The CD is 30

CD Shelving
CD Shelving by Tingy, on Flickr

For someone for whom music has always been central to my life, I was very late to the CD party. I grew up in a house where there was a communal stereo in the living room. First, custom built shelves of old bricks & boards, LPs stored underneath, a row of cassettes, then the amp & cassette deck. The record player held the place of privilege, alone atop the unit. My parents had a sizeable record collection: dozens of folk & singer-songwriter era records from their youth, along with an even larger, but to me, largely invisible classical collection. the LSO’s recording of Brahms was only an obstacle to find the Cat Stevens or the Beatles.

Upstairs, in their rooms, my much older siblings had their own music collections. MY brother had an even larger collection of LPs, stored in milk crates. His collection was largely contemporary, and for the era, pretty outside the mainstream. When he wasn’t home, or I thought I wouldn’t get caught, I would sneak up into his room and just gaze at the albums. Slip Diamond Dogs out of the sleeve, careful not to rip the paper liner, cringing as inevitably the corners would get folded. He had a small lint-brush kept atop the milk-crates that was to be used solely to clean his records. I cleaned so many records that I dare not actually play, hearing in my head the music held within them. My sister, to my memory, did not have records in her room. She had posters and cassettes, and it was all much scarier and I left it more or less alone. Teenage boys can be angry towards their little brothers. Teenage girls fiercely protective of their space are downright scary.

The CD already existed during all of this time – but it was a non-factor in my family’s life until it had been out for nearly a decade, around 1990 or so. Somewhen after my siblings left for university, when I was 12 or 13, our house was broken into. The record player, visible on its pedestal from the porch outside, was a victim of that burglary, along with any number of records from below. When the stereo system was replaced, my parents bought a CD player. My mother was a fan of the Concerto de Aranjuez, and that LP went missing during the robbery. For her birthday I bought my first ever CDs, 2 different renditions of the Rodrigo’s masterpiece, for my mother.

Even though there was a CD player in the house, I continued to buy tapes for myself for entirely practical reasons: When my brother left home I relocated my bedroom upstairs into what used to be his, and in that room I had a double-tape-teck-radio blaster. It was terrible, essentially monaural because the right-side speaker was constantly shorting out and I loved it. Late sunday nights I would stay up in bed, desperately hoping to keep the signal so I could listen, & record, the Grateful Dead Hour radio show. I bought 120-minute tapes so I could record the entire hour on 1 side of the cassette. I would carefully label each episode, and stored it in a pleather-covered cassette-holder briefcase. I would also endlessly make mixtapes. Some were themed (songs starting with the letter I, spelling the recipient’s name), some were educational (all songs produced by Rick Rubin), some were mercenary (I would give and sell and trade tapes to friends). But every single one of those tapes was made on my crappy double-cassette-deck, painstakingly lined up to optimize each side of the cassette. CDs just didn’t lend themselves to easy trading. They were artifacts of consumption, not catalysts for creation like cassettes were.

The first CD I bought for myself was (keeping with my love of the mix-tape & live music), a bootleg 3-cd set  of a live Led Zeppelin show from Montreux that sounded terrible, contained mistakes but I thought was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. I bought it at a market in Paris while I was on exchange there. I didn’t have a portable CD player with me in France. I didn’t have a CD player of my own at home, but I wanted that set.

It wasn’t until a year later that I got my first CD player, in 1994: for my birthday, my parents gave me a stereo amp. I hooked it up to the 4-ft speakers my brother had left behind nearly 5 years prior in my room. All it could do was play the radio. I was both thrilled, and crushed, that it sounded so good and I couldn’t play my music on it. But that christmas, 2 months later, came part 2: the double-cassette-deck component, and, a cd-player. It all came to university with me, including the way-too-large-for-my-dorm-room speakers, and I loved it. I had acquired a bunch of CDs & quality headphones that I bought second-hand from the owner of a nearby headshop. I still use those headphones today, but nothing else remains from that stereo. Not even the CDs.

For having started collecting CDs fairly late, I made up for it quickly. I bought dozens of magazines that came with sample-music CDs. It was a fantastic way to learn of European techno from Toronto, or music from the New York folk scene. Nearly every spare dollar I had went to buying music. When I moved in with Leah some 8 years later I owned just north of 1000 CDs. I spent hours re-arranging my CDs – if you’ve seen or read High Fidelity, you’ll recognize the obsessive levels of re-arranging I would do. It wasn’t until I realized that Leah didn’t understand how to browse my ordered by alphabetical by producer/songwriter that I gave up on all that & started grouping roughly by genre, then alphabetically. It’s amazing that less than 8 years after that, not only could I no longer arrange my albums by producer, I don’t even know who produced the vast majority of albums I own: it seemed so vitally important to know then, so trivial now.

In 1996 I started working at the student computer help desk at UBC. A manager there, named Jeffrey, had a SCSI CD burner. For work purposes, of course – legitimate duplication of software to hand out to UBC employees (trumpet winsock, anyone?). But late one evening he showed me that he could also duplicate CDs. Create an exact digital duplicate. No loss in fidelity like as what happened to my mixtapes. I was hooked. I couldn’t begin to afford to buy a new CD-R, but when UBC upgraded his machine, they let me buy his old CD-R for a couple hundred bucks. It was single-speed, but It. Was. Awesome. Everyone I knew and loved received a custom-made mixed CD for christmas that holiday. I printed my own album covers & liner notes on my brand-new bubble-jet printer. I asked my girlfriend of the time to hand-write on the discs because my handwriting is terrible.

I experimented with buying CDs, duplicating them and then returning them to stores, but I discovered that I missed the liner notes, so that only happened a few times. I also discovered that because there was no “skill” in making mix CDs that I didn’t enjoy it as much as making mix tapes. The fade-control, time-limits could all be effortlessly predicted through the software. I played with DJ mixes, but was terrible at it, and the software for making such things was very bare-bones back then.

I last bought a CD about 4 years ago. I started a project to digitize my CD collection, and now buy all my music digitally. I don’t miss the format at all. Well, that’s not entirely true. I miss the thrill of examining the packaging, reading the liner notes terribly. There is nothing quite like rushing home with a new purchase, peeling it out of the plastic wrapping, putting it on the stereo and lying there, headphones on to really hear the album, and browsing the liner notes. You can’t do that with digital music. There’s nothing to hold. When my toddler is old enough that I don’t have to worry about him breaking things, I’ll likely buy another turn-table and buy some favourites on vinyl, but not another CD.

It was a good run.