CD or not CD…

I’ve discovered charity shops. Once dismissive thereof, my piteous pension propels me ever more inexorably to their doors. Last week alone I picked up a beautiful autumnal tweed jacket (bespoke no less), a snip at barely more than a tenner. I could probably have knocked them down a little but that seems to be missing the point of the charity shops.
But the real secret of charity shops is not the clothes available, but that quiet little corner where they keep the CDs for £1 each. This is the place to pick up those unwanted Christmas presents – less popular Beethoven symphonies, one-hit wonders with their “meditation” or “fantasia on a theme by another composer who couldn’t come up with a decent tune either”. Not to mention modern composers with titles like “obelisk 23” and “para-fern-aye lee-uh” by the Giorgio Malvolio string quintet on prepared instruments. No, those are not real pieces so don’t go googling them.

The way we listen to music has changed this over the last several decades. And I think that has everything to do with the medium. Radio, LP, CD or streaming. I was first properly aware of music in my mid to late teens, it was predominantly LPs that formed my main musical diet.. Eschewing the single as little more than a musical amuse bouche, we embraced the LP. And I think it was partly the ritualistic nature of playing LPs.

As university students, typically we would gather in somebody’s room to listen to the new Peter Gabriel, Tangerine Dream or King Crimson album. We made coffee and hastily took our seats, on the bed, chair but mostly floor. One of us would take out the disc from its sleeve and pass it, like a sommelier offering the cork of a wine bottle, to another. The LP would be briefly examined for scratches or imperfections or before being placed on the turntable. A gentle wipe with a velvet cloth was sufficient to clear the dust from the grooves, at which point the tonearm was gently lowered if not damped. Conversation stopped for 20 minutes, the only extramusical sounds being the slurping of coffee. We read the track listing, notes and information on the sleeve. That was always one of the great joys of LPs – the wealth of supplementary material, graphics and information generally. Gatefold sleeves were particularly wonderful. Brief discussion of side 1 before the procedure was repeated for the other side. More coffee, animated discussion, comparison and analysis. A new record was an event and enjoyed as such. We were serious students and talked of tracks not songs played by bands not groups. It was important to get the words right.

Music is of course, the food of love and lust. My girlfriend at the time was a fan of The Who, with posters of Pete Townshend playing at the Marquee in ’75 I think. I remember summer evenings (nominal revision sessions) watching the sunset over Solsbury Hill to the soundtrack of Discrete Music by Brian Eno. That I can remember it more than 40 years later is testament to the awesome power of music and one very sweet brunette (occasional redhead when she wanted to be). I still have the record.

As the years went by, we replaced our LPs with CDs, marvelling at the robustness and sound quality of the discs. One by one we replaced the old, now battered LPs with their CD equivalent. For brief moments we were transported back in time to those summer evenings. That is the power of music.

CDs are dying I’m told. People either stream or buy vinyl. What once was seen as the greatest asset of the CD – the music emerging from silence not the sound of snap crackle and pop – is not considered by some as a deficiency. If your music does not sound as if it was recorded in a Weetabix factory, you are somehow spiritually ersatz. You have no soul. The record shops sell LPs at eye watering prices to people with unkempt beards and comb over haircuts, hoping to once again recapture their youth through exorbitantly priced bootlegs of Bob Dylan at Glastonbury – or wherever.

Streaming, on the other hand is mainly the province of the young, faces red and purulent, cratered by acne, under virtual house arrest in their bedrooms, curtains drawn against the purifying power of sunlight. Even MP3 players are no longer the acme of the acne-riddled generation. Who would want any device however small and powerful (iPods hold about a squillion songs) when they need not. Even Apple finally gave up on the first series of iPod, for many years its techie flagship. But this is a generation that travels light, in musical terms at least. DJs aside (I wonder how many of the younger generation actually know what DJ stands for), the suitcases are empty of music. Just as well probably – they will need the space for skin lotions, potions, balms and salves to counter the pockmarked rampages with which they battle.

CDs on the other hand are terminally uncool I gather. Pulling out a CD from a purpose-built storage rack marks you out as the kind of person who can remember the Falklands. Not necessarily endorse, but certainly remember he says, quickly backtracking.

This is a straightforward four-way fight between LPs, CDs, radio and streaming. And the biggest fallacy lies in the notion that we (well, I) have anything to say in that process. Music always has been the province of the young. Whether we like it or not, music is marketed as a commodity, just like anything. And commodities dealers are young.

If however you are old, and I can’t escape the tale of the years, these are potentially bonanza years. The very same people who believe that CDs are dying, are emptying their racks of Mozart, Mahler, Mendelssohn and Messiaen. And as quickly as they are emptying their carrier bags at the counter of Oxfam, I am clearing those shelves.

The gaps in my music collection are being filled. In the last week I have bought Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin, Villalobos complete piano concertos, Rachmaninov’s Vespers and a box set of Wagner preludes and overtures. For less than a tenner – that’s a tenner for all of them together. In my music collection, the CD is alive and kicking.

Long live the CD.