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In Defense of the CD: Why We Should Keep Them Around 

Wednesday, Mar 7 2012
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No one loves CDs.

The cool kids today want to either dig through crates of dusty old vinyl or pay four times too much for the new stuff. The even cooler kids spend actual money on godawful cassette tapes. And everyone else under age 40 has abandoned physical formats for music altogether, instead slurping up free files off the Internet or paying paltry sums to grab them from legal retailers like iTunes or Amazon.

Meanwhile, the CD looks like it might go the way of the 8-track. Sales of the format have plummeted 50 percent from their peak in 2000. Last year, digital sales surpassed physical sales for the first time ever. And many smaller cities don't even have a place to buy CDs anymore, save for the racks of big sellers at box retailers like Best Buy and Target.

This month, Rolling Stone reported that some industry insiders believe there's no future in making and selling plastic circles digitally encoded with music. "I'm going to say three years — Walmart might squeeze five years out of it," says an anonymous source quoted by the magazine.

To which I say: Hell no.

Music industry, I want my CDs. I know we all have Spotify now, or something like it, and I'll admit to having many more songs in my iTunes library than on my cluttered and overcrowded CD shelf. But kill the CD, and you'd kill a masterpiece.

Consider the beauty of the compact disc: A perfect circle of polycarbonate exactly 120 millimeters wide, made just large enough to hold the entirety of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. The CD weighs almost nothing, fits in a coat pocket, lasts longer than you will, and produces a sound of otherworldly crispness and perfection. It's higher quality than any other format before it, and far better than most digital downloads available today.

Compared to the basically indifferent act of clicking on an MP3 or a stream — which has all the charm of opening a chain e-mail from your annoying aunt in Florida — putting on music in any physical format is a herculean feat of decisiveness. There's thought in it. And in a world where people are paying to keep themselves off the Internet, physical music is a bulwark against the creep of shrinking attention spans. Once you've put a record on, it's actual work to change it. ("Work" here meaning that it requires more than just another click.)

Besides, we can't let music slip entirely into the digital ether the way that letters, videos, and newspapers seem likely to. Some music is important enough to be made manifest, to have a presence in that rare theater known as Real Life. If modern industrial culture insists on producing bacon-flavored milkshakes, bulging rubber scrota for the back of pickup trucks, and pink Snuggies, it can also find room to release new music in a tangible form.

Most physical-music geeks worship vinyl, citing the rich sound, dazzling artwork, and the admittedly seductive act of sliding a record out of its sleeve, setting it on the platter, placing the needle in a groove, and savoring those initial crackles and pops.

But I don't understand why no one fetishizes the similarly declarative act of putting on a CD. Think: You hit "open" and the tray slides ghostlike out of the player. You crack open the CD case like a book, pluck the disc from its holder, and place it gently on the tray. Then you tap a button again, the tray slides back inside the machine with a crisp click, and a display tells you precisely how many tracks and minutes are contained on the disc. You press "play," and out of perfect silence — total blackness, no hisses or pops — the music leaps to life.

Even living around CDs is fun: My desk is permanently cluttered with them, but I love to run my eyes over the cases, their spines and artwork. Something about the form still feels futuristic, the way that old computer cards seemed novel long after they had become obsolete.

But I don't think CDs are obsolete — and I don't think my affection for them is based in nostalgia. They still have empirical advantages: CDs are hilariously cheap on the used market. They last forever if you treat them nicely. They're large enough to remind you of their existence, but don't take up a ton of room. And you can easily rip them onto a computer and transfer them to your iPhone.

CDs represent an ideal mix between the past — where music was confined within a physical object — and the future, where it may just become a stream of ones and zeros to be copied, streamed, or downloaded. No other physical format strikes such a perfect balance between romance and convenience. Let's keep the CD.

About The Author

Ian S. Port

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