An Ode to the Compact Disc

You get into your car and take a CD case out of your coat pocket, the colorful album art staring back at you. You open the case and remove the silver CD, holding it in your hand a moment. You slowly insert your CD into the car stereo, letting it pull the disc into itself. The disc spins up, making a satisfying swirling noise. After a second, the ‘Track 1’ and ‘0:00’ appear on the screen and soon clear, pulsing music emanates from the speakers. You drive, letting the sound bathe you. You stop for a bite to eat, turning your car off; the disc stops in mid-song and rests. After you return to your car and start it up, the disc awakes instantaneously, situated exactly where it had stopped, and continues pouring out its music. You press no buttons, you connect to no internet, you simply listen to music on a physical, spinning disc. When you get home for the day, you eject the disc and look at it, the dying twilight catching on its silver-rainbow underside. You place it back into its case, click the cover shut, and place it safely back into your coat pocket. You smile.

Compact discs are dying, quickly. The last time I was at my local Best Buy, the CD section seemed to have been cut in half, maybe more. It was merely a few aisles now, stocked with only the most popular of music. Sitting conspicuously next to the CD section was now a large display of iTunes gift cards, an open showing of what was currently driving the music industry. Looking at the remaining rows of CDs, all resting in their growingly antiquated plastic cases, it reminded me of Toy Story. I could picture anthropomorphized CDs coming to life after the Best Buy closed for the night, lamenting how they are ignored, how their friends have been taken away, how they soon will be shipped to the surplus warehouse to spend their remaining days before unceremoniously being crushed in a trash compacter. It saddened me, yet I realized it was the inevitable march of technological progress.

Back in the 1980’s, records faced the exact same fate, as they were quickly replaced with cassette tapes, and eventually CDs. People who grew up before 1980 mostly feel the same nostalgia for records as I do for CDs. Yet, they have all basically accepted their fate and moved on, buying CD players and most likely MP3 playing devices now. It’s the brave few who still use a record player to listen to music on a regular basis, and most records sit tucked away in basements and attics. Yet, despite some debate over the merits of their sound quality, records were an inferior technology; they cant be played in a car, are not portable, have limited capacity to hold music, and get scratched and wear out easily.

CDs have likewise become an inferior technology in many ways. They also get scratched over time, have limited capacity, are not as portable compared to MP3 players, and are not as convenient as instantly downloading MP3s over the internet. MP3s are the dominant player now and will be for the foreseeable future. While the MP3 standard might change and music will be presented in some new format, it seems highly unlikely people in the future will listen to any music on physical media — it will all be digital files. This will soon be the fate of all media, not just music, but books, movies, TV shows, photographs, etc…

In the end, the digitization of all media, including music, is probably a good thing. It lets people have access to everything, at all times. You don’t need to go to a physical store and hope they have whatever obscure album (or movie, or book) that you might want, you simply download it on the internet. Everything is available, if not legally, than in the dark alleys of file sharing sites. You can also have your entire collection with you at all times, and it remains in perfect quality forever.

However, it saddens me that physical media is dying, especially the CD. There is just something about owning a physical object that is deeply satisfying. The ability to hold an album in your hand, turn it over, see the track listings, lend it to your friend, display it on your shelf. Having your entire music collection physically sitting on your shelf just feels more substantial than having the exact same music being merely a listing in an iTunes window.

Having a physical CD also changes the way you listen to music. If you have to actually go out and invest your time and money in a CD, you likely are to going to cherish and listen to that CD more. You will probably listen to every song on that album, instead of merely buying a few isolated tracks on iTunes. You will also probably listen to it over and over again, until the point that when you listen to it years down the road, those songs will make you feel the emotions you felt while listening to it at the time. It will become more a part of your life, and you will truly experience the album.

Yet, we are stuck now with digital media and the CD will slowly fade away into the media afterlife, joining the record and cassette tape. For the time being though, the CD still exists, and you can still buy CDs in physical stores. Therefore, I challenge everyone reading that to go out to a physical store, buy a CD you’ve never heard before, and listen to it exclusively for a week. Take joy in unwrapping the plastic covering, popping open the case for the first time; smelling the newness, seeing the carefully designed artwork. Take it and play it in your car, or home stereo, or old CD walkman if you have it… anything besides a computer. Enjoy the satisfying feeling of owning that album, listening to it every day, and making it part of your life at that moment. You will have a completely different experience than merely pressing download and having the album coldly appear on you computer screen.