There’s an elephant in the room of modern music.
When the BPI released its final figures for 2016, commentators immediately seized upon certain tropes, a few recurring patterns. Vinyl was back, they said – accounting for some 3.2 million album sales. Downloading was over, it followed, with streaming becoming the de facto means of listening to music in the digital environment.
Yet despite 47 million album sales the compact disc was rarely – if ever – mentioned. Sure, the humble CD may have recorded an 11% year on year drop, but let’s put it this way: despite virtually no media attention, despite technology overtaking it, despite record shops remaining out-of-the-way places, the compact disc ratcheted up 47 million sales. That’s almost one per person across the whole of England, y’know. That’s a lot of music that nobody talks about.
Of course, there are very good reasons for both sides of this. Firstly, the compact disc itself is an inherently great format. It’s small enough to fit into your hand – depending if you have long fingers – but large enough to feel concrete, to reflect the fetishism of the physical object.
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Launched in 1982, it became the warhorse of the music industry as labels reached their commercial zenith. Vinyl was phased out, cassette never really became the format it promised it would, and the era of the compact disc heralded undreamed of profits – in 1998 the label system reached its titanic bulk, its absolute zenith. It scaled an absolute mountaintop of compact discs.
This flood of money also enabled artists to try new things with the format. Pearl Jam’s 1994 release ‘Vitalogy’ echoed a medical textbook from 1899, fusing imagery and text with outmoded treatises on the nature of life. Eddie Vedder, in fact, was so committed to the idea that an extra 50 cents from the album deal was removed from the band’s end to make it happen.
On the other side of the Atlantic, too, great minds were at work. Spiritualized’s behemoth work of space-rock gospel ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’ - 20 years old this year – was presented in lavish packaging that echoed the addictions that plagued creative force J Spaceman. Featuring 12 blistered discs, one for each song, the presentation even included faux medicinal advice on their use, and proscribed dosage.
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But that’s not all. The CD could be used to ‘hide’ certain tracks, creating wonderful hidden treats for fans. Nirvana smuggled ‘Endless, Nameless’ onto ‘Nevermind’, while even The Stone Roses vastly overblown and absurdly over-hyped ‘Second Coming’ found room for a hidden cut (as if that album needed even more ballast to weigh it down...)
It couldn’t last. With profits flooding in, the music industry channelled its attention to ratcheting up those figures, with the price of CDs going through the roof – searching through charity shop racks now almost feels like peering into an alien world, with long-vanished retailers such as Our Price demanding £14.99 or more for Kula Shaker albums. No wonder the roof fell in.
Napster launched in 1999, ending the music industry’s easy-living 90s in one fell swoop. Profits dropped, panic set in, and a whole series of entertainment companies struggled, and often failed entirely, to adapt. The CD, though, sat through it all – before streaming became viable, before iTunes became the norm, it was sometimes the only thing that kept the music industry afloat, like water wings on a particularly nervous toddler that has somehow made its way to the deep end of the pool.
Perhaps that’s why the compact disc is so unloved. A totemic item of music industry manipulation, it’s also had the misfortune to stand firm, to hold its ground. Vinyl almost disappeared entirely, becoming the occupation of hoarders and record nerds before its resurgence took hold in 2007. The cassette, too, has fallen drastically, with Sony halting production of its iconic Walkman player back in 2010.
The compact disc, though, is still there, still bringing in results. Sold everywhere from niche record shops to Sainsburys, it’s ringing in cash registers across the land – even with an 11% drop, 47 million units in 12 months is an imposing figure.
And it’s also a key element of the underground. CD-Rs are easy to smash out, meaning that certain facets of the electronic, noise, and DIY indie scenes are based around the compact disc. It doesn’t take much to make the presentation special, and it’s almost always worth your while – just check out this foldable cardboard sleeve from Scottish group PAWS:
So maybe it’s time to stop worrying and love the compact disc. After all, vinyl has a plethora of think pieces penned in its honour, while cassettes even have a whole day pledged to their dedication. The CD is the old friend who’s always been there, but you never get around to calling. It’s the solid 7/10 player who never quite gets the match ball. It’s small, it makes pretty rainbow shapes in the sunshine, and if you press pause and then rewind for 30 seconds it might spew out a previously hidden cut.
Of course, they won’t play if you smear jam on them… but then, why would you want to? Compact discs are perfect the way they are.
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