The Disintegration of the Compact Disc

January 16th, 2008 | Category: Marginalia

The Cure — DisintegrationWhen The Cure was recording their 1989 record, Disintegration, Robert Smith said it was the first time that they went into the studio knowing that they’d be recording for a release on compact disc, which meant they could shoot for over an hour of music. “Disintegration is the first real CD-LP,” he claimed, “It was about time the musicians learned to use this format: instead of two twenty-minute sides of an LP, you now have a seventy-minute stream of music without interruptions.” The LP had restricted bands to a runtime of forty-five minutes, but with the advent of CD came additional time to record songs (“bonus tracks,” anyone?).

My man Gabe Bogart and I were discussing this over the weekend. As music fans, part-time DJs, MP3 geeks, and collectors of sorts, we tried to use our various vantage points to get to the core of this newest technological shift in the music industry.

The advance in technology to the CD changed not only the process and the quality, but also the goal, of recording. Now that the CD is dying its slow, controversial death and the MP3 has returned us to the days of singles — true singles, singles sans B-sides — what will bands record? What does the “record” (e.g., the collection of songs with a standard length that has previously been based on the properties of physical media) become? Ringtones? (It’s already happening more than any true music fan wants to notice or admit.)

On the surface, quite literally, the CD was just the next physical format for the commercial distribution of music. Its aesthetic proximity to the LP (and the likelihood that it is music’s last physical, commercial format) has caused some to conjecture that it will end up like the LP, as a cultural artifact to be revered, preserved, collected. Others see its small size and subsequently small cover art, as well as its mass-produced disposability, as signs it will go the way of the cassette and the 8-track.

So, two of the main questions left by the slow disappearance of the CD are these:

  • What will bands record? What does the traditional “record” become?
  • As a physical format, will the CD end up like the LP or go the way of the cassette tape?

Further Posting:


  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    P.S. The CD isn’t quite dead yet. With In Rainbows, Radiohead has proven — like they have with so many other things — that the CD is still quite alive in the marketplace. More than that, they proved that downloads are not necessarily killing CD sales: After offering In Rainbows as a choose-your-own-price download on their website in October, they licensed the record for CD release in January. The CD went straight to number one on the charts. Will the RIAA officially shut the fuck up now?

  • Brian Tunney said:

    Artists will continue to record whatever format is specific to their output. I can’t see bands like Explosions in the Sky or The Weakerthans ever moving away from a thematically mapped out, carefully sequenced LP/CD format. And I additionally can’t see someone like Amerie or Beyonce ever straying from the commercial single format. Ultimately, it’s the artist’s (or whoever is steering the artist’s career) discretion to decide how to present their work.

    As for the future of the CD, who knows? The future of owning a piece of physical, commercial music seems in jeopardy, and even though it makes me sound like an old bastard, it’s a shame. There are so many great LPs and CDs that I own, and aside from the music contained within, the presentation of the music (through artwork, liner notes, etc.) made these works go above and beyond just being music. It was an experience that took careful thought, examination and interpretation; one that is quickly disappearing since the advent of the MP3.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    I can’t see a band like Explosions in the Sky moving away from a fully orchestrated, full-length style of release either, but there’s nothing to determine such a release’s length anymore. Perhaps the standard length will linger as the CD itself is. Maybe the distinction I’m making isn’t so important.

    Funny, when Alex Steinweiss invented album cover art, the sales of records with art (versus those without) increased 600%. There is no doubt that the cover art is important, but as the atoms disappear, so does the artwork. As many of them as have tried, so far no one has figured out to replicate the artwork in the digital world.

    Also, notice how even just saying “compact disc” sounds antiquated.

  • ben said:

    You know what really irks me about all this talk about the end of the CD, and this migration to the mp3 as the most common medium for music? The fact that mp3s fucking suck — not to mention Steve Jobs’ far worse, technologically crippled m4a format. I don’t give a shit about having CDs and liner notes to hold in my hand anymore. I’m over all that. But if this transition means I can’t get anything better than a goddamn 128kbps compressed file to crank through my stereo, then I’m going to have to stake out my position as a Luddite on this one.

    Can’t we all agree that adopting an open, lossless standard like FLAC is better for everyone? As far as I’m concerned, with disk space asymptotically approaching free and requiring increasingly less physical space, and bandwidth continuously increasing, there is no excuse for ever using an mp3 for any reason.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Agreed, Ben. Mark and I were talking about this the other day, and he mentioned the fact that MP3s are actually getting worse.

    I think a lossless format like FLAC is definitely a growth area in this transition, for exactly the reasons you state.

    As an aside, here’s David Byrne’s take on the CD’s demise.

  • Dave Allen said:

    Ah yes what a conundrum. My quick take – Gang of Four is in the studio as I write and we are pulling together some amazing new material (if I may say so myself!) and of course the dilemma is how the hell to get it in the hands of our fans – I have my ideas, the others have theirs, to be continued.
    The MP3 – I have argued all over the ‘net, and actually in 3 interviews with human beings this week, that we all seem to forget that we ‘access’ music as best we can all of the time, and we don’t always judge its recorded or otherwise, quality. Whistling, humming, tapping, hearing the song in your head…there are so many ways. My youngest daughter loves music and can be seen often wearing one half of her broken iPod ‘phones, listening to music while talking on her mobile to a friend…I remember being like that too. Mono reel to reel recordings that I made of John Peel, bad hissing cassette copies of vinyl records..and so on. It’s the music I wanted and still do. I agree that MP3s should be large lossless files for those of us that want audio quality yet even I am happy with 320kb files…

  • pampelmoose Dave Allen of Gang of Four’s Music and Media Blog » emi, new gang of four album, radiohead, london, media punditry said:

    […] – My buddy, Roy Christopher has a discussion going on his blog that’s a great extension of this debate. […]

  • ben said:

    I checked out the piece at pampelmoose on David Byrne and how he “embraced” the “mp3.” But did he? Has a musical mastermind like David Byrne really conceded that the future of music is in a crappy, lossy format like the mp3, despite the fact that there is no technical reason that a lossless format isn’t entirely plausible? I just see nothing in the piece that corroborates the headline; all I see is that he takes issue with DRM, as well he should.

    I don’t mean to prolong this rant, but it continuously irks me. I’m in the process of converting about a 600 CD collection to FLAC (got a new half terabyte drive for chrixmas), and it irritates the shit out of me that I can rarely download a lossless version of the songs that are too scratched to rip intact (and generally can rarely download lossless versions of anything — if you know of a reliable source, please let me know).

    Sort of relatedly, I also recently read David Byrne’s interview of Thom Yorke in Wired, where they touched on the question of whether or not the “album format” is on its way out with the CD. In my mind, the questions of whether or not the CD as a medium, and the album as a “format,” will be rendered obsolete by the digital revolution are — and should remain — entirely separate questions.

    You don’t need a physical object like a CD to store a collection of songs that share some cohesive element, some common thread that bind them together as a single work of art. All you need is a little bit of context, and you can accomplish that over any medium.

    I will say this: it will be a sad day in my mind if the concept of an album proves a casualty of the digital age. But I have a feeling that there are a lot of artists on my side on this point, and that the “format” will survive the evolution of media.

  • Gabi Wan Kenobi said:

    The discussion continues over at my jonx!!

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    This is what Gabe posted over at his site:

    I worked for many years in record shops, Tower(now defunct, sniffle, sniffle, tear) and Cellophane Square, here in Seattle. It served to simultaneously fuel and satisfy my passion(s) for music. Part of this passion had to do with the ability to discuss and critique music and its related culture. This is exactly what is so important, functionally, about the discussion Roy and I have cultivated here. How do artforms exist, struggle to survive sometimes, in our consumer culture, which is more concerned with the product than its effect on us and our reaction to it?

    We have been discussing format, namely the rapid shifts in format in the digital age, and how it pertains, most specifically, to vinyl and how artists/bands will record(to what ends?). For now, I just have a little anecdote connected to format.

    The other day, I stopped in on my old manager at Cellophane to pick up a data disc he’d burned for me. Another old coworker was there, looking for some hard to find tunes. Upon searching on the interweb, he told her that there was a copy of the album available on CD and another on Ebay(I think), which was on cassette. She immediately chortled at the thought of purchasing a cassette. And why the fuck not?!? Who actually buys cassettes nowadays, really??? I mean, there are still plenty of folks who might make a mixtape for a friend or a girl they’re trying to win the affections of(yup, that’s me…they take so much more time and thought to make than a disc! C’mon!!), but other than that, it is clearly a dead format. Now, if he had sought out and found a vinyl copy of said album, I am 100% sure she would’ve been stoked, as she said so. Except for one fact. She was trying to buy the album for her dad, who now lives on a boat and, due to that circumstance, no longer owns a turntable.

    That is a pretty specific circumstance, based solely on space(mostly for the storage of vinyl). This illustrates, in my mind, that, if you removed that barrier, then two people from separate generations(one in her mid-to-late twenties and her father) would still be pursuing that piece of vinyl. The reasons may not be boldly clear as to why, but the passion and hunt are there, where as the cassette is scoffed at like a dish of Elementary School Cafeteria Mac’n’Cheese. And this all goes down in a few seconds in 2008, years beyond the announced ‘supposed’ death of vinyl.

    I think that this should do it for now, but this subject is far from covered.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Interesting that you mention the generational divide, Gabe. In his book Playback (Da Capo, 2005), Mark Coleman brings it up by saying that dads and daughters are more likely to argue over what format to play music on than what music to play.

    Those choices and arguments aren’t likely to fade anytime soon (vinyl’s going to be around for a long time to come). Even as the digital formats expand and even as we try to figure out where it’s all going, the LP — and the CD — are going to linger.

  • said:

    The Disintegration of the Compact Disc…

    “The advance in technology to the CD changed not only the process and the quality, but also the goal, of recording. Now that the CD is dying its slow, controversial death and the MP3 has returned us to the days of singles — true singles, singles san…

  • A Berks said:

    I like this conversation. My take is that CD is just a medium and that smart artists will tend to agree with the opinion that cohesive 10-14 song “projects” are always going to be relevant (similar to what ‘ben’ said before). In my opinion it’s part of the Long Tail effect where it widens the marketplace, not so where the there is a decrease in album sales disparity between the top spot and the bottom spot, but rather increases market places. You have a smaller disparity in income between those artists on top of the singles market, the full project market, the ringtone market, etc.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Thanks, Aaron. You’re right, the move from atoms to bits is definitely lengthening and widening the tail.

    I just came across this post on Doug Rushkoff‘s blog comparing the music industry’s actions with the CD in the 90s with Hollywood’s treatment of its writers today. Interesting connection.

  • souldish (( high frequency culture )) » Steve's Weekly Dish 65.0 said:

    […] The Disintegration of the Compact Disc Now that the MP3 has returned us to the days of singles What will bands record? What does the record” become? […]

  • Mark Sklawer said:

    Because of the compression, Cd’s sucked, always did. My suggestion is to think outside of the box. When transistor radio came into being they provided cheap and portable ways of hearing music. A revolution in music both artistically as well as sonically happened at that time with multi-tracking and the wide spread acceptance of “Hi-Fi”. Cheap mp3’s are the am radio of today. I say to hell with 16bit 44k technology that is over 30-years old. Let us embrace SACD. Better yet, calling all artists! Wrap your brains around HD/Blu-Ray as the new cutting edge. Non compressed studio quality, multi-channel surround, and video. Imagine if Sgt. Pepper had the opportunity to be presented in such formats. The sky is the limit, if we creativity embrace what is now!

  • Kayli said:

    hooray for people who love vinyl as much as i do. don’t get me wrong, i do own an mp3. but only because i can’t lug all my records around everywhere! HOORAY FOR VINYL!!! LONG LIVE THE RECORD!

  • Mark said:

    I think we’ll just get more of the extremes that we have already. More one-hit-wonders. More epic concept albums. More ultra high quality recordings. More low quality shit. Seems like the artists will decide, which is better than the record companies or their format-warring parent corporations. Would be nice to think an open, high resolution lossless standard will become more common soon. I’ve experimented a good deal with SACD and found it to be a huge improvement on standard CD. Too bad the SACD selection never materialized. Vinyl intrigues me but selection is an issue with it as well. Right now I rip standard CDs to Apple Lossless and play them via an external DAC (digital to analog converter). This works fairly well, but I worry that Apple may eventually restrict my ability to transcode their format into a different lossless format should I want to do so. I guess this is why I still haven’t sold my CDs (I also have a certain amount of nostalgic attachment to them)…

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    I still think about this issue constantly. The more I think about it, the more it seems to be a transition that’s affecting a far broader area than any of us would have initially thought. I think you’re right that we’ll see more of everything, and I hope you’re right that more of it will be up to the artists. I think more of it will be up to the listeners as well. For instance, demand for a proper lossless digital file format seems to be growing. This is good.

    Give us what we want, or we’ll take it anyway.

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