We have streaming now. Why CDs? Why CD shops?


The Demise of CD Shops and CDs – Bitboys, Streaming and the Internet

In the light of the closing of classical CD specialist Thomas Music in Melbourne after 96 years in business, we need some time to pause and think about this. What are we losing?

The discussion on the internet around how to listen music never really resolves around one way of doing it.  There’s always people wanting to judge everyone who doesn’t listen to it the same way they do. “OMG, you still listen to CDs????” etc.  The Internet Bitboys, making their opinions based more on bits than to the music between the bits. Such people would look with scorn at the 80 year old person being sad about the loss of the shop. “Welcome to capitalism” they would say.  They would also downplay the “communal aspect disappearing” in regards classical music purchasing.  The internet is cheaper, and that’s all that’s important, right?

But most of this conversation about music purchasing and listening has not been related to classical music. According to most bitboys on the internet, most of the classical music buying group are old people who listen to radio, LPs (the old ones, not the cool new ones) or CDs. Dinosaurs, etc, etc.  For this post, though, I’m going to pretend such judges don’t exist. (Life is easier when you pretend precious bitboys don’t exist)

Streaming can be OK, but…

When Spotify and Apple Music became useful and usable, they have been great for casual listening either in the car or on public transport. I’m more Apple Music, because I like the format, and so does my daughter, who uses it for her cool music.   For me, suddenly, I am able to listen to all the latest recordings, hear multiple versions of the same works so I could do side by side comparisons, do playlists and so on. That’s been very cool for someone who doesn’t have an endless supply of cash.

This all renders my 800+ CD collection redundant, yeah?  Those things you can’t mix and match, have to get out of my chair to change, etc.  So inconvenient. No, not necessarily.  When I get the ipad out, connect to my Yamaha amplifier, I found sometimes the stream became disconnected and I’d have to tee it all up again.  The tech person in my head would try to find fixes for this – is it the connection? The amplifier? Do I need a Sonos?  But then I ignored all of that.  I went back to using my standalone entry level Yamaha CD player.  And something unquantifiable happened.

I discovered is that there is an intangible quality to the CD experience.  The sound is better for a start, but there’s also something about the selection of tracks on a CD. The CDs usually last between 50 and 70 minutes – and someone else has selected the tracks to played in a particular order.  In classical music, the process is that the CDs have works on them that are by the same composer, or they are matched by the musicians involved for the purposes of mood and context.

So it has come to pass that the construction of a CD that has given me a musical experience of a regular length, shaped by others that has freed me from thinking and making decisions about what I’m listening to.  This process has allowed me to become fully immersed in the experience. I don’t often feel compelled to stop the CD, to skip tracks. I just let it flow.  For some reason, streaming has not done the same thing for me – especially if I made the playlist myself. This tweet from Hugh Robertson, until recently the manager of Sydney’s classical CD hub, Fish Fine Music, sums it up with his Discman love.

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This has meant that, to my surprise, I have returned to buying CDs. Not many – I have tended to road test most of them through streaming.  But there’s something special about having the physical version.  It’s a little like the desire for people to have paper versions of books rather than the screen version, though with its own reasons for that emotional connection.

(By the way, my desire for physical media does not extend to LPs. I don’t like their pops or short length.  That’s probably because my music tastes run more Shostakovich Symphony – a length of the CD – rather than Mozart Piano Concertos, which can fit on one side of an LP.   LP people are a different crew. I’m happy to be bonded to the CD format for a while yet)

The Place of CD Shops

But moving away from the magic of the single CD, there’s something that relying just on streaming to “roadtest” such CDs misses. That connection to the physical CD shop in your community.  This whole process of connecting to new CDs outside your radar, outside recommendations from the Apple logarithm. What helped me was I was able to go into Fish and have a chat with the ever enthusiastic Hugh.  Another intangible – the relationship, the conversation, the recommendation.

This same experience is discussed by Chris Barrett in this piece about the demise of his local Birmingham CD shop.  Especially relatable to my experience was that it gave Barrett a chance to take his shy, awkward self to somewhere he could belong. For me, growing up a classical music fan in the outer west of Sydney was a painful, awkward and isolating experience, so I loved going to the CD shops in the city (yes, shops plural) in my uni years.

I’ll admit I’m part of the problem here – I don’t get into the city for CD shopping all that much. Most of my purchasing of CDs is online (Presto, of course) mostly because I can’t get into the city all that much.  This doesn’t stop me from being sad to see the demise of the shops.  There’s a magic that is missing in the streams and in shopping online that won’t return.