Matt Jones

No Disc: The Uncertain Future of the CD

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My cousin was the first person I knew to own a CD player. It was a Technics model, and for a 10 year old used to either a single speaker cassette-tape player which regularly chewed tapes or a cheap record player with only battered vinyl to play on it, it was the most incredible thing I had ever seen.

As a demonstration, he removed a shiny Compact Disc from its case, carefully placed it on its tray and pressed the close button. For someone who measured the quality of a tape player by how slowly the eject mechanism worked, this was mind blowing stuff.

The CD in question could have been none other; it was the CD that ushered in the Compact Disc revolution and everyone who bought a CD player at that time bought this album to go with it. Yes, it was Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms.

I marvelled as he pressed the play button and the LCD that showed the seconds that had elapsed. Where was the hiss? The slight bump and crackle that notified you that the music had started. There wasn’t any. Instead, all I heard was the crystal clear noodlings of 80s Moog-synth and Knopfler’s ridiculous guitar riff on Money for Nothing.

What amazed me the most, I think, was not the clarity of the sound, but the fact that you couldn’t see the disc playing; that the machine was in some way interacting with the disc to make music just didn’t seem possible. Almost 20 years on, and the way we consume music is taking a huge irrevocable leap once more; 10,000 tracks can fit snugly in your pocket, music can be il/legally downloaded from the Internet and the Music Industry is behaving rather like a terrified ant colony trying to cope with an indestructible invader.

Back when things seemed simple, the predominent format in which music was bought was 2 or 4 sides of vinyl contained in a cardboard sleeve. You exchanged money for a complete package; songs were written and sequenced for the format, a high level of work was put into the sleeve and album notes, and the whole thing could be enjoyed even without removing the record from the sleeve. Buoyed by DJ/club culture as well as a stable economy in second-hand/collector’s records, vinyl is still popular, and for good reason: it’s clear what you are buying and what you can do with the music once you’ve bought it. What makes the resilience of the vinyl format even more remarkable is the fact that it may out last Compact Disc.

Dire Straits’ AOR epic was sold on the Compact Disc standard developed Sony and Philips in 1980. It bore the the CD standard logo, which meant it could be played on equipment also bearing that logo. This ‘red book’ standard has to be adhered to by both CD and CD playback equipment makers so that consumers know that their CD will play on any device they choose. Unfortunately, in a futile attempt to stop people copying music they’ve bought (because of course, everyone who buys music rips it and distributes online straight away!), record companies are deliberately breaking the red book standard by burning faults onto CDs which trip-up CD-ROM drives found on computers but not dedicated CD players. So, when someone buys a copy protected CD, they’re buying something that’s broken; to a CD-ROM drive, its the equivalent of a piece of vinyl that’s had a hot soldering iron struck across it.

I went into HMV the other day to try and gauge how many of the CDs it was selling were crippled with ‘copy protection’. I have to say that the percentage of broken CDs to standard CDs was pretty low, although I wonder how this will change over the next 5 years or so. I guess it’s only the Big 5 record companies that are peddling ‘copy protection’, leaving countless smaller (not so evil) companies to produce unhindered CDs. Lets hope it stays that way.

In the meantime, ‘copy protected’ CDs make good beer mats but that’s about it, so please don’t buy them. There may be software that allows you to circumvent the protection but to buy them is to validate them in the eyes of the music industry, which is bad. Anyway, I’m off to root out my old copy of Brother’s in Arms for a spot of Money for Nothin’ in glorious DDD (did I just write that?).