If you think about it, 35 years is a long time. At Jacobs Media, we celebrate our 35th anniversary this fall. In some ways, the time has gone fast. But three-and-a-half decades with the same company is long run by just about any measure.
For a media format, however, it's just not as impressive. That's what music lovers and collectors will have to deal with in the not-so-distant future as the Compact Disk goes the way of the 8-track and the 78 rpm record.
Earlier this month, Best Buy announced it will discontinue sales of CDs – one of their big items through the '80s and '90s – on July 1st. Billboard reported Best Buy's CD business has dwindled in recent years. Last year in the U.S. CD sales dropped a precipitously 18..5%. Target is said to be considering the same decision.
This doesn't mean that CDs as a format will simply go away, but the writing is on the wall. Ironically, vinyl has made a comeback in recent years, but only makes up a small percentage of music sold.
The reality is that we were all physical music collectors at one time. Radio stations had walls of albums, and often physical music libraries to accommodate their formats.
Today, most stations use hard drives and/or the cloud to catalogue its music. And at home, we're more likely to rent or simply stream our media – TV shows, music, and movies from services as diverse as Netflix, Spotify, and Apple Music. Why own anything when you can access virtually anything from a cloud?
Unless, of course, you're the curator of the Museum of Obsolete Media. That's Jason Curtis' self-selected title, and it's apropos. By day, he's a medical librarian in the UK. But a dozen years ago, he started collecting examples of physical media formats. And five years ago, he launched his online museum.
The website documents nearly 500 collected media formats, spanning audio, video, film, and data storage. I spoke with him about the shelf life of media, and why the CD is now experiencing turbulence on its way to becoming an obsolete medium.
FJ: Is the obsolescence of media accelerating during the technology revolution? If so, why do you think that is?
Jason Curtis: I think the main driver has been the move from analogue to digital, arguably started by the Compact Disc. Since then we’ve seen film cameras replaced with digital photography and analogue video (such as VHS and LaserDisc) replaced with digital DVD and Blu-ray formats.
Since the content on the media is now digital and capable of being sent over the internet, the media itself becomes redundant and simply a carrier for the content. Hence, DVD and Blu-ray sales are now declining in the face of streaming, and music is increasingly streamed as well.
The internet also means that files can be stored in the cloud, or internally on the device (such as photos stored on an iPhone); if you want to send the files to someone else there is now no need to involve removable media such as a floppy disk, CD-R, or even a memory card.
FJ: Did you ever think the CD would end up on the endangered media list in just 35 short years?
JC: With hindsight it’s easy to see why CDs are now endangered. At their introduction there was no built-in DRM since few people foresaw that a few years later consumers could read the contents on a CD-ROM drive. Initially this meant the ability to create perfect copies on to more CDs with the introduction of CD burners, but with the invention of compression algorithms such as MP3 and the widespread adoption of broadband internet it meant that the CD as a means of distributing music was technically obsolete and unnecessary.
Alongside this was the ability to being able to listen to music anywhere, spearheaded by the cassette Walkman. CD was never a very good portable format, and once alternatives in the form of MP3 players and more especially the iPod became available there was no need to carry a stack of CDs around.
(Jason's CD collection is below.)
FJ: What do you make of vinyl's comeback, gaining acceleration with each passing year – especially among Millennials?
JC: There is something to said for tactile media, and in particular for vinyl. The Compact Disc never had quite the appeal of vinyl, with its less impressive artwork and less involvement in the process of putting a CD on (no need to place a stylus in the right place, or be so careful in handling).
Having said that, I think the so-called vinyl revival is overrated and vinyl sales are still much lower than CD sales.
I think among older consumers there is still a desire to have music on physical media, perhaps because of sense of ownership, and also just to enjoy the act of putting physical media in the player and sitting down to listen to music (something you pretty much have to do when listening to vinyl).
FJ: What's in your CD player right now? Or on your turntable?
JC: The last CD I listened to (earlier today) was Kristin Hersh’s ‘Learn to Sing Like a Star’, and the last thing on the turntable (albeit a few days ago) was My Bloody Valentine’s ‘You Made Me Realise’ EP.
The digital age has caused incalculable disruption, and as Jason's “museum” clearly illustrates, it has taken its toll on many media formats, especially physical ones. Browsing his website, you run into many extinct (or near-extinct) media formats, many we've just forgotten about.
The disposability of our physical things is yet another outgrowth of the tech times in which we live. So, if you own one, what's on your turntable right now?
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