I see a fair amount of garbage around my neighborhood in Brooklyn. Standard trash one can imagine for most any urban area at any point after, say, World War II: bottles, candy wrappers, magazine subscription cards, small ghost-flocks of plastic bags. But also, everywhere, CDs. At first, I was curious. Mostly, it was pop music I didn’t care about. I am in no way nostalgic for the age of the CD, but it was hard not to think about the value they once had. Now, in 2010, any band that only puts their music out on CD almost deserves to have its pirated for their lack of creativity.
They don’t, of course. It’s not musicians’ fault that one of their main sources of income over the past century—recorded music—turned to trash before their eyes. This is not an old story, yet it’s one that nobody has yet resolved. As we enter a newly divided America—Glenn Beck promising “Attn: 60’s sanfran radicals – we will rise and crush in Nov. Together like NEVER b4. You WILL fail bcausr WE R COMING”—we discover that, together, we are all longhairs. Collective navigation is important.
CDs themselves are actually of great value. They’re very useful as a way to distribute 700 megabytes of information, which is actually a fairly convenient amount when thinking in terms of music. While printing and distributing music on a USB drive is at least recyclable, given the circumstances, for musicians, CDs are still an effective way to package music cheaply and easily as a physical product. It’s not CDs’ fault, either, that their physical worth evaporated.
The fault, really, is in the distribution system. Record stores are great, well-stocked with actual records (new and used), a local section, surly clerks, and maybe a cat wandering around. And I’m glad some of those still exist and seem to be thriving, relatively speaking. But chains—like the recently closed Virgin Megastores—were wasteful in every way, from the amount of money and fuel used to uniformly stock the shelves to the sheer amount of unsold product that flooded from bargain bins to the trash, maybe through secondary markets, and eventually into landfill, or the Brooklyn street. In addition to environmental insult, the whole system devalues the worth of an individual CD and, by extension, the perceived value of the music on it.
And, not to give too much credit to the market, but it seems to be dictating an end to music stores and a second (or third) life for record shops. Even Wal-Mart, the biggest physical retailer of music in the country, has become something of a boutique shopping experience, CD floorspace reduced for Blu-Ray, with only a small amount of featured albums, the result of multi-million dollar deals (like AC/DC’s Black Ice & No Bull).
Which all might seem like a bunch of bullshit for a musician, who just wants to play music. But, besides getting one’s records in stores for potential customers, there have always been and always will be major barriers to making a living as a musician, above and beyond the daily practice of creativity and technical discipline, be it navigating the politics of local clubs, finding the right collaborators, and then, finally, interested listeners. Figuring out a scheme for selling records has always been just another concern. And not one without a solution. Since the ’60s, too, there have been private press LPs, cassettes, and CDs, sold stageside after gigs.
It’s not that the internet is the answer to anything. If it provided the end to the CD as a valued product, it also provides the tools to figure out some other way to make money as a musician. CDs, burnable and portable, are just another tool. Music’s power is ephemeral. Its power is not in the object, though a good object helps, be that object a band playing live, a good movie soundtrack, a homemade cassette sold for $5, or something else entirely. In the same way that John Cage and the avant-garde liberated music to be (in Frank Zappa’s conception) whatever the composer puts a frame around, the death of the CD liberates music presentation, and opens up all kinds of new pathways for artistic and financial survival, though not always for the musicians. But music is the thing and music is the battle, and us longhairs have to know our weaponry.