Steel Druhm Comments: On Record Industry Paradigms and the Decline of the Compact Disc

Things change; it’s one of the few things you can truly count on. Change is often good, sometimes bad, but it’s as inevitable as the tides. Naturally, the medium of music and the way we as consumers receive it, is always undergoing some type of change. As a youngster, I bought my music on tape and vinyl. I acquired hundreds of tapes and had them organized in lovely, decorative tape cases. For really special albums, I bought the vinyl and displayed it in my room like a Picasso. When CDs started gaining traction, I grudgingly made the switch and started the arduous and expensive process of repurchasing many of my beloved albums on the shiny new format. What choice did I have? Tapes die, records scratch, but CDs are forever.

Through the years, I amassed thousands of the little deadly discs, while always looking fearfully over my shoulder for the next recording innovation that would nullify the CD and send me into yet another angry buying spiral on some futuristic sound platform. There were always nagging rumors of some type of mini-disc or high-capacity super tape that would supplant the dominance of the CD and render it the next Betamax. When the iPod burst on the scene, along with the concept of the MP3, I didn’t at first take it for the threat to CD supremacy that it truly was. It seems a cooperative medium that would never trump the tried and true hardcopy item. I embraced it, loaded all my favorite CDs onto iTunes and was happy to have the iPod’s mighty music warehouse at my disposal.

Over time though, almost imperceptibly, I stopped buying CDs. With albums available at the mere click of a button, the hassle of hunting down obscure music via eBay, Amazon, import companies or through trips to dusty and mysterious record shops became more and more pointless. Sure, I missed having the actual album in my hand and the joy of leafing through a well done booklet and gazing at the art, but the button click delivery became as addictive as a mega opiate.

Upon even the slightest reflection, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Mp3 has dealt a death-blow to the already struggling record company business model, and CD sales numbers have been in steady decline since the early days of the new millennium. Some recent articles have quoted industry insiders on the impending demise of the CD. Various sources suggest labels will begin slowing the CD pressing process by the end of this year, while others put it out as far as 2014. Whatever the actual date, it seems clear the CD is soon to join the scrap heap of musical technology, right alongside the 8-Track and cassette tape. As the sun sets on another era in musical delivery, I find myself reflecting on what I’ll miss and what we will lose on the altar of modernity.

Assuming we find ourselves in a truly digital only world, with MP3s as the only real game in town (aside from the occasional vinyl for purists), we will have entered a stage where purchased music is something entirely insubstantial. There will be nothing to hold, nothing to skim through and nothing to display. Think about that for a moment. For generations, part of the enjoyment of purchasing music was to hold something concrete in your hand as you listen  to that first playback. You could marvel at the art, the lyrics, the vibe the entire package was designed to impart. You could prop it up proudly in your bookshelf, show your buddies; hell, it was even fun for me to scour the copious liner notes! All that will be gone for all intents and purposes. We will have song files and possibly, digital representations of the cover art and booklets, but unless we print it out, it just won’t be the same.

This leads me to wonder how long record labels and artists will even bother with cover art. In a totally digital world, why hire an artist to generate a badass cover if it will only be seen as a tiny image on somebody’s MP3 player? Clearly the days of the gate-fold special edition vinyl are long gone, but to have NO artwork whatsoever would be a major bummer. The art was always such a defining part of the music for me, I doubt I’ll ever adjust to seeing it fade away into the past.

Sure, I’m an old-timer and I remember the good old days of bigger-than-life art which helped bring the music to the next level of mood and imagination, but not-so-distant generations of music fans may grow up with that as a completely unknown, dead tradition. That will be a real shame for them, and us. Just a little something to think about as time grinds us all to dust along with the technology and traditions of our youth. At least my CDs will make cool decorations….

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