The Null Device
A future history of the CD revival
Poptimist Tom Ewing has written a future history of the 2020s CD revival
But for the fans, the music is still at the core. Unlike today's collaborative, crowdsourced, and automatically generated playlists, a CD's tracklisting is fixed, and the CD-burning scene is an opportunity for music lovers to show their deep individual loves of music, its sequencing and presentation. The 74 Sessions is one of many CD-burning clubs and groups-- some ban members from remixing or mashing up material, others ask people to theme their CD-Rs. Chantal Fielding, who runs the Prismatic Spray trading club out of Rochester, NY, loves the way CD-Rs make her focus her fandom. "You've got all this information, literally everything you look at you can find out everything about it right there, and for music that means there's no mystery anywhere. So saying no, you can't explore endlessly, you have to reduce it down-- it's powerful."
The romance of CDs in Ewing's 2020s world isn't just about working within finite physical constraints, like a sort of music-curatorial Lomography; while there is that, and undoubtedly an element of nostalgia as the hipsters and scenesters of the day relive hazy early childhood memories of the CD age (you've probably seen these kids, being wheeled through Stokey or Fitzroy in three-wheeled prams, dressed up in their Ramones onesies), a lot of the physical media revival would be driven by a backlash against the network-centric age of social software, recommendations, playlists and crowdsourcing, and the ever-hungry target-marketing apparatus beneath the surface. (Or, as one of the interviewed CD fetishists says, "when you can't see what the product is and someone's still making money, the product is you.")
While earlier physical-music movements fought to preserve analog formats in the face of digitization, CD revivalists see music's physical existence as a rebuke to a world where people's digital presence has overtaken their physical one. "It's not just about the music," explains Wolfe. "Words like 'social' and 'sharing' became absolutely twisted. It used to mean things people did together, now it's about how well you fit into algorithms. We leave snail trails of data everywhere, and all 'social' means now is that two trails have crossed and somebody's making money off it. Forcing people to collaborate for a fuller experience helps restore some of the real idea of 'social.'"
Wolfe sees CD-R revivalists as part of a 'post-social' wave of digital mischief-makers and situation-builders, in the tradition not of industrial or noise culture but of Fluxus and Neoism. He's sympathetic to "troll artists" like bot-creators and recommendation-scramblers. A friend of his was involved with the 'artificial hipster' Karen Eliot, a digital taste bundle whose infiltration of music friendship networks in 2020 caused scores of trusted playlist generators to start throwing in 00s tracks like "Starstrukk" and "My Humps".
Another dimension of CD revivalism would, of course, be the sonic characteristics of the medium; the brittleness of 44kHz 16-bit audio compared to what everybody's listening to in the future. Of course, the revival would take this even further; much as 2000s "electro" ramped up the electronicness of 1980s synthpop by throwing in anachronistically vocoded/robotised vocals
, some participants in the CD revival will go beyond the limitations of the CD and start playing around with low-bitrate audio compression, with subsubcultures of hipsters settling upon a right form of crappiness
as a cultural touchstone.
The sound on most CDs Wolfe releases is deliberately low-bitrate, with a glossy, uneasy, skinny sheen that's a stark contrast to the lossless warmth of most streamed music. Some fans call lo-bit music "ghostwave", because, as Hall Of Mirrors act Cursor Daly puts it, "you start listening to stuff that isn't there, phantom sound-- your ears are filling in the gaps. Below 128 kbps you're essentially hallucinating sound, no two people hear the same thing. Loads of CD nerds were neuroscience majors."
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