HIGH FREQUENCIES: Let us now praise compact discs

CD sales are plummeting, but that’s not to say they’ve outlived their usefulness

Decatur CD
Photo credit: Chad Radford
NEW ARRIVALS: Decatur CD and Vinyl has the widest selection of new compact discs in Atlanta.

You probably don’t remember your first music download, do you? But I bet you remember the first record, maybe even the first compact disc you bought, right?

Billboard magazine reports this week that Best Buy plans to stop selling CDs by mid-year. The chain barely sells CDs now, other than the most recent new releases by pop artists, the occasional catalogue deluxe reissue or the ever-present “best of” and “greatest hits” package. And the selection at Target, the other retail chain cited by Billboard as considering changes to its CD policy, is not much better.

Immediately after Monday’s Billboard report, news declaring the death of compact discs started to circulate, as pundits, piggy-backing on the story, claimed life was over for the small, plastic, shiny discs that first revolutionized the way we listened to music in 1982. As was the case of Mark Twain’s reported death in 1897 (the novelists died in 1910) I think reports of the CD’s demise are an exaggeration.

Old school record collectors, in particular, are especially quick to bury the CD, which all but made vinyl records obsolete by the mid-‘90s, when CD sales were at their strongest. Indeed, vinyl enthusiasts look at the CD as some sort of plague upon music, one whose imminent extinction is cause for them to take a victory march, as if to vindicate their holding steadfast to the medium with its pops, crackles and skips.

Of course, the real death knell to CDs is not the resurgence of vinyl. It’s the upswing in the downloading of music and the use of streaming services that has caused the decline of the compact disc. In the 21st century, digital delivery of music has eclipsed the physical sale of music. As that has happened, records have made a comeback, mainly due to their nostalgic attraction and the perceived romance of playing a record: taking it out of its inner sleeve, holding it gently by the edges as you lower it to the turntable ever so carefully, insuring the center hole fits tightly around the spindle. Record companies, their profits dwindling from the digital theft of music, have been quick to recognize the renewed interest in vinyl as a cash cow, and are milking it accordingly. Remember how indignant you were at the price of CDs when they first came out? New LPs were averaging about $10 a pop, and suddenly you were expected to pay $16 for a CD? Outrageous! Yet you don’t hear people complaining about the cost of new records today. At $24 to $30 a title, you should! But, no, vinyl is forever. I’ve got news for you, vinyl is not forever. Made from organic ingredients, vinyl is susceptible to micro-organisms living in the grooves — and eating away at the sound within them. It’s why older records left in closets and basements sound so horrible. Mildew has been having a picnic all the years you’ve been without a record player. If not properly stored and cared for, that vinyl reissue of the Black Sabbath album you laid out thirty bills for is going to sound just as bad, sooner then you imagine.

I remember getting my first CD player. I didn’t want to buy one. Nothing would replace my playing records. Yet, by 1987, more and more titles were being released on CD — and Capitol Records kept sending me promo copies of the Beatles albums as the label released them on compact disc. With the Beatles catalogue and other then-new releases piling up in a corner, I had nothing to play them on. I relented, and went whole hog, buying a Sony 5-CD carousel player.

I also bought two CDs, the Velvet Underground & Nico and Suzanne Vega’s debut album; the former because of its greatness, the latter because of its crisp and clean production. Suddenly, I was hearing music I’d listened to for years for what seemed like the first time. The sound spectrum was wider, the separation of instruments more defined, and sounds previously obscured were more pronounced.

And, it was so much easier to listen to CDs! You could put one in the player, and not have to get up mid-way through, at what was usually the most inopportune of times, to turn the disc over, to hear the whole recording.

As CDs became more popular, reissues with bonus tracks became more prevalent. First, it was the addition of non-LP “B” sides tacked on at the end of the regular track listing. Then, it was alternate takes and outtakes. Soon, it was extra CDs of previously-unheard sessions, complete live recordings rather than those of performances edited to fit a single or double 12-inch record. Without CDs, it’s safe to say, Bob Dylan’s “The Bootleg Series” wouldn’t exist, the genius of his throwaway material forever languishing in warehouses somewhere.

For all the lack of respect compact discs get today, without them we would have far less of a selection of music to choose from. Music archives wouldn’t have been mined for treasures, and collectors would not have access to them. CDs caused record labels to break open their vaults, and history has been flowing from them ever since.

Still, people want to claim the CD is dead. Far from it. In the United States, where consumerism is shaped more by marketing and research firms than typical supply and demand, yes, compact disc sales have slowed to a trickle. With the inflated prices, there’s more profit to be made by record labels from selling vinyl. Don’t think the labels are passing that profit on to the retail stores you’re purchasing all those high-dollar items from on Record Store Day. They’re not. The profit margin at the retail level these days is very low. The total dollar sales amount of records may be high, but the total number of records sold no where near the days of multi-platinum (signifying sales over one million units) record releases by popular musicians.

And for every one person in America who still goes to a record store for the experience, there are hundreds, if not thousands, more who simply subscribe to Spotify or Pandora to listen to music. But in the rest of the world, people still buy CDs.

In Japan, a country long looked to as the harbinger of the future of electronics, CDs are are still king. There are stores selling new and used CDs in every neighborhood. In the predominant shopping districts of Shibuya and Shinjuku, there are Tower Records stores, buildings with multi-levels of floors displaying nothing but rows upon rows of CDs. Sure, the stores also stock new vinyl, but only in a tenth of the retail space reserved for compact discs.

In the U.S., and, subsequently, in Atlanta, major retail chains may be closing the door on CDs, but that’s because big box stores only survive by selling big ticket items. The space taken by the CD bins can surely turn a bigger profit selling something else.

Independent record and CD stores are still the best places to find new and used CDs, but even their inventories are starting to change. In Little Five Points, Criminal Records on Euclid Avenue still has a large selection of new and used CDs. New CDs are still stocked with regularity, and every Friday you’ll probably find at least one copy of a new release you’re looking for. Around the corner on Moreland Avenue, at the  venerable Wax ’N’ Facts, the number of new CDs has been cut, of course, they will still order anything you need. The used CD section is also dwindling, with prices having been lowered in recent weeks. To the northwest of the city, Wuxtry Records, at the corner of North Decatur and Clairmont Roads, still maintains a hearty selection of used CDs, though their selection of new titles is now somewhat limited. They, too, take special orders, with a quick turnaround. Wax ’N’ Facts, Wuxtry, and Criminal Records, all started as used record stores, and they are back to focusing primarily on records, or vinyl, as today’s lexicon demands.

In Buckhead, Fantasyland, another collector’s shop to start out as a record store, offers one of the best selections of used CDs in the metro area. The store doesn’t deal in new product, except for the occasional sealed titled someone sells there as used, but the used CD inventory extends into two rooms. With the resurgence of popularity in vinyl, Fantasyland, now located on Pharr Road after years at its Peachtree Street location, has started stocking a full line of new vinyl releases to augment the extensive used record selection. 

The place for the best selection of new CDs, whether deep catalogue, deluxe editions or box sets, is Decatur CD & Vinyl. While the store, which initially sold only CDs, has added “Vinyl” to its name and expanded its selection of new and used records, its selection of new CD titles has not diminished. It’s amazing the selection you’ll find crammed into the small store front on West Ponce, right off the square in Decatur. Looking for the latest box set by your favorite group? Need to buy a new CD of an early title by a long-standing band right away? Chances are you’ll find them on the shelf there. 

A Book Nook, on North Druid Hills near Clairmont Road, still has it’s wall of CDs lining one side of the store, but unlike most stores, the CDs are only nominally in alphabetical order by band names — all of the “A”s are together, the “B”s together, the “C”s together … Other than that, you have  to search through a lot of different bands within each letter to find what you’re looking for. At the Book Nooks in Marietta and Lawrenceville, that’s not the case, the staff and customers in both locations keep the titles in strict alphabetical order. Book Nook is the most expensive place in town to buy used CDs, but, if the title isn’t a popular one to be bought immediately when it hits the shelf, and you’re willing to take the chance and wait, their revolving pricing systems means the longer the CD is there, the lower the price becomes. The two OTP Nooks also offer a “buy, three, get the 4th one at the lowest price free,” option, a discount not available at the usually crowded flagship location.

With CD box sets as popular now as they have ever been — witness the recent release of the seven-CD Frank Zappa The Roxy Performances set, the super deluxe edition of the first Roxy Music album with three CDs and one DVD, and the increasing number of discs being offered in every new Bob Dylan “The Bootleg Series,” not to mention the extensive number of multi-disc jazz sets being made available — don’t be ready to stick a fork in the small, plastic discs just yet. They are far from done.

Tony Paris used to have over 10,000 records. He started getting rid of them to make room for CDs. He has the distinction of being the only “gaijin” (“foreigner”) to be thrown out of the Tower Records, Shibuya, Tokyo, for still looking at CDs an hour after the store had closed, when the usually polite Japanese clerks had had enough, and commanded him, “Go home, gaijin. Gaijin go home,” much to the chagrin of his wife, who was patiently waiting for him outside. You can contact him on cl.highfreqs@gmail.com.

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