As compact discs die off, so does a piece of me

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A Yamaha CD-555 with the CD carosel stopped. Photo:  Leo-setä/Flickr
A Yamaha CD-555 with the CD carousel stopped. Photo: Leo-setä/Flickr

I stood in the doorway, still teary-eyed from goodbyes with my parents. There, before me, sat the first lesson of my freshman year in college.

Peter Otto had a blond mohawk and twirled a shiny butterfly knife. He had already adorned his side of the room with posters of his favorite bands: The Meatmen, Dead Kennedys and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

“I guess I’m your roommate,” I said and he pointed to the lower bunk. I was chubby, an Eagle Scout and a mama’s boy. But I had one cool card I could play — a boombox that played compact discs, a relatively new music format.

But with only two CDs — a synth-pop album by Kenny Loggins and the debut record from Bruce Hornsby & the Range — there would be no cool, not then anyway. Otto wound up being the best roommate I ever had during two college tours. Some of his music made it into my CD collection, which accelerated in the fall of 1985, but I doubt he ever took to Loggins.

Nearly 30 years later, I keep reading stories that eulogize the CD, report plummeting album sales and lay out how the music industry is now taking its product directly to customers through social media, streaming services or direct downloads from a group’s website.

During the first half of 2014, revenues from streaming services totaling $860 million surpassed CD sales for the first time, according to Forbes. CD sales continued to drop and fell to the third-largest source of income for the music industry.

Just last night, I paid my respects to this death. I downloaded four new songs to my phone from the iTunes Store, two of which were songs from my teen years, and as Bill Withers began to sing “Lovely Day,” I glanced over at four three-ring binders full of CDS and their liner notes. This was the soundtrack of a life that grew to be a little cooler — a 10-year obsession with jazz makes my case — but seemed to stop once I embraced the iPod and iTunes.

Like vinyal records, a CD collection could quickly gobble up space in a room. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Like vinyl records, a CD collection could quickly gobble up space in a room. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I never held marathon sessions with my computer to digitize the music in those binders. I also doubt the CD will enjoy a revival like vinyl records. My collection will gasp the occasional breath as long as computers have CD drives or the stereo (an adult upgrade from the boombox) continues to work.

It has been a long time since I’ve been in a dorm, but I wonder about the quality of noise on the floors. Is music now less of a collective experience because of our devices and earbuds? Or does a cacophony of genres still fill college hallways?

On my floor, we had everything from Otto and his hardcore punk to Dancing Barry, so named because he sang and danced with his collection of Madonna CDs. (His favorite was “Dress You Up.” He played it over and over. How could I forget?)

Two doors down, the floor’s only African-American guys played the pioneers of hip-hop — Run-D.M.C., Schooly D and Doug E. Fresh, to name a few. A bunch of us crowded into their room one day to listen to the vulgarities of 2 Live Crew. It was too much for Dancing Barry, who started closing his door so he could enjoy Madonna in peace.

Walk into any room and you could find the ingredients for a pretty sweet mixtape. This was before you could record onto a blank CD, so cassette tapes still held a place. I compiled a tape of slow jams that sat in a desk drawer beside the condoms, neither of which were enjoyed that year.

Eventually, I fell in love. When my girlfriend departed for England for her junior year, I mined the tracks of my CD collection, and those from friends on the sister floor, to compile a tape of mushy love songs to send her. I don’t think she liked Luther Vandross at the time, but the tape touched her anyway.

Years later, when we were getting married, we prepared a CD of music to be played at the ceremony. We loaded the CD into a portable stereo brought by the officiant to play Etta James’ “At Last,” but the stereo would not recognize the MP3 file.

Our photographer came to the rescue. He pulled out a cord that, luckily, could be plugged into the sound system. He then downloaded the song onto his iPhone. We entered a new chapter.

Below is a TV news story from 1985, the year I started college, from one of my hometown news stations in Detroit. It was about the growth in popularity of compact discs. The reporter interviews a man with a fashionable mullet that, if I’m not mistaken, is also permed.

On an unrelated yet historic note, the anchor who introduces the piece is Mort Crim, who was said to be the inspiration for Ron Burgundy, Will Ferrell’s character in Anchorman.