Long Live the New King


I remember my first CD player.

I bought it in September 1994 after a summer working at a very lucrative temporary job ($18 plus overtime benefits working in the office area of a unionized factory. This is one reason why I still love unions).

I’d been thinking about this purchase for months. Previously, most of my music was either on cassette tape, or on a handful of vinyl records which I was no longer listening to. The records had seen better days, and my cassette tapes would gradually stretch out of shape, rendering Sarah McLachlan’s alto to a bass baritone.

The solution, clearly, was the compact disc — a medium read by lasers that didn’t touch the playing service, offering crystal clear sound. And they looked beautiful, too. So… shiny. Once I had a CD player, my music would last… forever!

Eventually, I mustered my money and marched down to my local electronics store (now long gone). I plunked down $100, plus an additional $20 for an extended service warranty (which I never used). Then I went out and bought some CDs, and then came home for a good listen. My CD collection was born. Between myself and Erin, it would grow to nearly 200 strong by the time we moved into our current townhouse.

Eventually, I came to realize that CDs weren’t perfect. Yes, they played music beautifully, and I could skip back and forth between songs, but only those songs within that five-inch disc of plastic and metal. Fortunately, the technology was improving. Maybe I couldn’t listen to mix CDs in the car, but I could create mix tapes using my combined CD and cassette player. Alternately, I could invest in a CD writer (bought in 1998 for $100 for a blistering 4X). Gradually, I could control my music as conveniently as a blank cassette tape — albeit in 74 to 80 minute chunks.

At the time, I couldn’t think of what could replace the CD technology. Maybe DVDs would increase storage space, but it was the same basic medium; the same basic principle. We had reached the pinnacle of what was possible. The music was crystal clear and since the playing surface never came in contact with the reader, the medium wouldn’t deteriorate (or so we thought). Comedian Mike MacDonald once joked that, after replacing his Beatles collection four times, they’d have to invent technology to physically reunite the Beatles in his living room (and exhume John Lennon from the grave) in order for him to switch once again.

Then, six years ago this month, Apple Computers introduced a boxy new device with a funky control wheel in front. It helped along a revolution that was already in progress, changing the way we viewed how we could access our music. With MP3s, songs were divorced from their medium. They didn’t need to be physically stored on bits of magnetic ribbon or shiny discs of plastic. They’d been rendered into their component bits, and could be spewed electronically from any hard drive or flash drive, or even down from the Internet. The devices that played them could play dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of these songs at one go, as randomly as I wanted it to be.

Last year, I realized that it had been about a year since I’d last bought a music CD (All That Roadrunning by Mark Knopler and Emmylou Harris), but in the interim I’d added several albums to my collection (including Jorane’s The You and the Now). This year, I tried to sell off a bunch of CDs that I wasn’t listening to anymore, but no used record stores (that still existed) would take them. This past summer, I got a little frustrated of having to burn yet another CD-ROM in order to play the music I wanted to hear in our car. I got sick of changing CDs in the car.

And this past Monday, I marched down to the Apple Store in the Eaton’s Centre, and spent the final installment of my advance for Fathom Five on something a little bit frivolous but still a lot of fun. By Tuesday, my 80GB iPod held 2085 songs, hundreds of photographs, and 69GB of empty space. I’m now part of the new generation of music.

I feel a bit sorry for the CD-ROM and its DVD cousin. They’ll still have their uses for years to come, but they were only the kings of the music mountain for less than a decade. In comparison, how long has vinyl been around? How long was it king?

So, is the MP3 player the pinnacle of possible technology? I’m not making that mistake again. Five years ago I couldn’t conceive of how technology could improve on the CD for the delivery of music, and look where we are today. I can’t help but wonder, even as I tune into my music, how my iPod will play five years from now. What revolutions are around the corner? Will we finally exhume John Lennon and reunite the Beatles in our living room?

Further Reading

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