Hands up who doesn't touch their CD collection much anymore?
I see plenty of hands. Until a few weeks ago, mine included.
I still own a truckload of vinyl and CD's. But neither has been getting much love from me in the past five years or so. It hardly needs saying, but I'll say it anyway: file downloads and online streaming have transformed the way many of us discover, acquire and use recorded music. It may be hard for Millennials to appreciate this, but it is profoundly so.
So what rekindled the CD flame? It was absurdly simple, actually. I relocated my CD shelves from a distant lounge room to my office/studio, making it easy to play them - like everything else - through my PC which is networked to speakers around the house.
But before I share the warm and fuzzy things I experienced after the move, I want go back a bit.
Growing up analogue
I'm in my 40's now. I've been madly passionate about music - all kinds of music, not just ambient - most of my life. And I've been reflecting on how I got to the point where I was perfectly happy to give up physical media. It seems the medium is not the message after all.
I grew up with vinyl and cassettes. I was a voracious collector and loved playing with the technology, but the quality limitations of both formats often frustrated me. Later on, I learnt sound production and design while working in the radio business. Here, too, I used ancient tools, honing my studio craft on quarter inch tape, huge analogue desks and 2 inch wide multi-track reels.
In the 90's, getting my head around the earliest professional digital mixing and production tools was a steep learning curve - they were pretty cumbersome - but on the home front I embraced CD's from the very beginning, or at least when I could afford them. The clean sound is what I craved most. No crackles. No hiss. More clarity. The album artwork was still there, even though it had shrunk in size. The convenience of easier track access was a bonus. On the rare occasions where an album's mastering was better on my vinyl copy than the CD version (Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited was one), I stuck with vinyl. But for the most part it was CD's all the way.
The same goes for when I began to play out at festivals and events; never having been a collector of 12-inch vinyl singles, I first learnt live mixing on Pioneer CDJ decks.
Then in the 2000's, digital music production on home PC's was made possible, and internet downloads and streams took over the consumer world. I embraced it all.
For production I now use apps like Pro Tools, Audition and mountains of plugins. For finding source material, files on hard drives are fantastically convenient when making radio shows and mixes. For home listening, I stream a lot of internet radio but when I'm listening to an album I prefer files because of the better sound quality offered by lossless file formats like FLAC. Files have also been my preference for phones because they don't rely on - or chew up - mobile internet data. But portable streaming is getting easier and cheaper and I'm streaming Mixcloud, Spotify and Bandcamp more often now when I commute.
And as if to seal the transformation, in the last two years ALL of my music purchases have been digital downloads from stores like Bandcamp, CD Baby and Google Play. But not, I might add, iTunes. Never iTunes. I simply cannot stomach Apple's walled garden, its closed ecosystem, its absurd requirement that you install their intrusive, bloated, inflexible iTunes app before you can buy or download anything.
Meanwhile, my CD and vinyl collections have been languishing in the main lounge room at the far end of our house, a room that feels miles away, usually only visited to watch something on the big screen.
I've only browsed the CD shelves when I need a track for a mix that isn't already on my hard drives. I do play vinyl in that room, but only rarely, as a novelty more than anything else. I'm a sucker for fondling those gorgeous gate-fold covers on 70's Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Tangerine Dream records. And trying to decipher the notes by music academics on old Deutsche Grammophon classical LP's is another (sad) hobby of mine.
Which brings us back to how I reconciled with the humble compact disc.
This business of having a CD collection that I almost never played couldn't go on. So a few weeks ago I decided to run an experiment: move the whole collection from that far off room to my office/studio, where most music playing in the house happens. This, I promised myself, will decide whether the collection stays or goes.
Old is new again
Now, suddenly I'm discovering my CD's anew. The medium may not be the message, but I'm finding CD albums rather fun again - at least when they're nearby.
One reason for this is that I appreciate how much of this music has soundtracked the life I've shared with my partner in the past two decades. Two diverse examples: DJ Sasha & Digweed's mix album Northern Exposure (1996), a magic moment in time where early electronic dance music and lush ambience were in perfect alignment; and the UK TV soundtrack The Singing Detective, a 3-CD collection of trad jazz standards, crooning ballads and jolly songs about hip bones connecting to thigh bones.
So my CD's are rather special in that way.
But there's something else, too. The art of the album remains paramount in my life, and there is something unique about removing a physical artifact from its housing and putting it on a player. Compared to album streams or playing files, there seems to be a stronger sense of commitment that I'm going to listen to the whole thing from start to finish. The promise of huge digital music libraries, whether they live on your PC or in the cloud, can play havoc with your attention span when you know that alternative choices are just a click away.
So, somewhat to my surprise, compact discs are wonderful again. But that still leaves my collection of bigger, blacker discs sitting on a long row of Ikea shelves in the lounge room.
My vinyl records are nearly all albums, and all are pre-1990 releases. I have digital versions of most of them now, either on CD or in file form. Despite the vinyl revival in recent years I have no plans to buy new LP's, not least due to cost and reliability issues (just read the avalanche of complaints at Discogs.com about poor quality pressings). Besides, I have never bought the argument that vinyl generally sounds better for home listening, and I've heard some expensive rigs in side-by-side listening tests. I'm fussy about sound, sure, but I wouldn't call myself an audiophile, for down that path lies a lonely kind of madness.
So my records remain in limbo but...they will stay for now.
Just in case.
Because in this Great Age of Change And Disruption, who knows how I'll feel about them tomorrow?