Every Sunday morning, Steve McMahon, 30, takes a 90-minute train ride from his home in Surrey, a sleepy town in the South of England, to East London’s Brick Lane Market in Shoreditch, one of the city’s trendiest areas. For music lovers like McMahon, the market is a treasure trove of rare records and cassette tapes and a place where emerging, independent artists advertise upcoming gigs. But while most people visit Brick Lane to buy vintage vinyl, used books and old cameras, McMahon spends his Sundays looking for a more unexpected item — used CDs.
Scouring through wooden crates, McMahon inspects the CDs he pulls out from underneath old copies of magazines and dust-laden children’s toys. He notes how many scratches they have and whether they come with all the original artwork and booklets — a crucial part of his hunt. “That separates CDs from vinyl records and Spotify downloads,” he explains. McMahon, like most people his age, listens to music almost entirely through streaming platforms — Spotify on his phone and Apple Music on his computer. At home, to relax, he plays music from speakers connected to bluetooth or maybe a vinyl record from his dad’s hand-me-down collection.
So why does he spend so much of his free time hunting for CDs?
“I know it’s a strange hobby,” McMahon says with a laugh. “A big part of it is that there are so many CDs laying about, so there’s an element of surprise of not knowing what you’ll find. When you download some music, you usually search for it — a particular track or genre.” Better yet, he adds, unlike vinyl, “The odds are that it was music you grew up with, that you can remember a moment in your life when you heard it on the radio, or you saw the music video on TV. For me, it’s like going through a photo album.”
There are, of course, a number of Facebook groups dedicated to McMahon’s hobby — from “CD Collectors and Music Lovers” (which has nearly 4,000 members), to “Compact Disc Collectors Cave”, where members upload CDs they’ve found, to “Compact Disc Discoveries,” a group dedicated to sharing CD covers. In each, members post pictures of their collections, comment on the quality and features of the CD itself (such as whether it’s transparent or gold-plated) and share their memories of music they rediscovered via compact disc.
Obviously, in 2019, the CD has all but been written off, but the optical disc, developed in 1974 by the Dutch electronics engineer Kees Schouhamer Immink, was once thought of as revolutionary because it converted analog to digital and helped artists make higher-quality sounding music. Gennaro Castaldo, the music manager of BPI, told The Guardian in 2015, “The CD came to symbolize the so-called yuppie generation, representing new material success and aspiration. If you owned a CD player, it showed you were upwardly mobile. Its significance seemed to go beyond music to a lifestyle statement.” As CDs became cheaper to produce, they took over the music industry. In 2007, more than 200 billion CDs had been bought and sold, driven by the popularity of computers with built-in players, and the convenience of being able to easily skip tracks and listen to specific songs.
But in 2008, CDs started to become usurped by iTunes and iPods, where users could upload their music digitally, and peer-to-peer file sharing sites like Kazaa and Limewire, where you could download music for free. And so, last year, just 32 million CDs were sold globally. Further, data from the U.K. statistical agency Yougov reports that more than 50 percent of all CD sales are now made by those over the age of 55, and of that demographic, only 18 percent say they purchase them with any kind of regularity. Meanwhile, millennials like McMahon only make up 10 percent of all U.K. CD sales.
Still, many in the music world are wondering if CDs will make a comeback as a retro or vintage item, a la collectors like McMahon. “The thing is, CDs haven’t gone away,” says music writer Tom Ewing, who in a 2010 essay for Pitchfork, tried to imagine whether CDs were likely to be as romanticized as cassette tapes or Vinyl. “You can go to the supermarket or the [gas station], and CDs will still be sold. There are still cars with built-in CD players, so they’re always there, even if a lot aren’t being sold. If they vanish in the same way that vinyl did a while ago, then it’s more likely you’ll have a growing number of people who will miss them and cherish the ones they have now more. But enough time hasn’t passed for that increase in value to happen.”
Also, Ewing adds, “the nostalgia for CDs might not look like what we’ve seen with records and cassettes” because, unlike analog mediums, CDs were inherently a digital phenomenon. “When CDs first came out, there was a period when people thought — this is it, digital music isn’t going to look like any other thing except for a CD. That changed as CDs became more popular, and they were used as storage devices. So music was one thing you could add to it, but CDs weren’t designed for music.” As a result, Ewing says, it’s unlikely that people would feel the same sentimentality toward CDs as they do for old records or vintage cassette tapes. “What’s more likely is that any CD revival will be small and filled with people who are more nostalgic about digital culture of the 1990s. They will be more interested in older computers and [digital culture] than about music CDs.”
Ewing’s hunch, though, may not be entirely accurate. For instance, on YouTube and Instagram, users like hoeforxuxi, mgirlpersonal and Kttaekey upload live “album unwrappings” of K-pop bands like BTS, NCT, EXO and BLACKPINK, often showing viewers the CD’s thick booklets, posters, etc. “How can you be so calm going through the pictures? I would literally be screaming,” one commenter wrote under a video of Kttaekey unwrapping NCT’s album Empathy. In another unboxing video, which has more than 67,000 views, fans of NCT analyze the signatures of the band members, comment on the thickness and design of the packaging and even offer to buy the CD despite “not even owning a CD player!”
“CDs are more like collector’s items,” says 19-year-old Ellie, who goes by the YouTube handle Dobunnie. Ellie owns BTS CDs that her parents bought her on eBay in 2017. She keeps them stored in a lockbox in her bedroom, as she’s never listened to them, opting to use Spotify instead. “CDs aren’t about listening, they’re about showing support and being a stan,” she explains. “It’s more like buying merch that you show in your room, and you post on Instagram and Snapchat so other fans can see.”
On @kttaekey’s Instagram page, she regularly posts pictures of signed CDs and K-pop photocards, noting that the speciality isn’t in the album itself, but rather how it can be shot for Instagram. Case in point:
When I tell McMahon about the popularity of CDs in K-pop circles, he tells me that he’s optimistic about their future. He thinks there will be space for “people like me, who like the nostalgia factor and the memories that come with them,” as well as people like Ellie, for whom CDs serve as memorabilia. Either way, he adds, “It just shows how important CDs are to our culture. You’d be a fool to write them off.”