That moment when I unwrapped my first music CD, and it glistened as the beam of sun hit it, generating beautiful rainbow-like colors all around me, the colors of a digital future — somehow that moment will forever be etched in my mind. It looked to my eye like the dawning of a new age. Out with those large, heavy, black vinyl saucers that were taking up so much space in my apartment — probably fully ten feet of “long playing” records. And now, even suddenly, it was actually possible that my lifetime collection was being made obsolete.
I rejoiced at the progress, especially once I slipped that CD into the sliding tray, I heard the gentle whirl of the disc spinning, and the speakers yielded up the most beautiful version of the first Brandenburg Concerto I had ever heard. For the first time, I could discern the steel of the violin strings buzz as the horsehair bows slid across them, and I also heard the small hooks on the harpsichord strings as they dropped down and lifted up, plucking note after note.
Nothing would ever be the same.
This one CD was all I listened to for months, because I couldn’t afford another one and I could never go back to vinyl. It was only a matter of time but it eventually came. I had to move out of my apartment. I would not move those records. I carried them one armful at a time down to the trash bin by the alley and hurled them in. It was bitter sweet, but this much I knew: I was saying goodbye to a less-ideal past and embracing a more wonderful future.
All these years later, I’m now standing over a gigantic laundry bin filled with CDs, maybe 500 of them, maybe more. I know their destiny: the landfill. Yes, these I accumulated in the intervening years. Somehow between the future way back then and now, the future became the past again.
Why am I not celebrating as I should? With each purchase of each CD — just as with the vinyl — I somehow imagined that I was investing in something that would last and last. Then history began to move faster than my own rational capacity to imagine it. I should have done this five years ago, but I couldn’t let go. I couldn’t let go of that moment when I first held the technological wonder of the CD, the rainbow gleam, the palm-sized convenience, the miracle of imagining all the world’s greatest art somehow embedded in a series of 1s and 0s on a small circle the size of a salad plate.
When everyone else was buying MP3 players and iPods, I just couldn’t go along. In my mind, music had to exist on some physical thing — even if it held only digits — that I owned in order to really believe that it was really mine. In this respect, the move from vinyl to digital disk was not much of a leap. It was an improved version of the same thing.
But downloads? That’s something different. It challenged me and I was not a believer. Surely you can’t just click things and depend on them to be there when you want them.
So instead of digital players, I amped up my ability to play more CDs at once. There was the 3-CD player, then the 6-CD player, then the 30-CD player, and I had my eye on a contraption that allowed you to put hundreds into a gigantic carousel. I didn’t go there but I almost did.
People would urge me to burn my CDs onto my hard drive to import them into my iTunes, but I couldn’t imagine taking a week off to do this, and, plus, I still could not wrap my brain around the idea that the music would exist entirely outside the physical world and still be owned by me. So instead of doing any of this, I waited.
Years went by. The iPod became the iPhone, and while others were jamming with earbuds and bluetooths, I became the only person I knew who still had to walk across a room, look through stacks of plastic, open covers, pull out a CD and shove it into a player.
Why was I doing this? Why was this happening? I felt as my great grandfather must have felt when he was the last person to keep playing his Spike Jones records on 78 speed on his increasingly obsolete turntable. I was a thing of the past but I could not think my way to yet another new future.
Then some two years ago, something amazing started happening. It seem to have begun with Pandora, then it moved to Spotify, and finally the most perfect thing of all happened: Google Play. Now I no longer had to select. This was a huge relief. A machine selected for me. This machine lived somewhere else, but I had the delivery system in my hand. It never stopped playing. My only job was to reveal and unreveal the sound.
Why should this matter? Don’t I want choice? Forgive me if this is solipsistic but I want to relay a problem I have. I have an outstanding musical memory. I hear in my head the fullness of almost any music I’ve heard once, and I can call it up in my imagination very quickly. This makes life difficult.
So, for example, if I put my finger on a CD of liturgical duets by Vivaldi, I hear them already in my head. I have to rush to the CD player before I get bored of them, and by the time the sound actually enters my space, I’ve already “heard” the music, and the realization of the sound feels repetitive. This becomes really tedious. Nothing comes out of the speakers feeling fresh. All music is a retread.
This is why it is so wonderful for an algorithm to pick out songs for me to hear. Often times, the service plays music I’ve never heard, which is great. This introduces me to new things, the oxygen of life. But most important, what comes up next is a delightful surprise. It gives me a kick each time.
At long last, after years of waiting for the technology to stabilize, it finally seems to be where it should be to enable me to do what I probably should have done years ago: hurl that gigantic CD collection in the trash.
Even so, and as much as I understand the subjective theory of economic valuation, it still amazes me. That one glimmering treasure that I unwrapped in 1987 is now multiplied by 500 or more times, and yet that treasure has become trash, with no physical change in the item whatsoever. What has changed in the technology to which we have access. But that is the most important change. It changes our expectations and beliefs about what is possible.
No matter what we believe right now about the world around us, no matter how impressive something seems at first, no more how confident we are that we know the future and therefore what is a temporary thing versus something permanently fabulous, the truth is at once alarming and liberating: in a world that is developing and progressing, all physical things are subject to devaluation to the point of zero.
In end, it’s not the delivery system that is eternal but the the music itself.