Articles Modest Proposals Music

Vinyl vs. CDs

Wednesday, July 09, 1997

Let’s see now – sound quality vs coolness quotient, durability vs authentic wear and tear. Despite the megastore’s embrace of CDs, vinyl refuses to die – is this just nerdy affectation, or is there something wrong with those shiny silver discs?

CDs are like the vision of the future we used to get on Tomorrow’s World, the BBC TV show that optimistically heralds technology’s ability to improve everyone’s life. They were supposed to be better at everything – indestructible, gorgeous and with a sound quality that meant you could hear the rustle as the guitar player’s shirt rubbed against the bridge of his guitar.

In this bright new future, vinyl was overly fragile, had sound quality that was never great and deteriorated rapidly, and came in sleeves that disintegrated with use.

So why don’t we all feel enthused now that record shops don’t deserve the name anymore? Maybe it’s because CDs are just too squeaky clean. You want your music collection to age with you, so that the time you’ve spent with an album is reflected in the dog-eared sleeve.

Just as owners and pets start to resemble each other, so a control freak’s pristine record collection starts sporting protective plastic sleeves, while the relaxed and generous person ends up with a dishevelled collection containing about half the records they’ve bought, and a vague idea of all the people that have the other half.

There’s also a sexual frisson to using records. As well as the whole Freudian stylus and groove thing, the virginal tightness of a new record’s sleeve (and inner sleeve) is an evocatively suggestive thing.  CD cases (even the slick green Rykodisc jewel cases) can’t match this.

However, a more persuasive (and frankly less weird) reason for favouring vinyl is that vinyl offers the capacity for production while CDs only allow consumption. DJs create new music from vinyl records – the deck has become its own instrument – while CDs just sit there being annoyingly immutable. Technological developments are starting to change this, but we’ll never reach the stage where DJs can gouge their initials into their CDs.

It’s possible to compare audio CDs with CD-ROMs. CD-ROMs looked to have everything sewn up, but their read-only nature means that for all their strengths, they’re being sidelined by the fragile and clunky Internet.  Just like the Internet, vinyl’s more inclusive approach guarantees its continuing life into the future.

Of course, as things stand at the moment, there’s a lifestyle choice involved. As reader Jan McIntyre points out: ‘the rarity of vinyl (supposedly) singles out its owner as discriminating and aloof from the mass market.’ Buying vinyl asserts your identity as the sort of leftfield person that either listens to things that aren’t on CD (increasingly difficult to justify), or the sort of leftfield person that still has a record player that works (increasingly easy to justify).

Maybe with time we’ll come to love our CDs, but I somehow doubt it. If and when we rely on our computers for the latest tunes streamed instantaneously over the Net, the appeal of the low tech records will be enhanced even more. Records are very like their owners – fragile, a little worn and easily marked but also valuable, individual and perfect for combining with others to create new stuff.

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 9th July 1997)