Archive for March 28th, 2010


we used to buy CDs

Compact discs are on a precipice. There will be a time, perhaps in the next few years, when they are no longer the main way people buy and listen to music. Like records, though, I predict the CD will be around for the rest of our lives. Unlike tapes (or even the 8-track), CDs have staying power. If you like album art, the digital download doesn’t compare. The compact disc sound quality (to my ears anyway) is superior, and the discs don’t degrade unless you really abuse them.

This is a personal history of music purchasing, not music listening. I don’t think there is much writing out there on how people acquire their music, beyond the occasional hyperbolic article entitled something like “CDs Soon Extinct: Is This The End of Record Companies?” Of course listening to the music is the most important part of the process, but how we get to that step has changed over the years, and that interests me enough to share my own story.

I bought my first CD at Target in Tucson, Arizona. My parents had purchased our first CD player maybe a year or two before. I still remember the salesperson selling us the player: “CDs are indestructible. You can throw them like a Frisbee and they won’t break.” The promise of perfect sound forever, coupled with the amount of space you can save compared to a record collection, was enough incentive for my parents to take the plunge.

Being a kid, it took a while to accumulate the funds to purchase a CD (they were more expensive than tapes). I also had to decide what CD was worth buying. The late 1980’s and early 1990’s were not exactly a swell time for new music. Being a lifelong Beatles fan, my first CD was a Paul McCartney greatest hits album. It was new, and I already had the Beatles albums on tapes. I still have the CD, for sentimental reasons. It isn’t a great album, but it does include Band on the Run.

At first CDs came packaged in something called the “longbox.” It was a worthless rectangular cardboard box that you threw away as soon as you opened the shrinkwrap. The longbox’s only purpose – perhaps beyond discouraging theft – was to sit the CDs taller on the shelf. Because everybody knows you can’t see a compact disc when it’s just sitting on a shelf. It needs to be stilted so it’s staring you in the face.

I can’t remember when stores finally did away with the longbox, but it was maybe midway into the 90’s. Long enough that there are millions of these longboxes choking our landfills today. I would hope distributors learned something about packaging from that mess, but the cynic in me doubts it.

I had a few weeks to listen to Paul sing Silly Love Songs before my mom decided I was getting lazy. So, at the tender age of 12, she sent me to work in a warehouse. Speaking of packaging: my job was packing computer software into boxes. At the end of the day, I was called in to the manager’s office. “The owner found out that we hired a 12-year-old and she doesn’t want that liability. Here’s your paycheck.” I think he wrote out a personal check instead of a company paystub, such was the stigma of my being there. It was my first job and my first firing, all in the same day.

My mom picked me up and I told her the news. She took it way harder than I did. I think she had hoped my job would lead to me moving into my own apartment and becoming a productive member of society. Instead, I just went to school and made her buy me food, clothing, toothpaste, and underarm deodorant.

On the way home from my failure, we stopped at Target. I used my paycheck (almost all of it, as I recall), to buy my second CD: The Beatles’ Help. It was the first time I purchased an album I already owned. Later, we would call the reissuing of an album a “double-dip.” Double-dipping is actually the reissue of an album on the same format (like the recent Beatles Remasters). But in practice it had the same outcome: now I had Help twice.

Target used to have rows and rows of new and old music. After a few years, maybe by the mid-to-late 1990’s, I outgrew their selection. It was a combination of factors: my tastes became more diverse and less mainstream, and their music selection dwindled to a few new releases and some “Golden Oldie” greatest hits compilations. Once you have the Lynyrd Skynyrd Greatest Hits album and the BeyoncĂ© oeuvre, Target isn’t going to help you anymore.

I moved on, like many young men of my generation, to that beautiful technological paradise called Best Buy. Best Buy stole my heart as well as my wallet. I spent countless hours of my high school years perusing the racks of CDs.

There were a few independent music shops in Tucson. Zia Records and PDQ had much larger selections than Best Buy even in its heyday. You could chalk it up to the longer drive to get to either independent store (driving 45 minutes to get somewhere is not unusual in Tucson), or you could point to my still fairly mainstream musical tastes at the time. Both would be right as to why I stuck with Best Buy for most of my CD purchases.

College changed my listening habits forever. I learned that there was good – nay, excellent – new music being made every day. There were bands I never heard on the radio because The Man was keeping me down. That musical oppression riled me up. Fortunately, the cure was all around me in the form of musically liberated friends.

Not only was there a great college radio station, but we had a whole Conservatory churning out classical and jazz players every year. Some colleges have basketball teams to follow. I went to free concerts dozens of times a semester. They wanted an audience and I was more than happy to oblige.

But this post is about purchased, not free, music. And so, just like you may have noticed I omitted the major musical revolution of the first decade of this century, I will linger no further on free student concert-going.

Today I buy my music in two ways. I don’t use iTunes unless someone gives me a gift card. I buy CDs from Amazon or from one of two fantastic music stores in Portland. Between those three sources I can find just about anything.

I suppose in this day of reducing our carbon footprint I should reconsider the purchase of physical media, especially when the digital download offers almost as good sound quality and far better portability. But when I want to listen to good music on my home stereo system, look through liner notes, or study stupendous cover art, the compact disc remains my format of choice.