Don’t Be Spooked by Threats of Obsolesence

One of the unfortunate effects of our capitalist economy is the constant drive for new and better. Well, really it’s mostly new and novel, with better being a secondary consideration. That means obsolescence is something that constantly looms over industrial products, especially tech products. But obsolete does not equate with useless or worthless–not remotely.

With the rising popularity of digitally downloaded music, whether through file sharing or an online store, the imminent death of the physical compact disc continues to be predicted. The cries have become louder in the last few weeks as Atlantic Records announced that its digital download sales (which includes ringtones) surpassed its sales of physical CDs.

I’ll admit that these days I probably listen to more MP3s than CDs, especially on the go. Yet, I still have a collection of over 1000 CDs, most of which I have not ripped to MP3–my MP3 collection is comprised mostly of purchased music and stuff I’ve traded with friends. I do still listen to CDs, especially when I want to listen critically. I realize that absolute fidelity is only one factor in how we choose to listen to music, it’s still important to me and many other people. While MP3s and other compressed files can sound quite good, they are no match for the uncompressed source.

That’s why I’m not surprised to read a Wired Gadget Lab post directing me to this story from the UK’s Telegraph reporting that the sales of portable CD players there are up 50 percent over last year. Amongst the reasons they cite are price ( I’ve seen units here sell for $15 or less) and the fact that many people find using a computer to download to an MP3 player to be difficult.

One very obvious reason I want to add to the list is that maybe a whole lot of people aren’t interested in giving up their CDs in the first place. If you aren’t interested in dealing with the iTunes music store (especially if you don’t want to pay the iPod price premium) or any other online music store, and you don’t relish the task of having to rip and compress your CDs yourself I can see how the supposed convenience offered by MP3 players and digital files can look pretty darn inconvenient.

Folks over 30 can probably remember when they got their first CD player, moving over from listening primarily to vinyl LPs or cassettes. I knew a lot of people who all but dumped their analog music collections for CDs in the early 90s, lured in by the promises of better sound quality and convenience. By and large those promises were fulfilled, compared to the lo- to mid-fi sound experiences most people were accustomed to getting from inexpensive cassette and record players. But it was also a pretty big cash outlay for a lot of people, many of whom replaced their music collections with the same titles on CD as the popular press sounded the funeral march for the soon-to-be-obsolete vinyl LP.

Now twenty-six years after the introduction of the CD we have none other than the New York Times writing about the resurgent interest in vinyl records, sales of which are up 36% this year. Weren’t these fragile, scratchable, pop-and-click-filled analog dinosaurs supposed to be a curious historical artifact by now?

Myself, I never abandoned my record collection. When I bought my first CD player in 1987 I also bought my first decent turntable. From 1988 through the mid-90s I really cleaned up buying used vinyl for a song as other music lovers dumped their obsolete analog archives. I still buy both used and new vinyl, though since the big purge of the early-90s the good stuff isn’t quite as cheap anymore.

I’m sure a fair majority of the folks who dumped their vinyl for CDs have never looked back. But I’ve talked to and read about plenty more people who are buying new turntables to play their last remaining albums that never turned up on CD, or who are even going out and rebuying LPs they got rid of because their CDs just don’t cut it.

So keep this in mind when you hear bloggers and the press declaring the end of the CD and all physical media. It makes complete sense to me that sales of portable CD players are up because I can believe there are plenty of people who just want something will play all the music they’ve acquired without all the hassle of ripping and storing MP3s. Why “upgrade” to MP3s and iPods if CDs still work just fine and you’ve already got an investment in music on CD?

Of course, I do think the trend towards digital files and mass storage is real and underway — I do have a couple hundred gigs of MP3s on a server at home. But these technologies tend to live side-by-side for far longer than the technorati recognize. The cassette didn’t kill the LP, the DVD still hasn’t killed VHS, and the iPod won’t kill the CD. Even formats often joked about as comparative failures lived almost as long as the CD has–from laserdiscs (in production 1978-1999) to 8-tracks (1964 – 1988)–and still have their fans using them everyday.

The newest and shiniest technology can be very seductive, but utility is what wins the day. For a lot of formats there eventually does come a day when finding a working player becomes harder and harder. But for something as ubiquitous as the LP, cassette or CD that moment is a long way away.

The folks snapping up CD players this holiday season aren’t technophobes or luddites, they’re just reasonable folks who maybe don’t want to foolishly abandon the shiny little discs they spent good money for.

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One Response to Don’t Be Spooked by Threats of Obsolesence

  1. kamilla December 9, 2008 at 9:52 pm #

    hear hear!

    Yay cassette tapes!… or were they after your time


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