)

And many, many others...

Fast forward to the end of the 80's.  At the dawn of that decade, I was a pimple-faced 8th grader.... by the end of that decade, I was a grown man.  By the Autumn of 1988, I had purchased my first Compact Disc.  To this day, I have no qualms at shouting out from the rooftops that my very first Compact Disc was Roxy Music's "AVALON".  Few albums are more worthy of being the "first".  It's the equivalent of losing my digital virginity to one of the greatest lovers this world has ever known.  Heck, "Avalon" is aural sex.  Plain and simple.

As was the case in the morning of that decade of florescent colors and total excess, the evening of the 80's was once again full of rabid music buying.  I loved the crisp, clear sound that Compact Discs had to offer.  Again, I found myself in the clutches of Columbia House, eagerly awaiting that brown cardboard box, nonchalantly delivered by America's finest Letter Carriers.  How could he be so f***ing nonchalant about MUSIC?!?  MY MUSIC!

Fleetwood Mac's "Tango in the Night" was... and is... one of the digital era's best sounding Compact Discs..... and one of my Columbia House purchases.  

The digital era began with costly compact discs (nearly twice the cost of the vinyl and cassette counterparts), with the $15-20 being worth every penny.  As Compact Discs became more mainstream, young and savvy businessmen (and I'm sure, women) came up with the concept of used CD stores.  The concept of paying half the price for a disc that sounded as good as new was MINDBLOWING!  

While the Compact Disc featured smaller artwork and, in many instances, a lack of lyrics, we didn't put up a fuss.  It was worth those sacrifices just to have that pristine sound.

Fast forward another ten years, when Napster turned the music industry on its head.  As personal computers became more and more mainstream, so did the technology.  Napster (and it's related file sharing sites) enabled people to trade music (and other forms of media) files via the internet.  Even to this day, the RIAA battles with file sharing and storing websites.  Between the ability to share music, as well as the ability to conveniently store it on mp3 players, iPods, etc., the world of music has become a world... and a monster of its own.

When Apple introduced the iPod in the early part of the 21st Century, we had no clue how much this new technology would completely disrupt music, and the way we listened to it.  I have a friend.... and, to protect his identity, I'll refer to him as Craig.... who is what I consider an "audiophile".  Craig has one of the most extensive music collections I have ever seen.  Thousands of Compact Discs encased in custom made locking metal cabinets.  Craig is the kind of person that will purchase several copies of one album, from varying sources and countries, in order to have the best sounding copy on the market.  In addition to his need to own thousands (honestly, at this point we are probably talking between 5-10,000 discs) of compact discs, he has also been a very vocal opponent to mp3 technology, as well as the ultra-convenient players that help you take your collection with you wherever you go.

I have always openly (and not-so-openly) argued with Craig about the benefits of being able to take your collection (or, in our cases, a big chunk of the collection) with you wherever you go.  I am a Letter Carrier, by trade, and love the fact that I can have 30,000 songs at my disposal, any time of day.  If I get pissed, I can fire up Opeth.  If I'm sad, I can listen to an extensive chunk of the Dead Can Dance catalog.  If I'm happy, I can listen to Devo.  It's all there.... all tucked away in a nifty little 3" x 4" x 1/2" little metal box.  If you would have told me 15 years ago that we would have this ability, I would have never believed you.  If you would have told me 15 years ago that vinyl would once again be widely manufactured, but become one of the only audio formats to INCREASE in sales (in 2011), I, too, would never have believed you.  But alas, that is the case.

Over the last several years, the music industry has once again been taking some crazy turns.  With the increasing decline in retail music sales, and increase (albeit slightly) in digital music sales, the music industry has been in a tailspin, trying to get control.  Fearing that most sales are being lost to the increasing amount of illegal file transfers, they have done everything in their power to fight any possibility of file sharing, including recent legislation that would have allowed a near Orwell-ian monitoring of our internet habits.

The fact of the matter is that the music industry, as a whole, just tends to back musicians that continually put out "music" that is only this side of total aural shit.  There are so many talented artists out there, but most are either forced, or simply choose, to release material on their own. In the increasingly talented... and increasingly mainstream "Indie" music scene...artists have begun to rebel from the mainstream music industry mentality.  The true music enthusiasts have become increasingly disillusioned by the lack of warmth (both literally and figuratively) that has plagued the music world, ever since the advent of digital downloads.  What amazes me is how the general public has not only accepted digital downloads as a viable means of purchasing their music, but that they have EMBRACED it.  

Several years ago, many Indie artists began to release their albums on vinyl, and it has become an increasingly popular format for the real music enthusiasts of the world.  Over the past couple years, I've noticed that most of these artists actually put more care into their vinyl releases, and less into their compact disc releases.  Ofttimes, CDs simply come in cardboard mini-LP style sleeves, with no lyrics, no booklet, and minimal information about the album.  Because of these trends, it was no surprise to me when I heard recently that several major record labels are toying with the idea of discontinuing the Compact Disc format, no later than 2015.  In addition to the greater care being shown the vinyl releases, most artists either include a digital download of the album or, in some cases, an actual CD copy of the album, thus giving the music fan an incredibly ornate "hard copy" of the album, as well as something to load onto the iPod.  I will be honest when I say that I rarely purchase an LP if it doesn't have a CD or download.

I was just having an online conversation with an associate of mine.  In our dialogue, he had pointed out that vinyl didn't necessarily "come back", but actually never truly went away.  And, to a point, he is absolutely correct.  My vinyl collecting didn't completely stop when the Compact Disc boom took over the music industry.  We had a couple local music stores that continued to sell used (and in some cases, new) vinyl throughout the 90's and 00's.  One such outlet was Starbound Records, nestled in the heart of West Valley City, Utah's retail area.  Matt Limburgh, the owner of said store, was a mostly retired Classic Rock radio DJ from here in Utah.  It was only natural that the man would take his love of music and turn it into a business venture.  It is safe to say that, between Starbound and the countless times Matt DJ'd high school and junior stomps (dances), that he was a pivotal part of not only my musical upbringing, but also my adolescence as a whole.

During the 90's, I was a retail clerk at one of the area's most successful independent music stores, TOM TOM MUSIC.  Based in Sandy, eventually spreading across the great state of Utah, this little mom & pop store catered to not only the casual music enthusiast, but the true collector.  We thrived on finding hard to fine pieces.  In essence, we didn't pay much attention to vinyl... at least not to the extent of stores like Waterloo Records in Austin, Texas... but we did occasionally offer little nuggets for the true record collector.  In 1994, when Pink Floyd released their last studio album, "THE DIVISION BELL", they released it on a very limited edition clear blue vinyl.  

Catherine Wheel did a similar thing with the release of their 1995 LP, "HAPPY DAYS", the exception being it was on clear vinyl and also contained a bonus track NOT available on the CD or cassette release.  Brilliant.  Even in the heart of the 90's, the collecting side of music retail did not completely abandon the vinyl format.

 It's safe to say that the most obvious change to occur in the last five years is the complete resurgence of the vinyl medium.  At the first of the year, I was reading in article in Rolling Stone magazine, talking about the future of the Compact Disc and music retail.  In the article, it pointed out that the only two audio formats that did NOT take a serious drop in sales were digital downloads (they stayed about the same, with only a very slight increase in sales) and vinyl, which experienced a huge jump in sales.  Now, when you look at the overall scheme of things, there still weren't an awful lot of vinyl sales in comparison to digital downloads or probably even the Compact Disc, BUT it clearly indicated the trends of the current music scene, and serves to give great insight into the future "ebb and flow" of the music industry.

I have always owned a turntable, although my original Technics brand turntable had definitely seen better days.  My kids, when they were small, were extremely hard on my cartridges.  If I were to put on a record, they would love to try and swat at the thing moving round and round.  It seemed that I was being forced to replace the cartridges (that's the needle, for those of you that wondered) all the time.  Four or five years ago, I once again felt the need to visit my vinyl collection, and decided to dust off my turntable.  Again, the needle had been damaged, and I needed to find another.  Fortunately for us, there is an electronics repair store in Salt Lake that has continued to carry most styles of styluses (I couldn't resist).  However, me wanting to utilize the internet's vast opportunities, I opted to look on eBay and see if I could see any cartridges.  Typically, I would pay $35-$40 for cartridges, so I felt fairly confident I could find one for less money.  While searching eBay, I came across an old Realistic turntable that appeared to hearken back to the 70's.  Radio Shack was known for selling decent, high quality audio equipment, and the 70's was clearly a better era, in the overall construction of electronic equipment, than any we have seen since.  In addition to the turntable, itself, the auction also included several extra cartridges.  These weren't ordinary cheap cartridges, they were Shure brand cartridges.  Those familiar with all areas of audio equipment know that Shure is one of the leading brands in microphones.  These people know their audio.  Because this auction took place before the resurgence in vinyl, I was able to win the turntable and three extra cartridges for $15.  The most costly part of this purchase was the $25 shipping and handling charges, but those aside, I still got hundreds of dollars in perfectly operating (and sounding) audio equipment for the cost of one cartridge  Good luck finding a similar score now.

Just the other night, I was at a concert featuring two critically acclaimed Indie Folk artists.  The opening act is a fairly unknown Folk artist by the name of Denison Witmer.  I first became acquainted with the music of Mr. Witmer when I had purchased an LP and DVD also featuring Rosie Thomas and Sufjan Stevens.  Following his set, I went up to the merchandise table to purchase a vinyl LP copy of his most recent album.  I looked at the CD (priced at $10), which came in a cardboard, mini-LP style sleeve.  It did not include lyrics, and had minimal liner notes.  Denison also offered a digital download card for the same price ($10).  His vinyl LP was significantly more expensive ($25), but included complete lyrics (on hand pressed sheets of high quality paper), double marble pattern vinyl, high quality, extremely heavyweight record jacket, AND (if that wasn't enough) a bonus e.p. with 6 acoustic covers, NOT available on the CD or digital download.  Watching Denison try and sell the LP was amusing, because there was no need.  Just looking at it was enough evidence to know that it was my only option.  I guess the irony in all this is that the vinyl that is on the market nowadays is, in most cases, at least twice the cost of the CDs.  That being said, the tender loving care that goes into most records is infinitely better than the vinyl of yesteryear.  180 gram vinyl... clear vinyl... colored vinyl... marble patterned vinyl... and that is just the records, themselves. 

What truly surprised me was that, while we were speaking to Denison, a newly converted fan had just come up to the table.  After inquiring about the prices of the CD and download, and after finding out that they were both the same price ($10), I was amazed AND appalled to find out that the young man simply wanted the download.  I understand getting a download if an album is out of print, and the only financially viable option is a download.  Case in point, a couple years back, I logged on to to see if they had a used CD of the long out-of-print (and incredibly tasty) album by Squeeze's Difford & Tillbrook.  The cheapest used CD was over $80. also offered the digital download for $7.99.  Since I have the vinyl, there was no question what my best option was.  I got the digital download, and still have all artwork and lyrics in my record.

I, for the life of me, couldn't figure out why this young man would pass up a physical copy of the album that he could take home, immediately import into his iTunes (or equivalent music program) and shelve the disc.  The worst case scenario is that he has it on his iPod AND has a copy, just in case he loses his files.  I've had too many hard drives fail, and have had iTunes mysteriously not recognize files on my external hard drive, to ever want anything less than a hard copy... or quick access to one.

I guess, if nothing else, this little experience was evidence to me that the Compact Disc market is, in fact, doomed.  I feel sorry for the audiophiles out there, like Craig, that refuse to accept any other option.  The resurgence in vinyl reminded me of an interview with Roger Daltry of The Who.  In the interview, Roger openly shunned Compact Discs, criticizing their sound and format, all while praising vinyl... saying it is the warmest of all music mediums.  I love vinyl.  I love the feel of it.  I love the smell of record jackets.  I love the sense of nostalgia that embraces me like a warm blanket, every time I hear that needle settle into the groove.  That being said, I challenge ANYONE (including you, Roger Daltry) to sit down with a vinyl copy of Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "TRILOGY", and a CD copy, listen to them one after the other, and tell me that the LP sounds better.  It's impossible.  That album has so many subtle nuances that are only audible to the human ear when any and all vinyl noise is eliminated.  I love that sound, but it gets in the way of that recording.

If the Compact Disc medium becomes obsolete, I truly wonder if it will last forever.  I can't fathom it becoming extinct, unless the music industry comes up with another, superior, form of physical media.  Too many people need to physically experience their music.  Downloading it to an portable device is not enough.  We want to read lyrics... connect with the songwriter... feel and smell something viable in our hands.  For those of us that were raised on vinyl, there is the nostalgia.  The warm feelings that bring back countless memories of laying on one's bed, held captive by the music.  In the early days of my adolescence, we were a captive audience.  When you put on a record, you didn't move until it was time to turn it over and listen to side 2.  Well... unless you were a girl, in which case you were already dancing like there was no tomorrow.

Over the last 20 years, I have seen many changes in the world of music.  Throughout MY life, I've seen the dissolution of the 8-Track cartridge, the rise and fall of the cassette tape, vinyl (coming and go in waves), the Compact Disc and the digital mp3 file.  It makes me wonder what the next 40 years will bring.  I wonder if the vinyl scene will stay, or if it is once again hitting mainstream music as fad.  My friend was very true when he said that vinyl never completely went away.  It didn't.  It has, however, come back with a vengeance.  All over the world of music, you will find musicians and artists hearkening back to an age before the digital revolution.  When you go to see a band or artist perform live, you see analog amplifiers, guitar cords, instruments from decades ago, wherever you look.  

The most common argument I hear is that the analog equipment, as well as subsequent resurgence in vinyl, is taking place because it sounds "warm" compared to the digital versions of today.  I have listened to many albums on both formats, and I would agree that vinyl (and analog music equipment) does sound warmer.  That being said, I also think that there are elements that we DO lose with the vinyl format, specifically the pristine quiet that can be found in digital recordings, as well as immaculately worked "remasters".  I also notice that the "channels" of the music seem to be separated more distinctly with my vinyl copies.  Drums sound different, vocals do seem to be more pronounced on the vinyl issues, and the overall feel is different.  I, however, am big enough a man to admit that part of what I hear is simply taken from the nostalgia of hearing what I grew up with.  THAT aspect of vinyl will ALWAYS be deeply ingrained in me.  A similar argument recently surfaced, when Apple Records (not the computer monolith) announced the release of the newly remastered BEATLES catalog, in addition to the original MONO recordings.  I listened to an NPR podcast where they would compare the monaural versions of a few Beatles recordings (mainly from the era of "Sgt. Peppers") to the stereo mixes.  In most cases, these audiophiles said that they preferred to listen to the mono mixes.  I've always been a big fan of the clear, decisive stereo channels of the music that came from the latter part of the 60's into the early 70's.  I, for the life of me, couldn't understand why people would prefer to hear the same channels in both ears, but I DID understand why they enjoyed the different experience.  It was evident, after listening to the comparisons, that there were elements in the mono recordings that were nearly non-existent in the stereo mixes.  There were times when background vocals were almost at the forefront of the mono mixes, but were almost non-existent in the stereo mixes.  Although these were Compact Discs we were hearing, it became evident to me that it was the same type of "different" experience with vinyl versus Compact Disc and digital download.

In the last few years, we have seen the literary world take a similar turn.  The Nook... the Kindle... the plethora of "pad" devices have made it incredibly easy to take many books with us, wherever we go.  Convenience aside, there are some of us who simply prefer the look, feel and smell of a hard copy.

I love the changes in technology... heck, I even embrace them... but I DON'T ever want to see the truly earthy, warming vehicles of sight and sound ever to completely fade.  As long as we have used book stores... as long as there are second-hand record stores... and as long as I have extra cartridges for my turntable, I'll be a happy man.