Forget vinyl, Reef Younis stands up for the compact disc.


In 2008, the CD single was officially dying. As downloads became legitimised, and record company investment rationalised, it was a horrible, inevitable decline in the digital circle of life. For the record companies, it was the simple reality of controlling costs, cutting corners and following consumer trends. It meant not wasting resources on printing unit after unsold unit destined to sit in deserted warehouses, populate 10p single boxes and become the easy refuge of last-minute Secret Santas.

Creatively, the line between a bumper single, laden with B-side gold, and an album to obsess and pore over, has traditionally been a thick one, the single breezily knocked out in the cigarette break between the serious album sessions. In reality, the semantics make it a much finer art: at four tracks and 24.59 minutes you still had a CD single; five tracks and 25.00 minutes, you officially had an album. It’s not difficult to see why the physical singles were killed: they sold less and cost roughly the same as producing and distributing an LP.

But the death of the CD single, and rise of the digital download, didn’t just transform the singles market and kill the B-side; it irreparably affected albums too. In the face of rampant digital growth, it was a milestone shift to satisfy the iPod shuffle generation, and the demand for instant access to the marketable, accessible, disposable pop nuggets most have come to expect for free.

It set the benchmark for quick consumption, and has put the CD album on edge, if not directly at peril – its physical materials clunky and cumbersome compared to the lightning-quick binary matter of its digital counterpart. According to recent figures from the BPI, UK digital album sales grew by 14.8% to 30.5m while UK CD album sales dropped 19.5% to 69.4m in 2012. It might not be the apocalyptic shift that sees digital downloads account for 99.6% of the singles market but it’s an ominous warning of an impending slow decline that seemed unthinkable as we hurtled into the noughties.

Buying and listening to an album has always been an experience gilded by the humanity of the process; the sleeve notes, the extra pullouts, the way it fills your shelf. And while this isn’t solely a battle between the digital and physical, take away those elements and you start to unravel what made that collection of songs an album in the first place.

As a new generation discover vinyl – the format synonymous with the golden age of the album – it’s easy to forget that all of this applies to CDs too, and although many early 30 year olds won’t like to admit it now, it’s the compact disc that’s the format of youths; our nostalgia for needles on wax is largely misplaced. When I say ‘new generation’, I mean anyone born post 1982. CDs are ugly ducklings though, cheap looking and throwaway unlike the romantic, substantial trophy of the LP. Maybe it’s because they’re not dead just yet, but it’s hard to see a time when this shiny format is hankered for enough for a revival like that of the far less practical but far more handsomely kitsch cassette tape.

It marks another step away from the record shop experience, afternoon hours spent gleefully sifting through boxes and racks of records, another departure from the hopeful crate digging that characterised the attachment you built with the audible gold you dug out. Reducing albums to an iTunes playlist and a high-res JPEG is another nail in the coffin of the album being enjoyed the way it should (as a collection of tracks, crafted, recorded and produced to say something more than the sum of their parts), but also as something you know back to front. I used to know the track-listing of practically every album I owned, in order, and every track name from the first bar – now that the titles are written in pixels and hidden in my pocket, rather than on the back of the Perspex box, I can’t say that that’s been true for some years.

iMac’s don’t even come with CD drives anymore, and while that’s partly another great Apple scam to make you buy an add-on, the guy in the shop arrogantly assured me it wasn’t just that. “Nobody listens to CDs anymore,” he told me when I enquired if they had an older model out back I could buy, scrunching up his face like I’d asked if it came with a free joystick. He then proceeded to break the news that I was “very niche” if I did. Old women aren’t treated like this when enquiring about mobiles that don’t text.

We’ve become obsessed with the no filler rule, the fat-free albums and tracks that can be canned and condensed. We look at the collector’s beauty of vinyl; admire the sound quality, the delicate balance between its care and decay. Perfect in its imperfection. CDs don’t have that dusty lustre but they somehow feel like the last modern bastion for the way albums were meant to be.

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