Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.
Recently, the '80s band Felt began reissuing its early, out-of-print albums. Each one comes in a box with a remastered CD and a 7" vinyl single. Each dangles assorted lures like buttons and a poster. They're not cheap; at $50 a pop, these reissues are basically bait for nostalgic grown-ups with an income.
But when I went on Amazon to source a cheaper version of the band's first two albums—a twofer CD I'd owned and sold in grad school—I discovered the disc was going for more than $1,200. I refreshed the browser. $1,200.
Many things once thought worthless—vinyl records, Brutalism—have grown in value. The Internet, which leaves no take unturned, has been predicting a compact disc comeback for years. After seeing what my lost Felt CD was now selling for, I began checking the prices of the CDs I'd held onto. A solo album by Kevin Rowland, of Dexys Midnight Runners, turns out to be worth $100 to $200 on Amazon. A couple Alex Chilton discs fall within the same price range. I was pleased, but scandalized too; I'd been so negligent with this treasure.
The compact disc was matter. It could be collected. It made a delicate claw of your hand—a setting for a stone—as you gripped its edges and placed it in its tray.
My CD collection had fallen into disrepair. I'd never completely kicked the habit of buying compact discs. They're cheap, after all, and still accepted into iTunes. But from time to time, as a cash-strapped Ph.D. candidate, I had to carve out and liquidate parcels of my collection. The survivors followed me through several moves and acquired scratches. Cracks inched across their jewel cases. (A beloved box of Oasis singles, which quoted Benson & Hedges packaging, fell and shattered at the hinge.) My CDs lost their dedicated housing—those bygone towers with the horizontal slots—and wound up on shelving, bunkered in my basement. They were no longer even alphabetized.
In David Cronenberg's film Videodrome, a media scholar named Professor Brian O'Blivion, modeled after Marshall McLuhan, creates an archive of videocassettes. There seems to be a cassette for every occasion; each contains a recording of O'Blivion holding forth. The collection, in other words, is his Cloud. He has backed up his soul.
Reflecting on the ruins of my own maimed, semidispersed, and not entirely worthless collection of media, I realized that some small part of myself that I'd externalized—which I'd made material—had been abandoned. Betrayed.
I'm a late adopter. Long after the world had embraced the Discman, I still preferred my Walkman. I liked that I couldn't fast forward past subpar songs without draining the battery; I had to endure whole albums, one side at a time. Plus, the subpar songs sharpened my love for the better ones. They were the vegetables, deployed to delay and draw out the better bites. Not that there were many of them; I'd inherited my older sister's cassettes, which furnished a respectable, ready-made canon: U2, the Smiths, the Cure, the Jesus and Mary Chain, New Order.
By the time the world had moved on to MP3 players, I was proudly walking around with a silver Discman, cupped like a clutch. It couldn't carry more than one disc at a time, and I couldn't suddenly swap out the album I'd chosen, unless I'd thought ahead and packed a bag. In time, I grudgingly allowed an iPod into my life. Still, the thought of shuffling songs, as if they were cards in a board game, seemed cavalier.
I kept buying CDs. I moved them onto my laptop, and then onto the iPod. Cords had to be located, hardware plugged in. I told myself I liked limits and wasn't simply romanticizing an aversion to change. Also, the compact disc was matter. It could be collected. It came with liner notes, slim booklets on high-end stationery, which smelled good when you took the shrink-wrap off. And the disc itself wasn't without charm. It boiled vinyl down to its Platonic parts: circle and gleam. It made a delicate claw of your hand—a setting for a stone—as you gripped its edges and placed it in its tray.
Eventually, grad school exacted a toll. I didn't have a lot in the bank, but I could withdraw capital from the CDs I no longer loved. And for a time, there were a lot of them; they tempted like a trust fund. The aforementioned Felt CD would've vanished in one of my purges. It was a splendid item. It had a gray and defiantly anti-aesthetic cover, which promoted the bar code and the record label's physical address, details both useless and glorious.
How did I decide which to keep and which to sell to the used-CD stores? I suppose I was betting on futures. I sold discs by worthy bands I wasn't actively into, and which I wagered could be replaced later, with relative ease (the Beatles). I rid myself of music gone bad, by trendy, invasive bands that had crept onto my radar (the Vines). I dispensed with brief enthusiasms (Vangelis' soundtrack for Blade Runner) and signifiers of adolescence (The Wall). And I cast out obscurities, like Felt, that had failed to hold my fickle attention.
Still, some mix of sentiment and principle saved certain CDs I had no immediate use for. I could never quite give up my Fred Neil albums. Neil was the author of "Everybody's Talkin,' " famously covered by Harry Nilsson in Midnight Cowboy (though Neil's version, lacquered in his lovely baritone, is the one to hear). Neil had stopped recording decades ago and was the definition of a cult artist. Amassing his few albums hadn't been easy. The imperial thumb stayed up.
God knows what that liquidated Felt CD subsidized, though. Something unworthy, to be sure. If not a lesser album, then a forgotten meal. Drinks with long-gone friends. Nights I barely recollect.
Tom Scocca has a charming essay about test-driving a Cadillac called, "The Identities We Construct Through and Around Our Consumption of Commercial Products Are Tissue-Thin and Contingent." That wordy title, which David Foster Wallace would've approved, is probably true.
Still, it's hard not to feel that a collection, organized by a self, can express something substantial about that self, something beyond "I have cool, eclectic taste." My late father bought and hoarded stamps. He drew intricate grids on 8-by-11-inch sheets of paper, in which he positioned his treasures. There are binders and binders of these sheets. Dealers at stamp and coin conventions were awestruck at how he'd chosen to organize his collection. Some "tissue-thin" part of him—his artfulness, his attention to detail—remains entangled in those grids of stamps.
Doesn't a collection, like a life, require care? Don't its constituent parts—whether discs or stamps or Christmas villages—have genealogies that attach to certain people or places? And at a certain point, isn't winnowing a kind of airbrushing? I realize only now that in breaking up my CDs, I was banishing whole phases of my personal history—Britpop, jazz, garage rock, Patti Smith—to oblivion.
After I left grad school and got a job, I no longer had to sell CDs. I held onto my remaining discs because I needed some way of listening to music, and modern life doesn't offer acceptable alternatives. YouTube is a trickster realm through which tumble, like space debris, inferior versions of dubious provenance (not to mention fan-made slideshows, as well-meaning as the macaroni art my toddler brings home). Streaming, like renting, makes no long-term sense. Vinyl, at this point, is out of the question, and anyway I need a portable solution. The Cloud seems about as trustworthy as real-world cumuli, which have a tendency to vanish. (To wit: this magazine has reported on the danger of one's prized digital files being gessoed over at the whim of Apple.)
I'm stuck with uploading out-of-print CDs to my discontinued iPod Nano. I refuse to use my phone; I worry I'll shorten its life.
Eventually—sadly—I found more reasonable listings for some of the CDs I thought were priceless. (Discogs puts them in the $40 to $50 range.) Perhaps the predators on Amazon, who've inflated prices, are fishing for more desperate and well-heeled nostalgists than me?
It doesn't matter. The neighborhood street sale has become a favorite destination. Most of the CDs on offer are worthless, the de rigueur contents of bourgeois basements, emptied streetward: Buena Vista Social Club, Bette Midler, Coldplay. But I've encountered several serious collectors, standing with their mixed feelings in front of boxes, CD spines exposed to the sky. Marquee Moon by Television. Compact Disc by PiL. All for a buck or two. All in great condition. The retired—reformed?—collectors comment on the ones I pull out. They've elected to stream, they tell me, or need the shelf space. I sense my intensity, as I rifle through their prized possessions, is a comfort. A partner hovers near, perhaps to ensure that CDs are, in fact, liquidated. I must seem like an easy mark, carting away stacks of obsolete media; I'm convinced I'm the one perpetrating the con—or rebalancing the universe. At one recent sale, I bought a copy of HMS Fable by Shack, which I already own, on principle. It's out of print and went for a dollar.
In fact, I'm buying and alphabetizing compact discs again. I've even ordered a few out-of-print discs, including a used copy of Back in Denim. ("Plays mint. Very clean.") Felt's frontman, the surnameless Lawrence, released this obscure album in 1992, under the Denim moniker. It anticipated all the Britpop albums I'd loved and lost. I've seen it going for hundreds, but managed to pick it up for about $20. I have no plans to sell it, though; I'd just like to give the disc a good home.
And I finally put up the wall-mounted MUJI CD player, which my wife gave me two years ago. It's as elegant an object as any turntable. You tug the power cord, which dangles like a tail, to turn it on. The CD isn't glassed in, and spins freely. I keep worrying it'll fly off and embed itself in the ceiling or a scalp. But my CDs now enjoy a life outside of both iTunes and the basement, revolving on our kitchen wall while we cook. My 20-month-old son finds the blur mesmerizing.