There was nothing wrong with the CD

I’ve been frustrated with how we now access and consume media lately. I don’t think I am alone. We now all have subscriptions to multiple streaming services which nickel-and-dime us for media we used to purchase once and keep forever. I was once excited to go down this path; for a little bit of money every month I could have access to any media I wanted in a way that promised to be effortless. We are now maybe a decade into this new world and it’s not as shiny to me as it once was. We now deal with a larger number of services all taking their fee, and because they have implemented platform exclusivity you need multiple subscriptions. Have you ever signed up for a subscripton to watch one show, or listen to one band? I can understand, and have made, the financial reasoning for this. Pay to enjoy the media you want to, and cancel the service when you are done. This can be cheaper than buying blu-ray sets of a TV show, but may not be cheaper than buying a single movie on blu-ray or an album on CD. If you cancel the service, your access to that media is now gone. The experience is made fleeting. And, similar to the old world of cable subscription bundling, you are likely subsidizing a lot of garbage media. Netflix really made me angry with Cuties and Tiger King for example, because I knew that some fraction of the money I gave them went to support these things. We have really ended up back with the old model for TV, and the only thing we may have gained is choice in what we watch when.

I don’t really trust the personal cloud or remotely administtered media licenses either. The personal cloud has introduced more complication and confusion into my life. Instead of using a portable hard drive or something I now have to pick between providers and navigate each providers method of syncing and accessing those files and trust that something doesn’t go wrong or that the data is truly still mine. Remotely managed licenses are causing a good deal of headache to gamers because they have discovered that those licenses don’t always carry over to the new console, software glitches on the server side can cause games to become unavailable, download-only games can become delisted before you get around to buying and trying them, and you can’t just loan or resell your game easily like we could before. Things feel more complicated and less trustworthy.

The title of this post is “There was nothing wrong with the CD”, so perhaps I should talk about CDs. I’ve been buying CDs again lately, partly for nostalgia, and partly to revisit what we left behind. I really missed the record store experience, it is so fortunate they are still around. The social experience of digging through the bins with other people and the excitement when you find something you like. The tangible object, which we understand now is your license to that music, is a wonderful thing. New vinyl record collectors realized this joy a while ago resulting in an explosion of popularity for vinyl records (which unfortunately drove the prices up). The CD offers that same experience but in a smaller, more portable, and more durable form. The sound quality is excellent (and CD quality sound is still the standard), and storage can’t be simpler: Disc. Case. Shelf. Compatibility is simple, just put the disc in almost anything with an optical drive. You can loan a CD, you can resell it.

What was ever wrong with this? What was ever wrong with having a tangible object containing media that was simple to use and didn’t cost you money every month?

Something else I noticed with our vaporlike digital-only world that really bothers me is intentionality. I realized eventually that I was caring about music less. There was no elation when I got a new album, no enjoyment of what the artists came up with for the booklet design, and no real attention paid to new album releases. Music just became, well, a stream, when it used to be a monument of my life. Part of this is undoubtably because I am much older and much busier than I was in the CD’s golden age, but I do wonder how people who have grown up in the digital-only world feel about this. Do files on a filessytem generate these kinds of feelings in them? Does an endless algorithmically chosen stream of random music compare to that bookcase of CDs you chose because you really really like them? Do they ever wish they could just hand a CD to a friend instead of sending them some sharing link to an app you hope they have?

Right now, I’m enjoying my CD player and my slowly recovering stack of CDs. I don’t know how I am going to feel about this in a few years, but I know that we should think about how internet technologies change our lives even on a physical level. Right now I feel that things are more complicated, less tangible, less enjoyed, and less cherished.

“We are liiiivviing in a material world….”