I wish I could tell you the name of the place. Record Bar, Record Barn, Record Bunker — someplace with a name that suggested records might meet there for drinks after work.
There used to be a million stores just like it in shopping malls across America; deep, checkerboard-floored caverns of mass-market music and teen-angst ephemera. New releases up in front, wall of singles to the right, T-shirts and posters in the back. And forming craggy spines up the middle: rack after rack of CDs.
I was 13, maybe 14. I'd just gotten my first CD player, a Sanyo boombox with twin tape decks and an AM/FM tuner. And I was about to buy my first album in that futuristic format, a 5-inch disc still on the upswing of its three-decade domination of our culture.
Perhaps you've read lately reports of the CD's impending demise. Best Buy will, this summer, cease selling compact discs, and Target will scale back its inventory. Many cars no longer have CD players, and good luck finding a laptop with a disc drive. Song streams, not physical album sales, are the coin of the realm on the pop charts. CD shipments fell more than 6 percent in 2017, a southward trend that likely will never reverse.
So this is how a great format dies, is it? Cast into the dollar bin of history, unloved and uneulogized, with few waxing nostalgic for its virtues a la vinyl and cassettes?
At the return April 21 of Record Store Day, the industry's annual celebration of indie record shops, the death of CDs will be all but an afterthought. Yet some 25 years after wading into that store for my first CD purchase, I maintain a hard-to-explain loyalty to the compact disc. I still buy them, burn them, alphabetize them in Case Logic binders on a bookshelf.
And I am not alone. CDs, not vinyl or iTunes or Spotify, were the soundtrack to my generation's musical awakening. Love or loathe the format, that's a hard thing to let go.
• • •
Before we get back to the Record Barge, or whatever it was called, let us praise the unsung beauty of a format better known for its sterile, robotic efficiency.
Unlike records, CDs did not aspire to be works of art. They initially came in those wasteful oblong boxes, which did offer a little more canvas space, but that soon went the way of the Edison cylinder, leaving only a little lyric booklet in a dinky plastic box. But the holographic depth of the discs could be strangely hypnotic, especially when the right ray of sunlight splashed a watery rainbow onto your bedroom ceiling.
People go on and on about the scratch of a settling needle or the hiss of a well-worn cassette. The sound of a CD is more subtle: a hushed whirring as it loads, a whispered burble as you skip between tracks. Fidelity is in the ears of the beholder, I suppose; you may prefer a speck of dust in your speakers to the clean, glassy clarity of CDs. Remember spinning MTV Unplugged albums — another bygone relic from the '90s — and singling out individual fans' claps and whistles through your headphones? It was like you were in the room with Clapton or Cobain. The experience was immersive.
Planning your weekend?
Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Purists may say the concept of the mixtape peaked with cassettes — they are called mixtapes, after all — but the art was perfected on CD, where you could slot and shuffle 72 minutes worth of your favorite tracks onto a single disc with ease. In college I got an external burner so I could burn hundreds of mixes of singles and downloads and one-hit wonders, the tracklist scrawled in Sharpie in a clockwise spiral. I have here the first mix CD I ever made: Len's Steal My Sunshine and Fountains of Wayne's Radiation Vibe, Luscious Jackson's Ladyfingers and Social Distortion's Ball and Chain. Holds up!
To be sure, there are things no one will miss about CDs: the impenetrable strip of tape clasping each new jewel case shut; sensitivity to scratches that made them prone to skipping. We all have a friend whose entire music collection was boosted from an unlocked car. But no format is perfect. Records warp. Tapes unspool. Streaming is only as good as your signal.
In its heyday, nothing topped the ubiquitous digital disc. How many people entered the internet age via those zombielike AOL mailers? How many grade-school essays were written with CD-ROM Encarta encyclopedias? How many DVDs have you purchased or given as Christmas gifts? Come to think of it, who among you recently purchased a 4K Ultra HD TV? And a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray of Blade Runner 2049 to go with it?
The CD has informed our culture in more ways than you can imagine. Artists like Beyoncé, Kanye West and Rihanna may debut their latest albums digitally, but you really think they weren't all raised on a diet of CDs? You think they don't have their first albums stashed deep in some Rubbermaid tub?
Music culture as we know it in 2018 began with the invention of the CD some three and a half decades ago. All the more reason to mourn its slow, undignified death.
• • •
Back at the Record Arboretum, Christmas cash melting in my balmy teenage palms, I had one album on my list, and I didn't care if it cost $20 — as some CDs did in those days — to get it.
I headed to the S section, passed the Smiths and Sonic Youth, stopped before the Stooges and Stone Roses. And there I find it: the Spin Doctors' Pocket Full of Kryptonite.
Go on. Laugh. Get it out of your system. It wasn't a particularly cool album then, and it sounds so dated today, with the crisp snares of Two Princes and Little Miss Can't Be Wrong serving as impeccable time-capsule drops from their decade.
But if you had to pick an album to represent the era when the compact disc was king, you could do worse. Pop-rock albums like Pocket Full of Kryptonite were jet fuel for the CD boom of the '90s — Hootie and the Blowfish's Cracked Rear View, R.E.M.'s Monster, Sheryl Crow's Tuesday Morning Music Club. Of the millions of albums the Spin Doctors ever sold, the majority had to be Kryptonite on CD.
So if anyone has a soft spot for the format, it would be Spin Doctors singer Chris Barron. Right?
"No, I don't have any sentimentality to the compact disc," Barron says by phone from New York. "It's just a diminished form of a vinyl record."
Must be a generational thing. Barron is 50; vinyl was the format of his youth, much as compact discs were mine. He had to be talked into releasing his new solo record on compact disc, and in fact probably will not reorder more copies when they're all sold out: "I'm just going to make a book with a download card."
"There's something tawdry about a CD," he says. "When that needle goes into the groove of that record, you're hearing an actual impression of the sound that was uttered or played into the ribbon of the microphone. You're hearing a plaster cast of the music — as opposed to a CD, which is the music translated into binary code, and then back into music again. There's a loss of information, like trying to understand Shakespeare's 'To be or not to be' soliloquy in Mandarin. It's not going to come out exactly the same way."
Barron is certain that in 2017, Kryptonite sold more new copies on vinyl than CD. And that makes him happy.
"Every time I look at a CD," he says, "I just picture a landfill."
Thousands of cracked copies of Pocket Full of Kryptonite, glittering in dumps across America. This is what naysayers see when they think of the compact disc's legacy.
But that might not be how it ends. If we let this thing play out, there may be a hidden track yet to come.
• • •
Keith Ulrey got his first CD in 1989: Simple Minds' Street Fighting Years, purchased with an employee discount at Music Express at the old Eastlake Square Mall in Tampa.
"I remember them telling us to tell customers to expect a seven-year lifespan on CDs, and they may have to rebuy that album later on, because they didn't know — it was a new technology," he says. "And I still have my 1989 CD that's very listenable and clean as a whistle."
Ulrey today owns the Tampa music shop Microgroove and record label New Granada. He books and promotes local concerts, and drums in a band called Pohgoh, which will release a new album this year. There's not a facet of his livelihood that CDs do not touch. And he doesn't foresee that changing.
"When people share these things on Facebook, and they go, 'The death of the CD!' — that means they don't buy CDs anymore, so that's their perspective," says Keith Ulrey. "It's kind of like when somebody goes, 'Walking Dead? I watched the first season. That show's still on?' Well, yeah, it's still on. And it's a massive hit. It just means that you stopped watching it."
He has a point. According to the Record Industry Association of America, CD sales were indeed down in 2017 — but they remained by far music's bestselling physical format. Digital downloads suffered a much steeper slide than CDs, almost 25 percent. And while streaming now accounts for nearly 50 percent of the music's total market, more people still purchased CDs than subscribed to a streaming service like Spotify or Tidal, by a margin of 2?½ to 1.
Ulrey still encourages musicians to press new CDs — maybe not 1,000, as he would in the old days, but at least a couple hundred, just because they're cheaper and more convenient than LPs. Some of the younger bands don't get it, he says. But there will always be customers who want one. They come into his shop every day.
"It's certainly not the demand that it was in the '90s, where it was up around 80 percent of business," said Erin Stoy of the Sound Exchange, which has shops in Tampa and Pinellas Park. "It's not necessarily the everyday person on the street that is going to come in and buy 10 CDs, but people who are collectors collect things. They're not interested in a download or something that's not physical and tangible. … There's still a select group of customers that comes in every day, and that's what they're looking for."
Even Criminal Records, the Atlanta institution whose owners co-founded Record Store Day in 2007, still devotes decent floor space to new and used CDs. Atlanta is an example of a city where the compact disc still carries cultural currency, where local hip-hop mixtapes are still sold in convenience stores. The FX series Atlanta recently featured a scene in which Donald Glover's rapper cousin brought their fresh new mix CD to a Spotify-like streaming startup, only to learn that no one could play it because the place didn't believe in disc drives.
If the coolest comedy on TV is tipping its cap to the realness of CDs over the intangibility of streaming, is it not possible that CDs — like vinyl, like cassettes — will outlive Best Buy's pessimistic projections and stick around for decades? Can technology that once sounded like the future escape relegation to the past?
"It's certainly not going to be what it was in the '90s," Ulrey says. "But I would predict that within about five or 10 years, we'll actually see a nostalgic CD resurgence, kind of like we're seeing the vinyl resurgence right now. They're not going anywhere."
Mine haven't. I can still flip through my binders, past Salt-N-Pepa and Sleater-Kinney and Springsteen, and find the emerald-green Spin Doctors disc that kick-started my collection. I could never sell or trash it. I might ought to put it on now.
Pass me a Sharpie. I think I have a mix to make.
Contact Jay Cridlin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.