You guys know what CDs are, right? Big circular shiny things with a hole in the middle, thinner than a frisbee, probably considered as futuristic-looking as a UFO when they appeared in 1982? They’re an instantly recognisable thing, at least for a certain generation who grew up listening to music on them. Which, if you were born in the 80s or 90s you definitely did: scouring music shops for 2-for-1 deals, flicking through paper inlays, bugging out when some careless friend scratched them.
Perhaps – like your first pill or your first fuck or your first friend – you remember the CD you bought before any others, or maybe you deploy some creative license. Cool people might tell you they sunk their saved-up pennies on some Rolling Stone-approved legend, but more likely it would’ve been a mainstream pop act – the kind the asshole record store clerk in High Fidelity would sneer at. I’m pretty sure mine was the Spice Girls, if only because it’s the only CD single I still own, which I love, because they’re legends, and they made the St Pancras Hotel famous.
But this is the future now. Much has changed. Telephones can do anything, expensive shoes look like moon boots, robots can date. Oh, and CDs are dead, as they have been for years. We even said as much on this website in 2014, in an InVEstiGATIVE feature called ‘Is There Anything, at all, in the World, We Can Use CDs For?’. A few months later Apple discontinued the iPod Classic and a line was drawn in the sand: the era of CD singles (and ripping them) was done.
I’ve been over the end of that era for years. Like: what do I want a CD for? They’re yesterday’s beautiful memories, tomorrow’s scrap heap (and lord knows we need to save the earth). But then, this week, two tweets from teens went viral, in which they professed to not get how CDs work or the point of CD singles. And I’m feeling existential in the same way the generations before me probably were when people seemed confused by vinyl. As in I’m old af.
See, fig a)
And fig b)
Here are two youngsters wondering what things were like before all the streaming services came along; wondering how songs were burned onto CDs, and how singles were sold. And though I’m usually reluctant to piggyback off social media content since it’s ruining our brains, their befuddlement over how music used to be is indicative of just how much things have changed in the last decade.
For a start, people don’t burn CDs anymore: they make playlists (here, please be the 623rd follower of mine) or let other people make them playlists. This is a) old news; and b) a good thing, I think. Sure, the personal touch is lost a little when creating a playlist for someone else – there are no smeared green marker pen stains here – but that’s OK: you can pick from the whole recorded library of music, meaning instead of sourcing incorrectly named songs on Limewire the process is watertight. No more fucking up the home computer because you wanted to get your hands on some Panic! At The Disco. There’s also the added benefit of sharing your music choices with even more people through a public playlist, and the sense of accomplishment with each person that tunes in, if you like that sort of thing.
I’m not here as a lobbyist for streaming services, though – that’s Drake’s job. Arguably, they played a part in killing off the single in its most classic sense: as a side A, and a side B, purchased first on vinyl 45s, then later CDs. But even that phasing out was initiated by downloads. And now, today, acts seem to be getting back into releasing B-side tracks (Beach House put one out this week, Arctic Monkeys have one on the way). So, nerd alert: the B-sides are still here, to some degree.
What has shifted is the way singles are marketed. If an artist has a poppin’ song on the radio, you no longer need to buy their whole ass CD to listen to that one song. Again, a good thing for landfill centres across the globe. Rejoice! Perhaps that has an affect on the music industry to some degree; with the increasing glut of new tracks dropping daily, it certainly feels hard to create longevity. The same song that might have been banged out for months on the radio ten years ago might be removed from a playlist in a week.
Then again, the music industry has been smashing it lately. Reports say the business is growing revenue in the billions, in a way it hasn’t in years. So I guess – among the huge spider-web of things that make up being in music today – it’s not a bad thing that teens don’t really know how CDs work. Or how singles used to be sold. It’s just symptomatic of truly living in a new era. The future is here. Or as @greatvaluetrash so eloquently put it to all the heads in her mentions: “yes y’all old. you mad about it.”
You can find Ryan on Twitter.