Day 6

An ode to CDs: In defense of an old, fading friend

As CDs disappear from stores like Best Buy, Rolling Stone editor David Browne delivers a defense of the compact disc and all that comes with it.
(Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

The death of David Bowie provoked an epiphany for Rolling Stone editor David Browne.

He rediscovered the value of compact discs over streaming.

"His death made me sad, but it also made me want to hear a lot of his music again. So I called up one of my streaming services to hear the Low album," he recalls.

That kind of information is getting lost in the digital era.- David Browne, contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine

It was in that moment that streaming technology failed Browne.

"The connection was cutting in and out, the volume was doing all kinds of strange things, and after awhile I just kind of got fed up and I said: 'you know what, why don't I just pull out one of my David Bowie CDs?'," he explains.

The artwork for David Bowie's album Low, 1977. (RCA Records)

No WiFi? No problem

Open deck. Insert disc. Press play.

No internet required. Not to mention improved sound quality.

(David Browne/Twitter)

"It was easy. It sounded pretty glorious and I thought, 'why are CDs suddenly the worst thing ever invented by mankind?'" Browne says. 

"It's interesting that people hate them so much right now."

The beauty of CDs, he explains, lies within the reliability of the physical disc.

"What if your hard drive screws up? That was always my fear.  I'm always nervous about the streaming services and things being pulled off."   

The end of an era

In 2007, flagship music store Sam the Record Man closed up shop, citing a decline in sales due to the rise of MP3s and streaming technology. Ten years later, popular record store chain HMV Canada went the same direction. Most recently, Best Buy announced that it would stop selling CDs in its stores by this summer.

Certainly, online streaming has played an instrumental role in this domino effect. But that's not the only thing to blame, according to Browne.

"One of the things that worked against CDs was they never really got that much cheaper. When they first came out in the '80s, they were twice as much as an LP, and the music business was like: 'We know, don't worry, it'll come down in price.' And it really didn't," he explains.

"I think that has lingered and left a really bad taste in people's mouths about the CD format, which might explain why it has such a bad reputation right now that isn't, I think, completely warranted."

Best Buy will stop selling CDs on July 1. (Mario Anzuoni/REUTERS)

Ol' faithful

Financial considerations aside, Browne says CDs still offer something that streaming services cannot.

"There is a certain important tactile experience that is missing with streaming. To me, it makes the connection between the music and the fan a bit stronger."

Also, he adds, the information held within a CD case is invaluable.

"You can find out not only the lyrics to songs, you can find out who wrote the songs, who played on the songs."

The digital streaming service Spotify is host to millions of songs and artists. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

"I am afraid that we'd lose some of that knowledge for future generations of who were the songwriters and who were the producers and who were the musicians who created those pieces of music," Browne worries. "That kind of information is getting lost in the digital era."

Of course, it's not all  bad.

"I do like streaming and the ease of skipping around to this song and that song. It certainly is easier than pressing the eject button on the CD player and pulling it out," he offers.

Ease, however, cannot outweigh the value of the round and shiny.

"When I look at these walls of discs, I do have these momentary flashes of 'gee, do I still need all this?' So many of these records are on a service like Spotify, which I do subscribe to, and so maybe I can trade these in or give them away or something," he explains.

"And then I hesitate. I guess I go back to that David Bowie experience to some degree and say 'no, I want to hold onto these.'"

Late British pop star David Bowie performs on stage during his concert in Vienna, February 4, 1996. (Leonhard Foeger/REUTERS)

To hear our full piece with David Browne, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

You may also read his essay, "In Defense of the CD," as published in Rolling Stone.