Compact Disks make you immoral

June 4, 2008

People who still like and use vinyl are probably aware of this already but just in case, here’s how CDs make you immoral.

Most LPs, and sometimes other vinyl disks, ask their owners to cherish them. They can wear out and do so very fast if not looked after. The sleeves can get dog-eared. But they reward loving care by being a delight to hold, admire and use. They are tactile. They actually sound like the touch of a touch of that tiny rigid finger caressing their shapely grooves. And this sound reflects the users’ physical relationship with them over time. LPs report to you on the care and love given them as they were mastered, pressed and previously owned. They are entirely submissive, tolerating abuse with graceful degradation that measures but does not judge their treatment. And they respond passionately to a new owner’s loving restoration.

LPs are large enough to offer satisfying presentation for a wide spectrum of sleeve art.

Most CDs ask you to regard them as disposable consumer ephemera. Molded plastic disks that hurt you fingers and molded plastic cases that crack, chip and break, usually before you can get the CD into a player. Their inserts can’t be extracted without bending, scratching or kinking, are nearly impossible to put pack. Handling them, you risk a paper cut or getting them under a fingernail.

The measly little space available for CD artwork allows only miniatures, a constraint that, judging by most covers, frustrates the cover artists.

And CDs, being digital, ask you to back them up, store the music files elsewhere, mutilate them with MP3 and other compressions, and use the data other than for listening. Thus they ask for the medium to be regarded as irrelevant.

So they force us into the morally murky realm of how we should reward artists for their efforts while we copy, share and modify the bit streams. So far we mostly don’t. How this will resolve itself is unclear but I doubt that musicians will be the winners. Cover artists are in mortal danger. CD users are complicit in these crimes.

The only thing a CD can do to redeem anything from this situation is to turn our attention away from itself with packaging. The more effective this stratagem, the more the CD itself is devalued and made irrelevant by its precious container. But this is a fetish — a perversion of the art and aesthetics of recorded music. Not even a gatefold LP with pages inside can be seriously accused of such falsification. Redemption demands equilibrium between disk and cover that engenders enduring love for the music as object. Mere arousal over an aestheticized prophylactic enclosure is no substitute.

So LPs encourage love and CDs selfishness. LPs espouse corporeal longevity and integrity while CDs are a mere throwaway delivery envelope for bits of information as durable and significant as an email.

Certainly there are exceptions on both sides. Some LPs are genuinely not worth a damn while some CDs are. (The 4CD issue of Toshi Ichiyanagi’s “Opera From The Works Of Tadanori Yokoo” comes to mind – but this, like so many nice CDs, is a sort of homage to LPs.) Nevertheless, the preponderance of the evidence overwhelmingly supports the thesis: Compact Disks make you immoral.

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