What CDs Did To Pop Music

cd.jpgIt was 25 years ago this month that the first commercially-available compact disc was manufactured, according to WSJ.com’s Jason Fry.  (Link is to subscription site.)  It was what turned out to be ABBA’s last album, “The Visitors.” 

It is ironic and suggestive that ABBA, known primarily as a singles group (What album does “Take a Chance on Me” come from?  I have no idea either.) would be the pioneer of a format that killed the LP.  The “concept album” as developed by Frank Sinatra and perfected by the classic rock bands of the 60s and 70s, started as a manufacturing spec but evolved into a musical form as prodigious and supple as the sonata.  And the CD crushed it.

The LP’s limitations imposed a helpful form on the musical design of albums. Each side could be about 20 minutes long — maybe 25. So the entire experience lasted only 45 minutes or less; there wasn’t much room for filler. Then, it was divided into two parts (or four parts for a double-LP). Typically that mean 4-5 songs on each side; two suites of 15 to 20 minutes, a brief enough period to hold the listener’s attention. You had to have a strong Side One Track One, a strong closer for Side One, a great track to kick off Side Two, and a great closing track. This imposed a discipline on performers and producers alike.

With CDs, this structure disappeared, and was replaced by an endless temptation for indulgence, as Fry also points out.  And that, he says, has had fatal consequences for the music industry.

According to Nielsen, U.S. CD sales fell to 553 million last year from their peak of 712 million in 2001. Debating why music sales have cratered is like debating why the Soviet Union collapsed — the industry puts the blame on piracy, while others point to a shakeout in music retailers, decry major labels’ pushing one-hit wonders at the expense of developing bands for the long haul, or argue that the Net, videogames and other activities have displaced time once spent listening to music.

The factor I think doesn’t get enough attention is consumers’ longstanding disenchantment with the rock album. As discussed here, once the digital age allowed music buyers to reject the album they did so in droves, whether by downloading single songs from iTunes or stealing single songs from peer-to-peer networks. And the CD presaged what would happen.

Before the CD, most rock albums had similar fingerprints: You got 40-odd minutes of music spread over 10 to 12 songs. The CD’s longer length exploded that. As the CD became established, albums got longer — and, I’d argue, weaker. On CD, albums’ running times were padded by additional material that once would have been left aside or released as the B-sides of singles. While music geeks like me welcomed the additional material, it made albums too long for single sittings. Listeners were inclined to pick and choose among the tracks, an easy process with CDs. Skipping a track no longer meant lifting a needle or fast-forwarding through tape — you just pushed a button. And CD players let you shuffle tracks, or program CDs to rearrange the order or skip songs.

Jukebox software lets you do all that much more easily today, but we first started experimenting with it in the CD era. In the 1990s, the music industry saw the CD as its salvation, with sales buoyed by consumers replacing records and tapes with the shiny new discs. And it probably was. But even as the CD was propping the record labels up, it was also laying the groundwork for a transition that may prove their undoing.

I’m a music geek, too, but I own dozens of CDs of which I’ve never heard all the songs.  I remember the tipping point:  R.E.M.’s “Monster.”    When it came out in 1994, I was an enthusiastic R.E.M. fan.  “What’s the Frequency Kenneth” was a roaring start to the album.  “Crush With Eyeliner,” was perfect grunge pop.  The next few songs were pretty good.  And then it kind of fizzled out for me.  Was it just too much of the same thing?  Was the inherent monotony in Michael Stipe’s voice finally getting to me?  Or did they really only have a few good songs?  I turned it off before it was over.  The next time I played it, I had the same experience — enthusiastic at the start, bored halfway through, done with it before it was over.  To this day, I doubt I ever listened to the last three songs.  

“Monster” is still filed under R in my CD cabinet, but I never listen to it, and probably should go sell it along with about 30 percent of my other CDs.  

Fry explains something that hadn’t occured to me:  While the CD format was first used for music, it subsequently became the medium for transmitting software. (I would have thought it was the other way around.)  His piece provokes a memory of those days when I would get an AOL software disk in the mail, or attached to a magazine.  Even though I didn’t need the software — I was already on AOL, and the software updates were pushed through to subscribers online — I felt funny about throwing it away.  CDs cost a lot of money, didn’t they?

Eventually, with enough AOL software CDs cluttering my apartment, I realized the great truth of the CD era.  The damn things are cheap.  And, reasoning backward, I determined that music CDs were cheap, too, and that music consumers were being overcharged for them.  CDs didn’t need to be more expensive than LPs or cassettes; it was purely a marketing decision, one that played the music industry’s most loyal customers for saps.

For all the good it does — and I don’t take for granted how much better the world is with so much music available — the recording industry is probably the dumbest industry in the world; the most prone to magical thinking, with a tendency to make war on its own customers.  This tendency became apparent to consumers with the arrival of the CD, and by now the alienation is permanent.

The 25th anniversary of the CD is a bittersweet one for both music fans and the industry that purports to serve them.

5 thoughts on “What CDs Did To Pop Music

  1. John, John:

    Recycling (technically, re-use).

    I use my AOL CDs as drink coasters (to this day).

    There’s a CD hanging in MOMA in NY as an example of beautiful design. They still make those wonderful rainbows and moire patterns in strong light. I suppose they would have been REALLY psychedelic in the 60’s, but I leave that to a younger generation to tell me.

  2. Did I say “throw away???????” How stupid of me! Of course I recycled them! I put them with the other plastic stuff! I’m sure I did!

    They probably do make great coasters, too. And by now, Richard, those AOL disks might be collector’s items, worth hundreds on E-bay as 90s nostalgia.

  3. Forget the CD itself. I have a beautiful mahogany CD rack in my living room. Gorgeous, really.
    My problem is this: I have an iPod and use it religiously – thousands of songs, podcasts, etc. I haven’t touched my CDs in over a year.
    The only reason I haven’t put them in a box is I have no other use for this CD rack.
    Such confusion!

  4. Actually, yes. That’s a thought.
    Only problem – two year old. He’ll yank them off. But what’s the difference? He already does that with the CDs.

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