How the CD Changed the Value of Music

Analog mediums of music playback are fragile. Vinyl cracks, warps, breaks and scratches. It deteriorates with each play. Cassette tapes likewise. Play after play, copy after copy, they fade and unspool, and jam into hungry play heads. It’s all very – mechanical – and authentic. Mimicking the human body, the human experience, analog mediums of music playback age with us, grow characteristics like us. They absorb our oils, react to our bodies and most important of all, over time, they become ours. Imprinted with particular styles of use and abuse, they come to be different from all others by our very interaction with them.

This authenticity of existence, the analog condition, is a far cry from the modern synthetic. Analog mediums of music playback inherently imbue the music encoded on them a value far beyond the music itself. Each time media on an analog medium is played back it is arguably different; play head not so accurate; tape fluttering; record platter rpms not so quartz controlled as we’d like to think we payed for; each playback close to a live performance – always slightly changed and never quite the same twice.

This is what we value, this experience, this connection, but this connection does not, indeed, cannot exist in the modern synthetic.

The MP3 music file format is a good example of the modern synthetic. It is easily copied and transferred and is intangible. You cannot hold it, see it or taste it, yet there it is, somehow, magnetised into particular atomic arrays on your portable media playback device and accessible at the click of a button, swipe of a screen. The machine doesn’t even whir anymore. Neither modern machine nor medium deteriorate at the same rate or in the same way as its analog counterparts. Music is now out of sight, remote, a tiny blip across the system when copied, and a slight, measurable decrease in the space left on your hard drive – nothing more.

Oh, it’s a song by your favourite band, there’s that too.

The CD was a paradigm shift to the synthetic consumption of music. Originally the saviour of the music industry – everyone had to switch their vinyl collections to plastic discs, and pay for the same music over again every step of the way – it sowed the seeds of its own demise. It was good for a while, until the record companies began to realise that copies of copies of copies of CDs didn’t deteriorate with generations – digital genetic drift it turns out is tighter than ferric oxide demagnetising – and this has changed the value of music, and its delivery mediums forever.

The plastic disc broke the analog continuum. It ushered us into the age of the consumption of music as detached digital data, and it ingratiated itself by emulating its immediate analog forebear to a fault. It too came in a square package, just like a record sleeve, only smaller. It too had artwork, only smaller, and easily separated from the jewel case – no longer a home to and protector of the medium, merely an accessory. All these “similarities” served only to further exacerbate the differences and further alienate music from a medium.

Once opened, there were no longer any grooves cut into vinyl to guide our sense of the music to come, no direct contact – hand to tonearm – needle to vinyl – instead the plastic disc gave us our music twice removed, sucked away into a fancy machine, rendered invisible, untouchable and then retrieved by a blinding laser.

It became dangerous to look at, and in the process the medium disappeared. And so did the value.

The CD, a dead medium spinning, literally took the music out of our hands, and introduced us to push/play and cut/paste culture, endless, pristine cloning – clinical, cold, inhuman.

Did we ever really pay for the music itself then? Or did we merely cover the costs of moving, storing and retailing these plastic discs? The value was in the packaging, the carrying medium itself, our interactions with it and it’s reactions to us, but the plastic disc pushed us through digital portal, into a whole new realm.

There is no turning back now.

Stripped of packaging, stripped of vinyl and plastic what is recorded music? Where is its value then? In convenience? Accessibility?

No doubt the Internet is the new delivery medium and soon the physical storage of media will be superfluous, the need to download meaningless. When everything is a stream away, an unconscious touch similar to flicking on the lights when you get home from work, you will not think where or how your music got to you any more than you think about the massive infrastructure driving your light bulb.

As the web recedes into the fabric of daily life, ubiquitous and essential, the value it brings becomes more fundamental, more unconscious and less immediately tangible – including the things it delivers to you.

That’s how the CD killed itself and, along with it, our modern notions of the economic value of music.