CDs get a bad rap. The idea that CDs have any value is a joke. Bashing the compact disc while praising vinyl has been the choice of the cool kids for awhile now, but it seems to be more about appearances than about the intrinsic value of either format. I think I detect an unnecessary level of pretentiousness being added. It’s like claiming to love Bon Scott-era AC/DC, but then hating on Brian Johnson. We all love Bon, but c’mon. If Brian hadn’t taken over, and the band had broken up instead, most of us would never have gotten a chance to see them live, and we never would have gotten Back In Black.
I feel the same way about vinyl and CDs. Yes, vinyl is better, but without the CD there is too much music that I would have missed. So, much as with Brian Johnson, I’m grateful to the CD. I’m not a dick toward it. Don’t be so high and mighty about vinyl, you ungrateful bastards.
Everybody knows that vinyl is cool, and is even undergoing a “resurgence,” according to various internet yahoos. I like vinyl recordings for the same reasons as everybody else. But I bought vinyl and CDs for the same reasons – because sometimes it was the only way I could hear certain things. Yeah, now you can download everything, fine. But before you could, CDs served an important function.
I have some standards, but I’m not an audiophile. Vinyl sounds better, and mp3s sound like shit, but a 44.1/16 bit .wav file can sound pretty alright. I’m also not sentimental. This may shatter your preconceptions about John Schooley, the man, but I don’t really have much romantic attachment to vinyl as a format. Okay, maybe a little.
I do care about music. If you really like music you end up having to be able to play just about anything, because there is always some stuff you’ll never hear otherwise. Just as I bought vinyl because that was the only way to hear certain things that hadn’t been reissued on CD, I bought CDs because some of the releases on CD were of things that were so rare, I never would have been able to find a copy of the original vinyl release. Or, if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it. CD reissues performed a valuable service by putting impossible-to-find records in the hands of us regular folks.
Yes, CDs sounded like crap when they were first introduced, and yes, they were also part of a ploy by record companies to get music fans to buy their favorite albums again in a different, and more expensive, format. But if you are one of those people who likes to justify your illegal downloads because CDs “only had a few good songs and the rest were filler”, you probably just had really shitty taste in music. If you weren’t buying a bunch of lowest common denominator, mass-market kinda crap, you could find plenty of CDs that were great all the way through, thanks to the careful curation of the people who released them.
The mid-1990’s to mid-2000’s were actually a golden era for CD reissues. Eventually they figured out how to master CDs properly, and they sounded very good. A good CD could compete with a good vinyl copy, sonically. Labels like Norton, Ace Records, Kent, Bear Family, Sundazed, Rhino, Revenant, Crypt, Soul Jazz, the too-shortly-lived Excello/AVI, and plenty of other operations, did exceptional re-issue work. Norton, Crypt, and others did vinyl reissues, too. But most of them did primarily CDs, just because that was the dominant format at the time.
They cleaned up and remastered recordings, they hunted down unreleased tracks, they got knowledgeable people to write informative liner notes. They dealt with our ridiculous copyright laws, and the major labels (and sometimes, reluctant artists) who owned the rights to the material, and who were reluctant to let it see the light of day again. Without the good work of these people in the pre-iPod era, I either wouldn’t have heard a lot of the music I love, or I would have had to pay outrageous collector-scum prices to hear it. In fact, I think it is safe to say that we owe the current richness of the vinyl reissues we now enjoy, in part, to the wave of CD reissues from previous decades.
These CD reissues also served to re-shuffle the deck, history-wise. Artists that had previously been consigned to undeserved obscurity found new life with release on CD. How many of you two-cool-for-compact-disc people would have heard the likes of the Monks, if not for the Repertoire CD reissue in 1994, or the Infinite Zero release in 1997, which re-introduced the world to their genius?
Sometimes, you got to hear things that never even made it to vinyl in the first place. The genius of Bo Diddley’s Please, Mr. Engineer somehow never saw an official release, only coming to light after the CD compilation Rare and Well Done appeared in 1997. Or how about hearing the unreleased alternate take of The Coasters’ The Climb, the mind-blowing The Slime? Hell, it was hard enough to find the actual release of The Climb, which only appeared on the That Is Rock n’ Roll LP, Clarion #605, from 1965. The alternate take had never been released at all. Wouldn’t have happened without Rhino’s 50 Coastin’ Classics, in 1992. Thank you, Rhino. The evil major labels were often sitting on some great material and refusing to release it, and for that they deserved to be castigated. But when it did see the light of day, it was thanks to discos compactos.
Take a moment to think where all those mp3s that you can download so easily today came from. The USB turntable is only a recent innovation. The torrents and downloads you’ve got on your iPod most likely came from one of these CD reissues. Only now, you get it at 128 kbit/s (which really does sound inferior), with no liner notes.
Another thing that annoys me about the lack of appreciation for CDs is that Gen X and Gen Y types love to hate Baby Boomers, and yet they shun the format of their own era while embracing the format of the Boomers. C’mon, if Baby Boomers suck so much, and are the source of all the world’s problems, shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t you be claiming that CDs are your favorite format? Might as well apply this generational animus consistently if you are going to whine about it so much.
Finally, most of the people who enthuse about the quality of “analog” vinyl sound over “digital” CD sound don’t even know what the hell they are talking about. I hate to break it to ya, but if you are buying a new vinyl record today, it was probably mastered digitally. That’s right, that album that you claim sounds so warm on vinyl -it may have been recorded on analog tape, but it probably got mixed digitally and mastered digitally. Especially if it is a 7-inch on a small label. 100% analog mastering is expensive, way too expensive for most small labels to afford. Don’t believe me? Call around to the handful of pressing plants left across the country and ask ’em.
So, in conclusion, rather than forsaking the lowly CD, we should be grateful for all that which it has brought us. As the era of the compact disc closes, we should afford it in passing the respect that it deserves, and allow it to live out its final years with respect and dignity.