Essay: CDs were built to last, and to throw away

Music isn't special when it comes out of a little silver beer mat.

If you bought this week's NME, you should now own the compact disc that was taped to its cover: 70 minutes of music by all your favourite bands, plus a few who may become your favourites, and a couple who will never be anyone's favourites, but who were, no doubt, going cheap. On the face of it, it's an amazing free gift. Flick through the NME and you'll see adverts for albums on sale for a minimum of pounds 10 - whereas this CD came was given away with a paper retailing at pounds 1.10.

But don't worry if you missed it; it's hardly a one-off. Uncut and Select have freebie CDs on their respective covers this month. And, in case your tastes are more specialist, so do Gramophone, Guitarist, Guitar Techniques and Future Music. My Emergency-Presents-For-Birthdays-I've-Forgotten shelf is stacked with equivalent discs from Muzik, Q and half a dozen others.

Bearing all that in mind, think back to another issue of the NME from last summer. At the time, one of the most talked about news stories concerned the recession in the British music industry. Sales were low; companies were collapsing; bands were signing on the dole just weeks after they had signed recording contracts. And no one knew exactly why. Was Radio 1's programming policy to blame? Were teenagers spending too much on computer games? Was the general public simply boycotting all pop products as a protest against the continued eminence of Boyzone?

Alan McGee, the boss of Creation Records, had his say in the NME: "There's nothing to get excited about at the moment ... music doesn't have an ideological point of view any more so it's not central to people's existence in the way that punk or acid house were. They were a way of life. But now it's like, I want to eat some food, so maybe I'll put on the Massive Attack album while I'm eating."

If McGee is no longer excited about music, it's probably time he retired from running a record company. But perhaps he has a point. Maybe music isn't so "central to people's existence". And "ideological point of view" aside, there are many reasons why this might be. Some are as basic as the quality of songs; some are as abstract as international economic trends. But one possibility which hasn't been debated is the effects of the compact disc. The humble CD could be a Frankenstein's monster, turning on its creators.

If this were true, and the CD were contributing to the crisis, it would be richly ironic, as the invention was once seen as the music industry's saviour. When CDs were introduced, the public were persuaded, if not forced, to invest in new machinery. Then they had to hand over considerably more money than they were accustomed to for every record they bought. And then - the masterstroke - they were encouraged to purchase records they already owned in order to duplicate their old collections in a shiny new format. In retrospect, it all seems like an outrageous confidence trick, but it did have some justification. The CD was revolutionary. Music no longer had to be carried on a bulky, breakable dinner plate. The CD was hard wearing; it offered pristine sound quality. What's more, it offered 70- odd minutes of music on a disc that was just four-and-three-quarter inches wide and a millimetre deep. The CD was small.

You could slip a few CDs in your pocket: there was no need to wedge them under your arm, like vinyl albums. Once a CD was out of its sleeve, you didn't have to hold it with both hands, by the rim, or worry about dropping it. There was no need to lower a diamond-tipped needle with loving gentleness on to its surface. You just snapped the disc out of the case and into your stereo, and pressed the button marked "play". And even then, there was no need to sit through the album as its makers intended. You could juggle the order of the tracks and flick past any you didn't fancy listening to. Nothing could be more convenient.

And that's the problem. The CD is just too convenient. Illogical as it might seem to a marketing man, music fans don't always want convenience. They want ritual. Even before CDs were available, people bought 12-inch albums in preference to cassettes because, among other reasons, putting on a record was a ceremony. It required concentration, respect, even awe. It was like handling jewellery. The same cannot be said for yanking a CD out of the smudgy, crackable transparent plastic box which the industry has named, laughably, the jewel case.

The CD is an object you can use as a bookmark or lose under a sofa cushion. You can play it in your car or on your personal stereo. And as CD systems are so much smaller than record players, you can sit one on a kitchen unit, and put on the Massive Attack album while you're eating. It's just like listening to the radio. And that, again, is the problem. Size matters. How can something that takes up so little space possibly be central to your life? How can something you get free with a magazine be a prized possession? A few years ago, all you'd get was a one-sided, seven-inch flexidisc, for goodness sake. The irresistible paradox is that the compact disc is more expensive than the vinyl album and more durable than the vinyl album, but it's also more disposable than the vinyl album. You can't blame the consumer for imagining that the music on a CD is disposable, too.

For anyone who enjoys seeing the record industry squirm, the fun is only just beginning. In a matter of years, the compact disc will be an endangered species too, and we'll all be downloading songs from internet jukeboxes. Think of it: no more talismanic objects to accompany our beloved sounds. The album sleeve - a security blanket, a poster, an identity badge - will not exist. If you ever carried an AC/DC LP to school, sure in the knowledge that it would guarantee a crowd in the playground, this will be a distressing notion. But you can't fight progress. Soon people will have to buy music because ... well, because they like the music. No wonder the industry is worried.

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits