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The Q&A Hole: Why Would Anyone Buy a CD These Days?

With Guy Forsyth, Wren Anderson, Chad Nichols, Luna Tart, and more
Wayne Alan Brenner, 11:58am, Mon. Jan. 21, 2013
We mean, seriously, who the hell needs CDs anymore?

Well, some people might. So for this latest weekly installment of The Q&A Hole, we asked some musicians and others … and this is what they said:

Guy Forsyth, musician: If it's an artist that you like, there's a real chance that she/he/them might make some money on the deal. You also get an artifact, some more artsy than others, that might connect you to the night you saw the band. And CDs sound better than mp3 or mp4s – although you might never find this out.

Wren Anderson of Haun's Mill: Ah, what a compelling question – and a tricky one to answer as a musician, since most of us are CD merchants. Records are collectible but not as practical – kinda hard to play a record on your car dashboard or on the subway. And mp3s are not really collectible. What rockstar can sign a digital download?

I remember when CDs first came out – I was a child – and my family was frustrated that new stereos had to include a CD player. What was a CD? Would we ever use one? Was it just for rich people? CDs are still relevant today and will be more collectible – especially as they become more rare. Such things seem to go in circles; I mean, look at how cassettes have come back.

I think it all comes down to personal preference: CDs have different sound qualities than records, and there's something to be said for having a physical copy. CDs can act as a backup in case a real Y2K comes our way, wiping out our iTunes databases, or they can appeal to a collector who has to touch and feel the music. I always got a postcard when I went somewhere new – why not get a postcard that plays music; it beats a digital photo and can fit in your purse.

Chad Nichols of The Transgressors: To be clear, I've always hated CDs. They were an obvious ploy by the record industry to introduce a "new technology" to drive up prices per unit even though they were vastly cheaper to manufacture than vinyl records. So, price distortion: pet peeve of mine. Apart from that, how can we have invented a freaking videophone, but no one's managed to create and standardize an alternative to those stupid jewel cases. Sure, there's those cool cardboard ones or the sleeves, but the spines of those always get lost on a shelf, and they're still the exception rather than the rule.

Couple of things: 1) Not everybody has a computer. I know they made those $100 laptops for the African kids or whatever, but a lot of people in the world are using outdated technology to listen to music. I don't have an mp3 player. My 13-year-old car didn't come with an input for one. 2) CDs are still crucial for bands doing booking and promotion. A few talent buyers might listen to your Reverb Nation page, but most of them want a cd. I've yet to hear stories of bands that got discovered because someone loved their Sonicbids e.p.k. Maybe they're out there – I do have my head in the sand these days.

Earlier today, my five-year-old son Jake picked up a James Hand CD in the car and was intrigued by the booklet inside. I think those little books go a long way. When all your information comes via the same planar surface, I think things get homogenized. It's fun to flip through a little book. They're fun to design, too.

Graham Reynolds of the Golden Arm Trio: There are a few reasons why people might still buy CDs: 1) to support the band or artist, especially in places like Austin, with very active live music scenes. This happens at shows, where the highest possible percentage of profits goes straight to the bands. 2) to have something tangible to hold while listening. More than the sound of vinyl, it’s the covers, including their text and their art, that I miss most. Somehow it becomes easier to focus on the music when your visual sense is held by something related to the music. It deepens the listening experience. 3) To get better quality. Most downloads sacrifice audio quality for convenience, though there are exceptions. If it’s a true CD and not a CD-R, the detail is finer. 4) Tradition. Obviously, this reason is generally going to lean towards an older crowd. But some high-schoolers I’ve talked to continue to be faithful to CDs. If the '60's were cool when I was growing up and we tried to emulate that, the '80’s have been cool recently. If you’re going to emulate the late '80’s listening experience, CDs seem like the way to go. 5) Immediacy. For this one, downloads or streaming usually win out. But now if you’re driving home from a show or a store or a birthday party, technology hasn’t quite caught up with this. So if you hop in your car and want to listen to the music you just bought, a download card does you no good. A CD gets you rocking right away. 6) You got me. I rarely buy CDs nowadays.

Luna Tart, musician: CDs? Grrrr – bring back the cassette tape! (Ah, the '80's were such a romantic time.) Why? CDs get scratched, are finicky about the player they will play on, et cetera, et cetera. Perhaps one would buy a CD to give someone as a gift – or for children. The Tsar of Cabaret just asked me to send him some Luna Tart CDs so he can give them away. People with children want Laura Freeman CDs for their kids. I tell them they can download the music, but they prefer to have the thing in their hand – I think so the kids can look at the cover. Some folks don't download. Not everyone is so hi-tech!

Buzz Moran, sound designer: When I was younger, I'd buy vinyl LPs and copy them to cassette. The vinyl sounded better, and had better artwork and liner notes. I could listen to the cassette on the go, and if the tape broke or got lost I could just make a new one. Like cassettes, downloads of music are usually lower quality than CDs, due to the compression that makes them take up less space on servers, et cetera. CDs not only sound better, but you won't have to buy the music again when your hard drive crashes. Add in the artwork and liner notes that still aren't available from most downloads, and you've actually got reasons for CDs to exist.

The simple answer is that CDs need to exist so hipsters in the future have something to collect to feel superior to the commoners. But, dang, Spotify is really convenient.

Benjamin Reed, writer: I have to be honest: there’s now very little that could provoke me to buy a CD. Historically I’ve been a late adopter of technology—I was still carrying a Sony Discman to the gym when everyone else already had iPods—but now I’m hooked on the compression of portability of downloaded music. My wife has a massive CD collection, and I hate how much space it takes up. She thinks I think she’s primitive, like she’s an indigenous islander afraid of having her picture taken. She’s also always arguing for the sentimentality and realness of the physical object, but that’s not my complaint; I have a deep love of vinyl and mix tapes.

I guess the root of the issue is that CDs came into full flower while I was in the clammy pitches of my awkward phase, and my early purchases included bands like Jesus Jones, Soul II Soul, Mariah Carey, House of Pain, and PM Dawn. I was into some good stuff, too, but still– CDs remind me of those years and the laundry list of bad and tasteless choices I made as an adolescent.

And there was this time I tried to sell a stack of my CDs to a new and used music shop in my hometown called Fud & Tom’s. Fud had been a childhood friend of Jim Morrison when he’d lived in my hometown, and had retained a minor celebrity. Anyway, I handed him the stack of CDs, he shuffled through them, then handed them back and said, “Don’t ever bring these back here again.” I walked to this Mexican restaurant a few blocks away, for lunch. After I ate, I left the CDs on my table while I went to the bathroom. When I came back, they were gone. I looked around. There were maybe a dozen people in that part of the restaurant – all the same people who’d been sitting near me while I ate. I asked a couple people if they’d seen who took my CDs, but of course everyone I asked claimed to have no idea what I was talking about. What stung wasn’t that I got robbed, but that no one around felt compelled to say anything.

Anyway, when I do buy CDs now, it’s in part to “support the artist.” It’s too bad that the consumption of art at retail prices is now tantamount to charity, but I guess that’s just where we’re at in this country.

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