A few days ago I stood on the platform at my local railway station, waiting patiently for my train to be late, when my mind drifted aimlessly over the vast expanse of the North Sheen allotments. I found myself unusually captivated by its strange urban beauty, basking in that special light that film-directors call “magic hour”. One or two folk tended to their vegetables, but mostly the place was deserted. For one brief moment it represented a tiny oasis of peace before the onslaught of rush hour. At first I couldn’t make out what the hanging objects were that twisted slowly in the breeze and reflected tiny scintillating flashes of blinding sunlight into my eyes. Some new-fangled bird-scarer, I thought. Then my eyes adjusted to the light and I saw what they were. Compact discs. CDs. Hundreds of them.
My heart sank. I’d worked for fifteen years in the recording industry and was this what it had come to? Scaring sparrows? Was protecting the strawberries the best use that Beethoven could be put to? I started to wonder if this might be the beginning of the end. If we shoot the messenger, do we not in some way lose the message too?
Disposability surrounds us. It has become our comfort blanket. From nappies to contact lenses to relationships, we are constantly encouraged to throw away the contents of our lives. How depressing it was to discover that it is cheaper for me to buy a new laser printer than to replace the toner cartridge in it! But, when it comes to disposability, it’s the CD that takes a lot of beating. They appear on every magazine-cover under the sun and end up being used as placemats (and bird-scarers), usually without ever having been listened to; they are literally of no value. Free for the taking. Long gone are the days of that particularly treasured and fragile object, the LP, along with the kid-gloves we wore in order to gently mate it with that other beautiful piece of precision-engineering, the turntable. I use CDs, but I don’t love them. They have that weird and dangerous combination of being both indestructible and disposable, qualities (if that is the right word) that are precisely the opposite to those of the LP – fragile yet permanent. Leaving aside the old argument about which medium sounds better, I find it hard to imagine having the same fond attachment and pangs of nostalgia to a pile of old CDs collecting dust in my loft as I do to my vinyls. And did I say the CD takes a lot of beating? You bet your LP collection it does. We can drop a CD, scratch it, cover it with goodness-knows-what-it-is you find on children’s fingers, put it in the washing machine, probably iron it, slam it into the CD player with a rolling pin, and it will still play; and we think this is a good thing. Well I’m not so sure. Sometimes it feels like drinking wine from a plastic cup.
I’m not talking about what a CD looks like. I wouldn’t say that it is any more or less attractive than an LP. Arguably, with its holographic rainbows and reflective shimmer it is somewhat prettier (which is also why, I guess, they work as bird-scarers.) No, the point is how we feel about a CD. What is our relationship with it, and what message does it communicate to us? “Hi, I’m a Cover CD on your Music Magazine, I’m free and easy, you can listen to me if you want, and if you don’t like me, or even if you do, you can throw me away… and you don’t have to feel guilty about it afterwards.” (I hesitate to say it, but it’s beginning to sound like the oldest profession in the world.) You may indeed like what you hear or you may not, but either way nine times out of ten you’ll throw the disc in the bin. Would we be so cavalier with vinyl? I think not. What used to be collectable is now disposable. What used to be an event is now an irritant.
The High Street shops are in on the disposability act too. It is sometimes easier to find those great recordings from the fifties and sixties than it is to find a new one. It seems as though the more recent a recording was made, the more likely it is to be deleted from the catalogue; in other words, in order to guarantee turnover, new CDs have an inbuilt obsolescence. Notwithstanding the handful of inventive, progressive and courageous record labels that actively pursue the interesting and new in classical music, there is nevertheless the general feeling that because Brahms is not writing any more symphonies there is a need to keep re-recording them, and in the same way that we have to upgrade our computers every eighteen months the record companies also upgrade their Brahms symphonies, not to move forward but simply to stand still.
And what of the future? Making records is a business like any other, so quite rightly the labels have adapted to the changing times in order to survive, and the emphasis is shifting towards that new, intangible, abstract, objectless object: the “download”. One major UK independent record company that used to pride itself on being the only label never to delete any of its titles has now started to do so, and has put them on its website for download instead. I’m all in favour of disseminating classical music in every possible way, and there’s no question of the commercial sense in exploiting the new technologies, but what is the long-term psychological cost of this method of delivery? Like ghostly ectoplasm this mysterious “stuff” travels down our phone line and onto our computer hard drive, to be listened to on inadequate computer speakers, iPods or mobile phones, or maybe transferred to recordable CD and copied to our friends. No matter how wonderful the actual music-making may be, the product itself is cheap (or, I’m afraid to say, free, if you know where to look) and cheerful, easy to create and even easier to delete. And, worse still, no one seems to be concerned that the sound quality is compromised too.
The classical music recording industry seems, to the outsider, as healthy and as vibrant as ever; but then the hugely successful Player-Piano industry seemed to be so too, until it died virtually overnight with the advent of the gramophone. So is the “download” our saviour, or is it, in reality, a Trojan horse built by ourselves, which we innocently roll up to our own front gate? From the dawn of human consciousness it has always been a vital part of our individual and collective well-being to surround ourselves with objects of lasting value and beauty, yet my teenage son is growing up in a world that increasingly treats music as free, ephemeral, expendable, and deleteable. Only time will tell what effect this will have on the collective psyche in this brave new world of his, but it did seem poignantly apt, as I day-dreamed my way into missing my train, that the CDs on the North Sheen allotments were hanging.
© Stephen Frost 2006