“How did you go bankrupt?”
“Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.”
— Ernest Hemingway, “The Sun Also Rises,” 1926
I should have seen this coming. And yet the future is becoming the past even faster than I expected.
For me, the future arrived in a gift-wrapped pouch, on my 16th birthday. Inside were two clear plastic cases, each holding a silvery round thing not quite 4 ¾ inches across.
Peter Gabriel’s album “So” was stored on one, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the other.
Confused, I looked up at my sister and brother-in-law.
“I don’t even have a CD player,” I told them.
By that weekend, thanks to them (and a storefront electronics shop in New York City, now long defunct), I did — a Sony Discman portable, an inch high and not much broader than my palm.
And a collection was born. A collection that has grown — sometimes at a snail’s pace, other times in box-set fistfuls — through 30 years, six jobs and two coasts.
At first there were the monthly, allowance-eating purchases of the latest U2 album, of The Cure’s newest emo-thon. Then a love of classical music swelled my hoard with Beethoven and Scarlatti and Mahler, masterworks slowly equaling – then racing past – the number of pop titles in my bedroom.
A few dozen compact discs became a hundred, then 200. A second bookshelf was pressed into service, then the storage space underneath the TV.
A music store – preferably the kind claiming an entire city block as its own – became my home away from home. Pooh on Central Park or Shea Stadium or the Metropolitan Museum! No, a special day on the town was a train ride from the suburbs down into Manhattan, then to Tower Records or HMV or the Virgin Megastore, to lose myself among stacks for hours and head back home heavier by a bagful of silvery round baubles, not to mention lighter by a C-note or so.
In all, I did my own eager if small part to keep the music labels — and especially the music retailers — flush.
As mounting sales of compact discs pushed first vinyl records and then cassettes to the edge of irrelevance, music revenues grew and grew, all the way to a record $14.6 billion in 1999, according to Forrester Research. (The gradual revival — not to say hipsterization — of vinyl was still on the horizon.)
The black clouds were small at first. Data compression let listeners rip their CDs and crunch the files down into small enough sizes to share online with anyone and everyone, copyrights and royalties be damned.
Music labels armed with lawyers swatted at such purveyors like so many flies — squashing Napster, zapping LimeWire and so on.
Then came Apple. And iTunes.
Music on the Internet went legit: click your mouse, pay your dollar, get your song, no car or train ride necessary. (Not even a shower, for that matter.)
But wait! Why must a song be a mere product, even a virtual, ineffable one? Why can’t it be a utility to be turned on and off whenever — like your lights, your heat, your water?
Why not, indeed? I started paying my $10 a month to drink from the musical firehose.
Compact disc sales in the U.S., deflating like an old balloon, were overtaken by digital sales in 2011 — the same year Swedish-born Spotify took on its first American customers. The gap has only widened since, only now with on-demand streaming taking the lead, accounting for 62 percent of music revenue last year.
With so many ways to find the album you want, how can CDs still have a place in the market?
Well, the answer has gradually become clear, and earlier this month, the answer stared me in the face — they can’t.
Especially when Best Buy says so. And maybe Target too.
Once the No. 1 seller of CDs in the country, Best Buy has announced it will pull the plug on July 1. Not that there was much business to lose, what with Billboard magazine reporting CD revenue of just $40 million a year across the chain — a rounding error for a company grossing more than $8.5 billion.
Target’s CD shelves will remain for now, but for how long? Bucking the custom of stores prepaying for discs and returning unsold albums to the record label, the retail chain, starting this spring, will pay the labels only as each disc is checked out at the counter, thus pushing the risk back to music companies.
So where, then, will one be able to walk through the door and walk out with a CD? National chains are jumping ship; the big-city music sellers of old are in the past tense or, at best, the stuff of nostalgic documentaries.
Where will a person be able to buy a CD? Or should the question be: Why should a person buy a CD?
It’s a question I ask myself, more often now, even as my music library reaches the hundreds of albums (I’m too lazy to count exactly how many anymore).
If there is an answer, it may not be a rational one, but it’s mine.
Simply put: Those albums on the shelf are mine.
A hard drive crash won’t obliterate them. A licensing tiff won’t make them vanish from my Spotify playlist. (There’s a reason why “what’s entering and what’s leaving Netflix this month” articles are as much a news staple nowadays as the stock market updates.)
No: the once-futuristic, now-outmoded, maybe future hipster-bait compact discs are physical, and there for me, and no one can change that.
Not for as long as I live. Or care.