Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The sob story of the CD


broken cd

Dear music lovers,

All of you recognise me by the name audio CD, or even more simply put, the CD. My full form, as you know, is Compact Disc. Strangely, in the next couple of years, all that may change, and I might stand for ‘Certified Dinosaur’. Technology, once my creator, has now become my destroyer, and it’s only a matter of time before I become old-fashioned, or even extinct.

Some of you may wonder why I have become so sceptical, cynical or pessimistic. Well, I am smart enough to read the writing on the wall, and see what’s going on around me.

Let me tell you precisely what’s happening in India. Over the past few months, one major exclusive music chain has shut shop. Another similar chain cut down music quantities and decided to hawk mobile phones, gadgets and movies instead. Some outlets which sold a mix of books, music and other related categories have either shut down, or banned any music from entering their doors. In such a scenario, only a few old stores are fighting against the odds to survive.

The concept of a music retail chain doesn’t exist any longer. The physical music format is dying.

The change in the environment will have other consequences too. The biggest to be affected will be the record labels. With so many stores shutting down or changing their business models to exclude music, these companies will have no one to supply to. Manufacturing quantities have already come down drastically, and the situation will only get worse. Some of them have been talking of selling more music digitally, but it’s been some seven or eight years they have been trying that, without much success. Only a miracle can change their fortunes now.

Because of all this, I will be seen in fewer places. I can already see the change. One of my followers went to pick up the brand new Krrish 3 CD at a store he’s been frequenting for the past few years, only to be told the store isn’t stocking a single CD now. Another person went looking for John Mayer’s latest release ‘Paradise Valley’ and Sting’s ‘The Last Ship’, only to be told they hadn’t received it. A third person looked for a Bhimsen Joshi compilation, and discovered that stores which once had loads of classical music now only stocked a handful of new Bollywood releases.

What pinches me is that all this music is now available illegally for free. Somebody just downloads it from a site, and passes it around on a pen-drive. Sometimes I exist in the stores, albeit in smaller quantities, but nobody will pick me up because they have already got a free copy, or because they checked it out — again for free — on YouTube. Even if the sound is terrible, people will listen to it just because they didn’t have to pay a single paisa. The industry’s sales revenues have obviously gone for a toss.

Another group to suffer will be the artistes, be they singers, composers, lyricists or musicians. Earlier, they would get royalties accrued from sales of physical albums, though even there, they kept wanting a bigger chunk of the pie. In the case of digital sales, a lot is downloaded for free, and there is no exact account of that, or means to monitor it. So barring the few legitimate companies which honestly declare digital revenues, one will never know what is exactly due to the artistes. Also, those planning to release new music will need to think of other ways to reach out to audiences. For them, the organised retail route no longer exists.

It’s not that I am the first musical format to face such a thing. My forefathers underwent a similar fate too. Many years ago, the spool came and went unnoticed. The Long Play Vinyl Record or LP, and his brothers, the Extended Play EP and the 78 rpm were popular from the 1950s to the 1970s, but fizzled out. Though LPs have been back in fashion over the past couple of years, I fear that their availability will decrease too, and they will probably be sold in a few exclusive outlets whose promoter is in the field more for his love for music than for the money.

My predecessor, the cassette, was a superstar in his own right, not only selling great quantities himself but also ensuring sales of Sony Walkmans, car stereos and tape decks. Today, nobody listens to him, and the latest music systems don’t even have a cassette facility. If cassettes exist, it’s only in heavily fungus-bitten or mangled forms in the cupboards of people who don’t know what to do with them, except retain them for pure nostalgia.

Now look at my fate. When I suddenly became famous some 20 years ago, people thought I would last forever. Though the old-timers always preferred the analog sound of the LP, they didn’t find large quantities after that whole vinyl craze died down. My digital sound attracted its own set of followers, and as I was less likely to be damaged and thus had a longer life compared to a cassette, people started believing in me and relishing my sound. Even though some people felt I was expensive, they could not argue about the quality of sound I produced.

Over time, I became friendly with different types of formats. Besides music systems and portable Discmans, I could be played in home theatre units, and even in computers and laptops —something which wasn’t possible for other formats. Though I was threatened by this ghost called audio piracy, industry associations took extra steps to ensure that was reduced, at least by ensuring that my duplicate and fake clones were not available in the market.

I survived for a long time, but my downfall came out of the blue. Yes, I still exist in the fairly large collections of hardcore music lovers, who have admired me and nurtured me for years. These people have treated me like a king, making sure I stay clean and that I am not misused. They liked owning the physical copy, and they shall continue to be proud of my presence. Sadly, in today’s world, their lot is decreasing.

What ever happened, and that too so suddenly? The general response to this question is that people have changed the way they ‘consume’ music. Yes, ‘consume’ is the word they use, as though I am a Maharaja Mac burger or a Thums Up cola.

I hate the word ‘consume’, as it sounds like a word used more by the jargon-oozing marketing wizards who now throng the music industry, unlike the true music-loving artiste promoters who existed in the past. But I must admit that people have changed the way they listen to music.

I got my first scare about a decade ago, when there was a sudden increase in the demand for iPods. People could store an endless list of songs on these tiny gadgets, and listen to them either on their headphones or by connecting them to their computing systems. They would choose exactly the songs they wanted, and build their own personal library. Since the iPod could be carried everywhere, unlike most systems that played CDs, I slowly became redundant for such tech-friendly users.

Slowly, youngsters began looking for alternate means of listening to music. And if it was free, better for them. They looked for music more in the form of single songs, instead of complete albums. There was little patience to appreciate a work of art in its entirety.

Things kept changing with each passing year. Today, people want music on insipid MP3 files, USB drives or even on those creaky mobile phones that can make even the great Beethoven sound like a baboon. They want it on YouTube, because they can find anything under the sun free of cost, listen to these songs and then attach them on Facebook statuses to impress scores of virtual friends. Today, in the era of Smartphones, who wants a not-so-smart CD?

I agree that times change, and with it, so does technology. The latest technology has done wonders in fields like cinema, animation, advertising, banking, the very functioning of corporate offices, so on and so forth. Thanks to technological advancement, the world has become a smaller and more comfortable place.

Ironically, technology has actually had a devastating effect on the physical music industry. On the one hand, we have the most advanced systems and gadgets. But on the other, the best forms of transmitting good sound — the analog LP and the digital CD — have fewer takers today. With fewer stores retailing them, we may soon become history. And by the way, why on earth am I still associating myself with the world ‘digital’ when I should actually be detesting that word?

Ask anyone who’s grown up on the best music of the past 50 years, and that too by listening to it on good music systems, and they will tell you that slowly, the age of great sound is slowly making way for the era of cacophony. Just look at the person sitting next to you in the train, at office or in a restaurant, blaring a song on his mobile phone, and you’ll know what I mean. Melody has turned into malady.

This may well be my view, and I am sure thousands may disagree with me, simply because they haven’t felt the real thing in the past, and are happier boasting of the latest fads. But today, if you talk of listening to recorded music as a purely aesthetic, aural and amazing experience, what’s happening is everything except music to the ears.

Technology, for music’s sake, please use your charm to make things sound as good as they did.

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