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 Musical by Damon Albarn


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