Thursday, April 16, 2009


I have been both awe struck and perplexed by the succession of deluxe reissue/ collector's edition CDs that have been coming out lately at a breakneck speed. As a music fan this has been somewhat exhilarating as well as partially frustrating.

On a positive note I have been able to rekindle my relationship with some beloved classic albums that up until recently were only available on inferior CD incarnations (complete with poor sound quality and aesthetically questionable design and packaging to boot!).

Needless to say, the major record companies are well aware of my demographic and are happy to cater to folks like me who are willing to spend some of their dwindling disposable income on tangible music. Ultimately the promise of a few enticing extras to sweeten the deal is an appealing prospect.

Of course part and parcel with this recent reissue frenzy is the underlying sense that this all just one last gasp of air for the CD format as the music industry braces to redefine itself in the new digital landscape.In a recent review of the reissues of Radiohead's first three albums (Pablo Honey, The Bends, OK Computer) Scott Plagenhoef at Pitchfork makes the assertion that "the Beatles' September 9 remaster campaign is, arguably, the end of the CD era" and goes on to expand upon his willingness to scoop up many of the current CD reissues in the meantime, in so far as they are relevant.

This is fitting in some ways if this is indeed the case, as I remember it seeming like a huge paradigm shift the first time you could buy the entire Beatles catalogue on CD. Of course we now know just how incredibly awful and compressed these initial CDs sounded, not to mention the poor presentation of the art work and album concepts.

So if this is indeed close to the end of the CD as we know it, perhaps it is fitting to end it with what are arguably some of the most important and influential recordings of the 20th century (and I humbly beseech the music gods above to ensure that they get it right with these Beatles reissues).

The generational shift away from tangible music hit me a few years ago when I was visiting with my niece and two nephews in the small town where they live. Like any good visiting uncle would do I offered to take them out and let them pick out something from a store they like (in their case it was the local Best Buy).

I suggested they pick out a few CDs and I received a blank look of indifference from all three of them. Of course we ended up buying a few DVDs and a video game instead. It hit me instantly that tangible music wasn't a significant point of reference for them, as it might have been even 5 years earlier if I had made the same offer to kids of a similar age group.

Ultimately what will happen of course is that CDs won’t drop off the face of the earth, but will likely be available on a limited release basis (along with vinyl) at more boutique like places that cater to people who care about this sort of thing. This works for me, as I loathe having to buy my music in places that also sell household appliances.

The other side benefit of this is that as the music biz continues to go mostly digital, the CDs or records that do come out on a limited basis will likely be more interesting. Hopefully there will continue to be more attention paid to some of the more appealing design elements and content as they become less mass produced and more niche oriented.

Anyhow, I will likely be hitting one of my favourite record shops on April 18th to celebrate record store day and participate in the sacred browsing ritual that has been an integral part of my life for a few decades now. I hope to unearth a few musical treasures in the process.

It is one of those strangely comforting rituals that connects me to a part of myself that I need to remain in touch with - a sense of wonder and possibility as I browse the aisles for that one recording that might just change my life.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I think you might be onto something with your idea that all these reissues upon reissues are the last gasp of the record industry.

Personally, I like a physical manifestation of the music. It's all about the liner notes and cover art, you know.

Randal Graves said...

The entire production can be a work of aural and visual art, so count me in with the "yay CDs!" crowd.

If, like vinyl, it goes 100% niche, that's fine, I'm willing to shell out a few extra bucks above and beyond the typical $9.99 for downloads.

Thomas said...

Being a huge fan of classical music I feel like I have already experienced the death of the CD. Although given the limited market for classical music, I fear the worst for classical recordings period, forget about the format.

Over the past 20 years the outlets for purchasing classical music in person have gotten fewer and fewer (and lamer and lamer). Year after year one would watch the classical section get smaller and smaller, being squeezed together with the similarly diminishing jazz, showtunes, and world music sections. Using the case of the giant Tower Records here in DC the squeeze was not because pop music was exploding and needing the space but rather room had to be made for DVDs, magazines, candy, stuffed animals and whatever else they could find to help pay the rent. Now with Tower's demise...

There are a couple of great online sources for classical CDs, but it is hard to discover new recordings online. And there is no shopkeeper to gossip with.

Liberality said...

I am spending more and more of my time listening to music. We buy CDs still but my son rarely does. I noticed all the remasterw with bonus tracks myself. I got all of Simon and Garfunkel's music remastered in one package for twenty bucks recently. How can you pass something like that up?

Sean Wraight said...

Excellent post Matthew! I share your opinion of the imminent, end of days for the beloved CD. Now despite the apparent resurgence in popularity of vinyl, sales still fall well below 1% of all music consumed. So its hardly a surprise the death knell is ringing so loudly.

Sad too, I agree with you that one of the pleasures of being a music lover is the tangible nature that is associated with it. Holding a CD or a record in your hands and pouring over the liner notes is truly one of my life's pleasures. The fact that so many young people will miss out on this breaks my heart. It just doesn't seem to register with them. (Despite my best efforts too.) But what I think is far worse is the decline of passion for music. There seems to be an acceptance of it and yes some younger people have their favourites but they just don't eat it up as voraciously as I (and you) did and continue to do so.

Record Store Day afforded a modicum of relief when I entered a quite full record store on Saturday but there was a time not too long ago when it was like that every day.

Great post. I really enjoyed reading.


Omnipotent Poobah said...

Say it ain't so! I'm still waiting for 8-tracks to make a comeback!

Comrade Kevin said...

It is a comforting ritual for me as well, but since I have a limited amount of disposable income these days, I long since have been using bit torrent to get all that I could ever need or want.

Westcoast Walker said...

Thanks for the comments all!

It is indeed both a frustrating and equally exciting time to be a music fan - more choice than ever from a number of non-traditional avenues on one side - on the other side decreased sound quality, a lack of tangible art and connection and the absence of that shared communal experience going to a store that understands music.

Also, thanks to Thomas for stopping by for the first time - I often overlook classical music when I write these type of posts and I appreciate your point a view.

I remember working at an HMV store in the early to mid 90's and we had a huge classical department staffed by people who actually knew the music (a job requirement). Of course you would be hard pressed to find that now (other than localized boutique type stores).

BeckEye said...

I'm with Barbara. I held off on buying mp3s for as long as I could because I love the physical packaging of a CD, and I love to read the liners. However, it just got to be too damn convenient to download everything.

Dale said...

I love my mp3s but there's no way a digital booklet can ever replace the liner notes and album art. Did I say album? I'm old.

Westcoast Walker said...

Beckeye - thanks for dropping by! I agree, those pesky little MP3 files are so darn cute (and convenient). I have about 20 gigs worth of them myself, and save the CDs and vinyl for the albums I care most about.

Dale - I hear you, liner notes and album art are going the way of the dodo, and will be sorely missed by us (slightly) older folk.