Buying physical music again after a 20 year hiatus
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Lately, any time I go into a thrift store, a used book store, or even our library, I find myself browsing the selection of used CDs for sale. Here are a few that I’ve purchased in just the last month or so.
The strange thing to me is that I’ve spent most of the last 20+ years trying to wean myself from CDs.
I was a high schooler when Napster launched, and I spent more time that I would care to remember downloading mp3s from other users (a dubiously legal practice at the time that was later found to be quite illegal).
I bought one of the first iPods as a college student. I was working part time retail jobs and opened a Micro Center credit card to finance the purchase. The price tag was more than I could afford to pay out of pocket, but the notion of carrying around thousands of songs with me was too great to turn down.
I spent hours copying the contents of my old CDs into iTunes and purchasing music directly from Apple. I created playlists of my favorite songs that I listened to through my trendy white earbuds on the subway or with a cassette tape adapter, through my car stereo.
Of course, with the advent of Spotify, where I literally had nearly the whole history of recorded music at my fingertips at any time, my iTunes library felt quaint and I stopped maintaining it at a certain point. Music shifted from being stored on its own dedicated device to being just another app on my phone, alongside Twitter, my bank account, and the weather app.
When we bought our RV nearly two years ago, it came with a no-name aftermarket CD player in the dash that didn’t work all that well. I wanted to upgrade it.
Most of the car stereos these days offer Apple CarPlay, which would basically turn the radio into a phone display, with many of the apps on my phone appearing on the touch screen. I opted for one that was a little less money which would still play music over Bluetooth, but didn’t come with all the bells and whistles of a full CarPlay compliant radio. It did come with a slot to play CDs and even DVDs though. I wasn’t sure if we’d even use that feature much.
It turns out that it changed everything.
I quickly discovered that I didn’t like fumbling with Spotify when driving the RV. The unlimited choices of every music genre and artist ended up being more intimidating than relaxing, especially on longe trips. Plus, the notion of even briefly looking at my phone when piloting a 32 foot long vehicle seemed ill advised.
Instead, I dug out my old 96 CD wallet from a box in the attic. It had been a feature in every car I had owned since high school, although at some point, I stopped moving it car to car and it wound up in storage.
Flipping through it was a bit of a time capsule. It was mostly still dominated by music from high school, and hadn’t even been opened in at least a decade. There were CDs that still held up that I was happy to pop in: Fleetwood Mac, Nirvana, and Jay-Z among them, but there were also some duds, like the electric wailing of a Christian punk rock band that had performed on the public access show that my friends and I produced.
As we spent long portions of last summer on the road, I began to find a comfort in choosing an album and letting it play from start to finish. It marked time in a way that I had long since forgotten. I remembered how my dad would play Tracy Chapman, Lisa Loeb, or Bonnie Raitt on family road trips in my youth.
I liked CDs again.
And my kids, who grew up with streaming any show imaginable on demand, began to fall in love with DVDs. Our RV doesn’t have an AppleTV, Roku, or other smart device for streaming, just a combination VCR/DVD player that was a factory standard in 2006.
When we’re at a campground and have electricity, the kids like watching movies on the main TV, but when we’re camping off grid and have to rely on battery powered devices including the car radio. We don’t let them watch much, but on occasion, we allow them to sit in the driver and passenger seat and watch a DVD on the radio. (For those concerned, the DVD player only operates when the parking brake is engaged so it can’t be viewed when driving).
The music on the car stereo also plays in speakers in the living room portion of the RV, so while we’re cooking or hanging out, it’s nice to put on a CD. This is especially important when we’re in an area with low cell reception, as CDs work even if streaming doesn’t.
It’s not that I don’t listen to Spotify or Pandora anymore, because I very much do, but I find that there’s a certain comfort in having physical media, the deliberateness of placing a plastic disc into a slot, and the completeness of listening to an artistic pursuit from start to finish.
And I’m suddenly browsing for CDs and DVDs again, after nearly two decades of buying digital copies online or paying subscriptions to stream.
Although the places that I used to go to buy physical media are no longer where I shop. Best Buy, which used to devote the entire center of the store to CDs and DVDs now has only a shelf or two at the far edge of the store. Target seems to have pivoted more to vinyl records than CDs, although their selection of either is relatively sparse. There’s no longer a Suncoast video near me, although my local mall does have an FYE that’s a strange time warp. I stopped in there in December and it felt like going back to 1995, right down to the CD selection and prices.
These days, I buy my CDs and DVDs for a few dollars at a thrift store. Even though most of them are in used condition and cost less than $5 each, I still apply the same rule to CD buying that I have to buying clothes this past year: they must be unimpeachably good in order for me to make the purchase. I have enough stuff around that if I’m going to buy physical media, it better earn its place in my collection.
My taste lately has skewed to 1970s rock and folk- the types of songs that were playing on the turntables of my childhood in the 1980s. I’ve always been a fan of Fleetwood Mac and Bruce Springsteen, though I’m finding that there’s something about the simplicity of John Denver or James Taylor that seems to suit my RV. They’re comfort food; the eggs and bacon of a roadside diner. Familiar, recognizable, fitting.
These thrift store CDs were probably in a box in somebody’s attic, not unlike my 96 CD wallet. I suppose like most things in the thrift store, they’re just looking for a second life, a new home where they will be loved instead of forgotten.
What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
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