The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XXXIV: The CD Theory (Sept 2002)
Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left. Back...
I'm not much for conspiracy theories. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about who is behind what, or what that man was doing over there when the shots were fired. Marilyn Monroe died from a drug overdose. We really did land on the moon. Marisa Tomei really did win the Academy Award for My Cousin Vinny.
Lately however, I've been noticing a lot of things in the music world, things that seem to suggest that there has been a huge, concerted effort to keep the CD afloat, to ensure its place at the top of the music format heap. I'm not talking about the recent decision to lower the prices on CD's, which I've talked about in the last two installments of this column. Those days seem to be over anyway because I just spent $16.99 on The Vines' new CD. I'm talking about a huge industry, with a history of gross financial abuses and brazen avarice, standing at the abyss, looking down, and seeing Napster, MP3, and a supposedly obsolete technology that just won't die. And it seems like these are pretty desperate days for them.
It all started with this excellent article from Michael Wolff of New York Magazine. The first part of the article is very interesting, talking about the role pop stars have taken in our culture, and the music biz's part in exploiting this. This part alone spurs some very cogent debate. But if you scroll down to the last couple of paragraphs, you'll see what caught my attention. Mr. Wolff presents something called The CD Theory, something I've never heard of before, as if we all knew about it and then casually moved on with indifference.
"This theory is widely accepted--with great pride, in fact--in the music industry. It represents the ultimate music-biz hustle. But its implications are seldom played out...the CD theory holds that the music business actually died about twenty years ago. It was revived without anyone knowing it had actually died because compact-disc technology came along and everyone had to replace what they'd bought for the twenty years prior to the advent of the CD."
I knew it! Well, that's what I thought when I first read it. The more I thought about it, though, the more contradictions I uncovered. For instance, was the music biz really dead in 1982? I think back to that time, and for me it was an exciting time musically. I was halfway through college, and my tastes in music had really changed. I pretty much abandoned my old hard rock/metal faves for the post-punk movement, and I felt like Meriwether Lewis and that other guy discovering vast, unseen musical frontiers. Sure, we're talking about the independent and underground scene, but even the mainstream music world seemed healthy that year. I remember Springsteen playing seven or eight sold-out performances in L.A., something that no one seems able to do anymore. Hey, and didn't Thriller come out in '82? So how was the music biz so desperate?
Then I started thinking about the music biz's complaint that they can't sell as many albums as they used to. The reason why we saw acts like Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men and Whitney Houston shatter all-time sales records a few years ago wasn't due to an unusually healthy market, but because the big record companies didn't have any depth to their bullpens. It's easy for an artist to sell a bunch of records when no one else releases anything that week, or that month. Well, that's the rationale, anyway. But to me it doesn't make sense. When I was younger, it seemed like everyone was listening to the same thirty or forty acts, and the one-hit wonders were exactly that. Music now seems infinitely more varied and more fragmented, and it seems like I'm never going to get caught up with all the music I'm "supposed" to hear. It's gotten to the point where the terms "rock" and "pop" are almost meaningless.
Or, maybe I was right when I said that music means less to people now than it used to. They don't have as much time to keep up with what's new in the music world. And this apathy, for most people, can be traced back to, oh, 1982.
I let this so-called 'CD Theory' rattle around in my head for a while, wondering if I should mention it here, and then I received one of those lightning-bolt e-mails from a guy who says he runs a CD pressing plant in Australia. He said:
"OK, so you would no doubt be aware that the decision to replace analogue with digital via the Compact Disc, really had nothing to do with improvement of sound quality. It was a cynical exercise to impose a product that was standardised, lighter (and therefore cheaper to ship), cheaper to make (how's 10 cents a disc grab ya?), with the royalty payments on every disc produced going back to Sony (for their part in the R&D) and Philips. You can see how Sony benefited from both manufacturing players, owning CBS and therefore the back catalogue as well as new releases, and could impress upon the other record companied the benefits of cheaper, standardised product packaging (thus also earning a healthy royalty on each disc) - and sell them for more than whats LPs were retailing at."
I knew it! Have I ever told you about my anti-Sony bias? I don't hate them because they invented the compact disc, but because every Sony product I've owned died about three days after the warranty expired, and when I went to get it fixed, it cost nearly as much as buying a new unit. Planned obsolescence, indeed. I even used to wear a t-shirt that said "Fuck Sony" (in Japanese). I wore it out in fact, so it doesn't surprise me when I hear this kind of thing. These people are running a business, and there's nothing really wrong with what they're doing, as long as people exercise their right NOT to buy their products. But let's face it, I want to exercise my right to buy LP's and turntables and tone arms and cartridges and record cleaning machines, and Sony, among others, nearly took away that right. And I know it annoys the shit out of them that the vinyl market, while significantly reduced from its halcyon days, still thrives and doesn't seem to be disappearing anytime soon.
All of this starting affecting me personally, however, after I read an article in a British newspaper that reported on the comeback of the LP. I do not have a URL for this, but I had someone scan it for me and e-mail it to me from England, and I can send the file to you if you e-mail me at email@example.com. This article quotes some encouraging statistics about vinyl from the British Phonographic Institute, most notably that in 2001, 2700 titles were released on LP. That's pretty impressive for what many people deem a dead technology. And when I repeated and/or commented on this on a couple of audio newsgroups, the shit hit the fan. Not only was I called a liar, but the attacks became personal. In fact, someone even went to the trouble of researching my e-bay history, found the very cool rockabilly dress my wife won a few weeks back, and started spreading rumours that I was a transvestite!
Sounds like I hit a nerve, right? My first reaction is HAH! Now you guys know how we felt when the LP started disappearing back in the '80's! But, like I've said before, I am not happy about the compact disc struggling as a format, because its replacement is not an sonic improvement. I cannot stress enough that when it comes to sound quality, we are going backwards, all for the sake of convenience. No wonder music doesn't mean as much to our culture as it used to.
But to tell you the truth, I'm not nearly as interested in attacking the big guys over the inferiority of the digital formats as they are interested in attacking those who still listen to LP's. I didn't start writing this column to get embroiled in the power struggles and the politics and the mudslinging. I merely wanted to preserve my little corner of the world where I lovingly clean an LP, place it on a beautiful turntable, and listen to glorious music. If I've learned anything about all this, it's that the more we keep our love of LP's insulated from the outside world, the better off we are. Those other guys have power, greed, and bad manners on their side.
I'd rather listen to the mint Japanese pressing of The White Album I just won on e-bay. Yes, I guess I did have to buy it again after all, Mr. Jones.
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