I’m onboard with the CD revival – it might become punkest music format out there
Are the allegedly indestructible discs really due a comeback back to rival that of vinyl? Our columnist hopes so – for his own sake
When the coroners come to collect my body, with ghoulish press photographers trailing behind to document the horror and depravity, local press will no doubt dub me The Disc Man. Entering my office space will feel like unearthing Spotify’s underground database – thousands upon thousands of CDs, stacked high to the ceiling and piled in mounds across doorways.
They’ll liken me to the terminal hoarders from all those Channel 5 documentaries, but rather than slithering over stacks of old Razzles to get to my toilet, I’m scaling mountains of Muse promos. Chances are, as so many exhausted removal men have warned me as they’ve filled up the additional bedrooms I’ve had to rent just to house my collection, it’ll be the CDs themselves that do me in in the end. I’ll expire in a sudden Britpop landslip, my skull caved in by a deluxe three-disc maxi-single of Blur’s ‘Charmless Man’.
It was with some excitement, then, that I heard about the long-awaited CD revival finally kicking off. Sales of these old-school cyber frisbees rocketed a massive one per cent between 2020 and ‘21, and then took a leap of 15 per cent towards the end of last year (compared to the same period in 2020), as fans of Adele, Ed Sheeran and ABBA, having splashed out on Ultimate Diamond VIP Urinate On The Plebs From Your Personal Viewing Pedestal tickets to see their favourite act live, sought out similarly extravagant audio experiences.
If this merely suggests a short-term uptick in a long-term decline, us media dads are having none of it. Rolling Stone have hailed the format’s return and Pitchfork reported on Discogs seeing a 37 per cent jump in CD sales in 2020, shops reporting a steady rise in sales (despite Tesco deciding to no longer stock the format). Producers are pointing out their gold-standard sound quality compared to streaming, and growing numbers of Gen Z-ers are picking up second-hand CDs for pennies and displaying their growing collections on TikTok. Presumably before making an unboxing video for their cool new fax machine.
Vindication! Faced with parades of exasperated partners demanding to know why we can never have a guest room that guests could fit in, my justification has rung increasingly hollow down the years. You see, I foolishly kept hold of my physical CDs through the download era, while all around me were flogging theirs, as a form of musical insurance. Having converted them all to digital, ditching them might allow us to see out of our windows, yes, but it also made us financially dependent on the MP3. Along comes the MP3.1, I’d argue, and boom, we’d suddenly have to pay for it all again. Little did I know that streaming would be along in a minute to make me pay for it all again anyway, plus a load of stuff I don’t want, in monthly instalments, forever.
A CD revival, then, might make me feel like I’m a trend-predicting visionary sitting on a gold mine rather than a hopeless throwback sitting on a major recycling problem. But I find it difficult to believe it’ll really catch on. The vinyl comeback is understandable – these are beautiful artefacts that maximise the sense of connection to and ownership of music that you love. The experience of the music filters through the whole object. Sleeve art you can sink into all the more for being mirror-sized. Packaging that can be rough, soft or rigid to the touch. Inner sleeves like secret members-only gallery rooms. That magical crackle of anticipation as needle hits groove, like baton on podium or guitar lead in amp.
The experience of operating a CD (you never got the sense you were playing one), on the other hand, with its whirrs and clunks and glossy booklets, felt more like working your way through the instruction guide of a Hotpoint H3 tumble dryer. Plus, the arrival of the CD was the first step towards the sort of digital dehumanisation of music we see today: romance was replaced by functionality, active involvement with passive listening.
Oh, land of wild dreams, where we could suddenly skip to any track we desired at the touch of a remote control and whole albums played through in full – six in a row if you had a posh car. No more the hassle of lifting a needle and squinting at run-in grooves. Humankind swiftly lost its hereditary ability to calculate by sheer instinct how long it takes to fast-forward a cassette to the start of ‘Frankly, Mr Shankly’.
The fundamental selling point of CDs, then – their relative convenience, in 1986 – makes them an illogical next step for the revivalists. If the vinyl kids wanted more convenient, passive music, switching to CDs rather than straight back to streaming would be like going to a Mexico City Wetherspoons for chili con carne.
CDs also have a major image problem to overcome. This was the format that encouraged us all to shell out for the same song three times to complete our multi-single sets. The cheap-to-produce ‘luxury item’ which scalped us more viciously than Bone Tomahawk. And the ‘indestructible’ format that tricked us into buying seven (seven!) new stereos due to warrantee-voiding jam damage. If vinyl was the psychedelic vibe weaver grooving up slowly to take you on a hypnagogic journey deep into your Aquarian cortex, CDs were the flip-phoned estate agents squealing up in a 4×4 to charge you £1800 a month for a Zone 15 bedsit with no front door, to the sound of ‘Brothers In Arms’.
That economic dynamic has certainly flipped. There’s a global vinyl shortage underway and very few pressing plants supplying the ballooning demand, while there’s also an overwhelming surplus of second-hand CDs which is threatening the structural foundations of CeX shop basements across the globe. Hence CDs are now the budget – dare we say punk? – music ownership option, with many major albums available for a couple of quid or, in new money, 0.000000231BTC.
And that might well, in time, make them once more the discerning music aficionado’s format of choice. I damn well hope so, anyway – they’re the closest I’ve got to a pension.