Dead Media and Mediatized Subjectivity

Though lots of CDs are still being sold, it still seems fair to pronounce the medium dead, dead as the 8-track or cassette tape. Compact discs were an intermediate technology that full-scale digitization has rendered obsolete.

Though lots of CDs are still being sold (more than 200 million last year), it still seems fair to pronounce the medium dead, dead as the 8-track or cassette tape. Compact discs were an intermediate technology that full-scale digitization has rendered obsolete. Unfortunately for me, I got caught up in the way that technology was exploited for all it was worth in its 15-year reign, which brought on levels of record company opportunism that, as an insufficiently cynical teenager, I was unprepared for.

Anwyn Crawford surveys the damage wrought by the CD in this essay, which recounts the medium's history. She points out that "a CD’s capacity for 74 minutes of data, as opposed to an average of 40 minutes (20 each side) for vinyl, encouraged artists to record longer and longer albums – or alternatively, for labels to stuff CD album releases with remixes, ‘bonus’ tracks, demos and other filler, particularly in the lucrative market of CD reissues." That in turn destroyed the integrity of albums, always a tenuous idea but one which defined the heyday of rock music. In the CD era, albums were a filler dumping ground, and reissues offered unnecessary rejected material that made the original release seem retroactively provisional. Quality gave way to quantity, both ideologically and on the discs themselves.

Now it seems obvious that CDs were misbegotten, especially since the transformation of songs into digital files has made packaging far more important, and the files' infinite reproducibility has made the analog aura of vinyl into a fetish. But when CDs were first introduced in the 1980s, I took the hype at face value and believed that it made perfect sense to discard my record collection and pay for it all over again, so I could hear albums in their alleged pristine digital state. Back then I imagine I was tired of records getting scratched or warped, tired of plucking dust balls of the phonograph needle, tired of having to remember to step lightly when I walked past the table the stereo sat on so I wouldn't make the record skip and possibly ruin it. I was eager to believe the promise of CDs' indestructibility, their "perfect" sound. I wanted to believe that such a thing existed -- a perfect copy of an album, unworn by time; it suited my impression that the music I was getting into was "timeless," transcendentally great.

I had no idea, however -- couldn't imagine -- that industry engineers would be so indifferent, so negligent, in remastering those transcendental classics from the back catalog. I disbelieved my ears when I heard the hollow, trebly sound of the Byrds CDs and Astral Weeks. I didn't believe that Columbia would simply cut several minutes out of "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" for the first Blonde on Blonde CD and not mention it anywhere. Or that the opening chords of "Brown Sugar" would be lopped off the Sticky Fingers disc. Or that the Doors' first album would be mastered at the wrong speed.

And so on. I just trusted for no good reason that record companies cared about the quality of their products. But in retrospect, the compact disc as a medium was definitive proof that they didn't. The CD offered inferior sound for inflated prices, and the product itself was often adulterated (intentionally or through negligence), which forced consumers who cared to repurchase the same albums on CD multiple times. (How many times has the Village Green Preservation Society been reissued?) And then there are the problems of overcompression destroying the dynamics, and discs being normalized at eardrum-bleed decibel levels for no apparent reason. Ultimately, I came to see that I had been duped and felt betrayed by the record industry, though it never really owed me anything anyway.

I wonder if something similar will happen eventually with iPods and MP3s. Obviously the sound quality of MP3s is inferior, but their convenience has always trumped the need for fidelity, and lossless formats don't seem to catch on, partly because Apple refuses to support open-source codecs like flac. As hard-drive capacity increases, presumably some commonly used future version of MP3s will eventually reach CD levels of fidelity, but such files intrinsically cannot compare with analog sound. The purpose of music in the iPod era seems to have changed fundamentally -- the iPod, as sociologist Michael Bull details in Sound Moves, provides a portable sound world that offers solace and privacy in the abrasive environments we must traverse in modern life. (This always makes me think of the film Morvern Callar, in which the main character uses a Walkman to keep herself tuned out, and viewers are made to recognize the disjunction between her sound world and the diagetical sound we don't hear.)

We use music more and more to propel us through other activities; less often do we make listening our primary activity. Virtually the only time I make paying attention to music my primary activity it is when I am at a live performance, and I hardly ever do that these days. And more important, as Bull's book suggests, we use it to experience mediated faux togetherness through pop music while managing our privacy and exerting our individualist right to hear what we want and block out everything else. MP3s are designed to indulge our individualism and produce/compensate for our isolation. The surfeit of them, the overwhelming number of songs anyone with sufficient hard-drive space can collect, is a reflection of that need for more and more building blocks for us to construct our sonic uniqueness in playlists. The medium encourages the use of music to express subjectivity, even more so then the previous era of music-oriented youth subcultures. With MP3s, music doesn't express its content so much as it expresses us.

Perhaps at some point it will seem insane that people walked down the street wearing sensory deprivation devices that allowed them to ignore one another, and perhaps the format for piping those supplementary noises into our heads will be reviled. But probably MP3s will be replaced by an aural media that gives us even more apparent control over how to experience community as a commodity while we remain safely isolated, entombed in sound.

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