In the 1990s I would have killed for a CD burner. I remember hearing a story about a guy who made a Cure Mix CD for a girl he was trying to impress, and part of me just died the moment I heard that. “How can my mix tape possibly compete with a Mix CD?” While I had spent all of my time in the years since I first got blank tapes around age 10 or 11 perfecting and honing the art of capturing sound with a cassette – and maximizing the way you can use that time each tape offered – that it seemed like the ability to make a CD would only increase the means through which I could better manipulate the sound you could hear during playback. And, everybody listened to CDs.
Initially, when CD burners became fairly ubiquitous, they were amazing. I didn’t build a computer with a CD burner until 2002. But prior to that I always did my best to integrate sound in my computing experience, limping around with shitty desktop that I had cobbled together with stuff I salvaged from a gift-computer I’d received in 1993. Prior to that it had been my TRS-80, and a few stray machines here and there that had been on the loan. In the years since I had figured out how to make sound with a computer, and capture it from a turntable and cassette deck. When the early Internet became stable around 2000, I would periodically send sound files to friends and ask them to burn discs for me. It all started very, very primitively.
However, it wasn’t long before it was very easy for everyone to make CDs, and almost daily. By 2004, it has already become passé, I had bought my first Mac and iPod, I was podcasting my show at KPSU, and the technology landscape had changed dramatically. CDs were already an in-between technology, but I clung to this old-media idea of discs and making them, born largely out of those desires in the ’90’s. I remember making tapes of my band’s recordings, thinking that if ONLY we could make CDs, we could compete on a different level. We had a DAT, we had cassettes, but CDs were what people were buying, and listening to in cars. CDs would be the future. CDs meant some sort of permanence. A physical disc! How could having those around be bad?
Throughout all the of the 2000s I spent a lot of time sorting, organizing, and labeling my discs. Part of this was for easy searching and finding later, as it was very easy to quickly burn a CD and not label it. I invested in plastic folders, bought sharpies in large quantities, and developed systems for storing in this folder vs. that folder. In the early days I had scads and scads of Audiogalaxy finds that needed organizing, and as my hard drive filled up I burned off discs to free up the space. I couldn’t fathom the idea of terabyte drives in those days, and the 50,000 album archives being the standard seemed of another universe, a time that we could never possibly reach. Meanwhile, these folders consumed money, discs, space, and time, and I never questioned it.
Around the year 2010 I stopped making discs of new stuff that I got from friends or the radio station, but it took me a few years more before I realized I wasn’t even looking at these old plastic folders anymore. I had made the music more or less inaccessible. All of my new toys and devices ran .mp3s, and my massive record collection was finally all in one house. There was no shortage of stuff to listen to, and it was easy enough to let these CDs languish, as the idea of making discs now seemed quaint and outmoded. I had a wealth of music in those burned discs, but they were entirely out of the realm of my listening experience. For quite a while, I didn’t even own a CD player outside of my computer, and when I bought one, it was so small and so cheap that I felt sad for the me in the ’90’s that longed for this technology, that was so insanely expensive way back then, and was now so pathetic.
Over the last few moves I’ve carted these folders of burned CDs around, looking at them longingly and wondering what I will do with them. But the same impulse that causes me to hoard everything has led to me defending the need to carry around this dead weight, as if they would someday have secret hidden value of which only I was aware. As the discs rotted in my basement, they went, unlistened, unused, and unheard.
It was around last summer that I started seeing these discs as garbage. Not the content; I still wanted the music on them. But to continue to pamper and idolize them was insane. What I needed to do was rip them to my computer again – completing their life cycle – and I could finally be rid of them once and for all.
In the last couple decades I have taken my .mp3s on a sort of hero’s journey, setting them adrift from the rest of my digital life on these island’s that were discs, only to reunite them with my larger digital library – almost 10 years later in some cases. I immediately set to work establishing a playlist that played new additions to the library first, but did not repeat anything after it had been played once, and set about enjoying all of this stuff that I hadn’t heard it years and years.
There were a handful of discs that didn’t survive. A few of them have degraded over time, and in other cases my taste has evolved. But I was astounded at how much of it was actually still interesting to me. In the end, however, I did keep one folder of discs. I had to up the criteria quite a bit to ensure I didn’t just keep everything, so I was reduced to keeping only discs by my friends bands (that were, otherwise, never released anywhere), and the few discs I’d gotten over the years that really set themselves apart from the others because of cover art, or the work they put into the disc. I kept maybe 20 discs or so.
It took a lot of work, ripping them and labeling meta-data. I have become a stickler for well-documented files, and the ability to search and find things quickly has become the primary definition of “good data” for me. So, after a lot of finessing, labeling, and tweaking the genre filters, I managed to get it all sorted out, and I’m listening to an incredible selection of stuff from my past that is evoking all sorts of nostalgic listening binges. The mix discs from my friends are the most interesting, but there are a few hundred albums that I just haven’t heard in all that time, the music locked away on these discs.
The experience has made me rethink a lot of things in the last few days. Obviously, there are plenty of things we keep in our lives that could serve us better in the trash, and there are even more ideas that we have locked up in some container, without giving the notion a chance to breath and be a part of the ecosystem. And, some of us are packrats.
As I churn through a wealth of new-old music, I can’t help but try and find the deeper lesson that were trapped in digital amber for so long. What technologies are we rabid over now that will be in the trash before long? The urge to go minimal is starting to overtake me, and while there are some things I am not ready to part with, there are so many that serve me no real function. There was a time when material items were the things I surrounded myself with because I couldn’t surround myself with the friends and people I wanted in my life every day. But that me – the mean that felt so alone – seems quite a distance from the me that is cleaning up all this crap now.
It is freeing to be rid of so many discs, but there is more work to be done. My version of cleaning used to be to just pile everything in a box, and put the box away, and there are quite a few boxes left to be sorted. But even these little battles against my own bad habits must be fought one at a time, and never all at once.