Worth Reading: “Perfect Sound For A Little Longer: In Defence Of The CD”

A strange thing has been going on in my musical world.  As I’ve become far less interested in contemporary country music, I’ve been going back and discovering vintage artists of other genres that for whatever reason, my parents never played in the car.  This started with ABBA, thanks to my son’s fascination with the outro of “Chiquitita,” the same hook that I played repeatedly on cassette at the apartment of my Swedish grandfather when I was young.

I had their catalog on MP3, but I found the sound harsh.  I did some research and discovered the remastered deluxe CD editions, and learned about ripping into iTunes using Apple Lossless.  I couldn’t believe the sound difference.  Since then, I’ve been on a mission to rebuild my CD collection, hunting down cheap used copies of hundreds of country CDs that I once paid fifteen dollars each for upon release, and getting new copies of classic albums by Queen, Kate Bush, and David Bowie, three more seventies artists that my parents had no interest in.

What’s been amazing has been the difference between my son and I on how to consume this music. He was on to Queen and Bowie before me, and he will only buy vinyl. I flirted with collecting vinyl, as my dad’s collector gene runs deep within me.  But as soon as I played one, I flashed back to my childhood days of hearing cassette and then CD for the first time, and it felt immediately like going backwards.  I don’t get the concept of streaming, another thing that my son loves, because I want to own my music, not borrow it over the internet, where a licensing agreement can end at any time and make my music disappear.

As my son and I go record store hopping, an interesting ratio has emerged: I walk out with a dozen or so CDs, he walks out with three or four vinyls.  Yet 80% of the money goes to his records.  Granted, the quality of the vinyl is so much better than it was in the waning days of the format.  But I can’t wrap my head around something that doesn’t sound nearly as good costing four times as much.

It reminded me of this article that I’ve been meaning to share with our readers:

Unlike streaming, the vinyl record is inarguably less convenient than the CD and always has been, but its champions argue that the format’s true-analog sound is worth the trouble. Though I habitually collect vinyl and do agree that, for certain music, it is clearly a superior-sounding format, I harbor no romantic notions about the medium itself. I don’t find pops, hisses and crackles “part of the experience,” but a thing that compromises the integrity of a great deal of the music I enjoy. Add to this the fact that much of today’s new vinyl is exorbitantly expensive, prone to issues of quality control due to overburdened pressing plants, and often digitally sourced – which means a new LP is basically a big, expensive CD with added vinyl noise – and, well, you could say I’m finding vinyl an increasingly tough sell.

It wasn’t long ago that the used rack at the record shop was overflowing with dirt-cheap copies of canonical albums by Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, and Jimi Hendrix. These same evergreen classics now routinely sell for upwards of $20 to $30 here in the US, and all that’s changed is the demand; there are still almost the same number of copies in the world. Boomers, seduced by the pristine sound of the new compact disc technology, once unloaded these records en masse, and the only reason they’re worth more now than they were twenty years ago is because customers are suddenly willing to pay premium prices for things that, not long ago, could be located in every third household in the United States.

Despite this, vinyl is – for the moment – quite collectable. CDs, on the other hand, are valueless to most, which means you can still find a “rare” CD almost anywhere.

There will always be those for whom the format remains as important – even more important – than the music itself, however. Once while working at a record store, I encountered a man in his twenties inquiring about an LP reissue of Hum’s 1995 album You’d Prefer an Astronaut. The album is one of those mostly forgotten 90s releases that has enjoyed an unlikely cult following among millennials and is desirable on vinyl. I pointed out that while the vinyl reissue he sought had already gone out of print, there were no fewer than three CD copies of You’d Prefer An Astronaut – and the band’s equally excellent follow-up, Downward Is Heavenward – in the used bin for about $3. Twentysomething wasn’t interested.

If you’re interested in music itself, I recommend hitting up thrift stores and garage sales now, and indulging in ridiculous eBay deals where you can get the entire catalog of artists for less than the cost of a concert ticket.  Unless a better digital format emerges that is made available in physical form, the CD is going to be the best way to get music, and by a fluke in consumer culture, it’s also the most affordable.  You can get release date delivery for new CDs on Amazon, and the CD usually costs less than if you were to purchase the album for download.  Personally, I’m just collecting CDs for my favorite core artists, but I’ve set up release date delivery for every album that I want to hear, and I can then flip the CD on eBay, where new release CDs hold their value for a surprisingly long time, at least if your taste runs toward limited run Americana CDs and remastered deluxe editions.

Today’s trash is yesterday’s and tomorrow’s treasure, I guess.

(Oh, and if you’ve never heard of Kate Bush, check her out now. She’s still Britain’s best kept secret.)

4 Comments

  1. I also have become far less interested in contemporary country music. About 6 months ago one of my brothers told me I had to listen to Paul Carrack. “Who?” I said. I didn’t know that he was one of the lead singers for Mike & the Mechanics of “The Living Years” fame . I bought the Best of Paul Carrack and have been enjoying his music ever since. My wife bought Josh Groban’s latest album “Bridges” which i enjoy listening to, especially his “99 Years” duet with Jennifer Nettles. I always loved his old cover of Don McLean’s “Vincent”. Other favorites include Cheryl Wheeler’s 2012 album “Greetings: Cheryl Wheeler Live (feat. Kenny White)” and “The Mills Brothers, 20th Century Masters” (my parents had them on 78 rpm records.)

    When my wife and i moved to Nashville a little over a dozen years ago, we brought all our old vinyl records. I just finished giving away all our LP’s (donated mainly to ARC & Good Will) and I’m about to give away our 45’s. In the time I’ve lived here, I hardly ever listened to them. It’s so much easier to listen to songs from my i-tunes library on my macbook or play cd’s in my Bose than to get out my record player to play vinyl. I love to make my own playlists. Couldn’t do that with vinyl.

  2. That article was spot on about the CD’s worth in this world. It (and your piece) reminded me that the reason I started buying CDs in the first place was because of something else I read telling me it sounded better than digital versions. (Incidentally, the last album I played – the Manhattan Transfer(!)’s excellent Vocalese – was on CD.) And you and the article are both right about vinyl being a bear – the last three LPs I’ve played all skipped on me, eerily enough, in the first minute or so, yet I’m still picking them up like crazy!

  3. I still collect both CDs and Vinyl – each has advantages (and both sound better than digital downloads) but I would agree that the vinyl from 1970-1988 is usually inferior to the thicker vinyl of earlier years. The key to vinyl is keeping the vinyl clean and free of warps. For about $10 you can make a near lifetime of vinyl cleaner – you need a gallon of distilled water, a sprayer bottle, and a microfiber cloth or two. For the cleaning agent a capful of non-sudsing ammonia or three or four drops of Simple Green per sprayer bottle and you are good to go

  4. I am a CD collector and pretty much buy everything I want on CD. The only situations that I don’t is when I don’t really like an artist but like 1 or 2 songs or when a CD isn’t available. I am actually disappointed when an album is only available digitally and very disappointed when an old album is only available on LP.

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