I’m getting tired of being told I’m enjoying music the wrong way.
I got my first CD player in high school in 1985. The first discs I bought were Songs From The Big Chair by Tears For Fears and No Jacket Required by Phil Collins. Soon after I purchased CDs by two artists I knew nothing about: Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak and Kraftwerk’s Computer World. The record shops at the mall had one small section of CDs. You didn’t go with a specific purchase in mind; you chose from what was available, what looked interesting.
I was already invested in music before CDs came along. I had a component stereo system and at least a couple dozen vinyl LPs. I knew what a good audio system sounded like because I grew up around serious audiophiles. But I had no romantic connection to vinyl. Records were just the format that music happened to exist on. When the CD player arrived at my house, it made sense to me instantly. I was the first generation to grow up with home video game consoles, floppy disks, and Atari computers. I knew the music was stored on the CD as data, just like a floppy disk. Random access, no flipping over the record, no surface noise. It felt like something from the future. I remember commenting that soon the music would come on a cartridge, like a video game, and the player would have no moving parts at all.
I never felt like the big evil record companies were trying to make me repurchase all my music, because I was a teenager and didn’t have a big collection of records. In fact, I eagerly awaited CD versions of the few records I already owned. When new albums were released initially on vinyl, with a delayed CD release, I was upset. Records were for old people. Why were they giving preference to the old inferior format? I didn’t realize there wasn’t enough CD manufacturing capacity yet.
It’s true that many early CDs sounded like crap, and those first impressions have followed CDs ever since. In many cases vinyl masters were quickly dumped onto CD to meet demand. Engineers hadn’t figured out how to get the most from CDs yet. But let’s be realistic. Not all vinyl records sounded great either. Most of them were mass produced on cheap quality vinyl, with limited bass in order to fit all the tracks on the record. Most people didn’t buy or listen to audiophile Japanese vinyl, Telarc records, or Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab pressings. And like today, most people didn’t have an amazing audio system. So let’s stop pretending CDs destroyed some mythical age of high-quality LP listening. It’s all a bunch of romanticized bullshit.
Before CDs, I obsessed over LP sleeves and liner notes. When I started buying CDs instead, I obsessed over CD sleeves and liner notes. No difference. There’s nothing inherently bad about a CD package. Bigger doesn’t equal better. But yes, the implementation was often bad. The industry didn’t do themselves any favors by hurriedly shrinking down LP artwork, rather then designing explicitly for a five inch square. And yes, jewel cases were pretty crappy. They looked cheap when they got scratched and worn. But there were eventually great designs realized as multi-panel cardboard digipaks. The alleged superiority of 12” sleeves is just more romanticized bullshit.
Now vinyl collecting is cool. But records are often ridiculously expensive, and I’ve lost count of the number of comments I’ve read about poor quality pressings. People used to argue that vinyl was better than CDs because it sounded better. I’m not sure that’s a given, if it was ever true at all. Now who’s the sucker?
I long for the simple days when we disparaged people based on the bands they liked. We carved out our identities based on genre alignment. Now that everyone has access to all music all of the time for free, and everyone listens to everything, old and new, that strategy doesn’t work anymore. The new politics dictate that we disparage people not based on what they like, but whether they’re liking it in the right way. You can’t truly love music if you collect CDs. CDs were a corporate scam, sound like crap, and don’t feel pretty in your hand. They’re for people who don’t really engage with music on a deep level, right? Bullshit.