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Pandora's Box

Where have all the compact discs gone?



I don't have digital
I don't have diddly squat
It's not having what you want
It's wanting what you've got
—Sheryl Crow

Have you noticed that Starbucks ditched the CDs? No more Fleet Foxes or Paul McCartney discs next to the cash register. You may not care, but I do. It seems such a dispiriting turn of events.

Not that I frequent Starbucks. The coffee is too bitter for me. The company's politics is more to my liking. It has been on the right side of LGBT rights, and CEO Howard Schultz has been doing the right things for veterans. Moreover, Starbucks' "coffeehouse experience" appeals to me in the same way the concept of neighborhood taverns is appealing, but I concede the Starbucks model is sometimes pretentious and always pricey.

What Starbucks wanted, back in the 1990s, was to introduce music into its cultivated "coffeehouse experience." Ensconced in a clean, well-lighted place, you could linger over espresso drinks with cool Italian names and be soothed by cool music playing in the background. Then, after 1995, you could buy the cool music at the counter and impress friends with your sophisticated taste. Mariah Carey topped the charts that year, but Starbucks was promoting jazz by John Coltrane and Sarah Vaughan. The strategy was successful. Madeleine Peyroux is a case in point: The wind that filled the sails of her career as a jazz singer emanated from Starbucks.

Slumping sales caused the coffee company to abandon CDs a few months ago. Critics say Starbucks strayed from its cool-music formula, in effect, by privileging the Careys instead of the Peyrouxs. The criticism may or may not be justified, but the root cause has more to do with relentless technological evolution, the effect of which is apparent in my basement where boxes of vinyl LPs, cassette tapes, DVDs and Kodachrome slides are stored. The collections have great sentimental value, but as a practical matter, they aren't worth diddly squat. Collectively, they constitute a storage problem. And now, sad to say, my CDs are destined for the basement, too.

The fading glory of the compact disc is old news. Just as the Internet wreaked havoc with newspapers, online music has been eating away at CD revenue for years. Starbucks may not be making money on music, but Spotify and Apple are. Numbers tell the story. According to The New York Times, 253 million CDs were sold in 2010. In 2014, the number was 144 million.

I bought my first CD, Tigerlily, by Natalie Merchant, at a now-defunct Circuit City store. It was not an impulse purchase: CDs had been on the market for more than a decade. My subsequent transition from audiotape to CD was relatively easy. I shed no tears while boxing up the cassettes. I disliked their propensity to snarl the innards of the tape player. All these years later, I am more invested in CDs—literally and figuratively. Like Sheryl Crow, I want what I've got. I don't like betting on the come. Call me shortsighted, but I don't want a 4K television today because 4K programming is coming tomorrow. The future may be Apple Music, but I am in a state of technological repose, singing along with my favorite CDs.

I do listen to Pandora. However, of the online radio's 250 million listeners, I may be the only one mulling the irony of a corporation named after the mythological source of the world's ills. The company's namesake was created by the Greek gods to punish mankind for stealing fire. Pandora arrived on the scene, gilded box in hand, under strict orders from Zeus to keep it locked. She eventually opened it, releasing every imaginable evil into an edenic world. That Pandora's box also contained hope redeems the story. Presumably Pandora Inc. hopes for success.

I think technology has subsumed hope. So much so that technology is assumed to be a cure-all. Not even menacing climate problems are too tough to fix. I tend to be much less hopeful. Besides, too many promising innovations have a downside. The cure may be as painful as the disease. Fracking is an example. The controversial drilling technique has eased our dependence on foreign oil dramatically and lowered gasoline prices. Cheap domestic crude is good for the economy, good for foreign relations, but bad for air quality in Utah. Even low-tech innovations have unforeseen consequences. Use-and-flush wet wipes have been congealing into sewer-clogging "fatburgs" in London. One weighed 15 tons; another was 66 feet long.

Sure, technology holds out hope for my boxed music. I could convert all of it to MP3 files. Will I? Not likely. If I did, I still couldn't part with some of the LPs, cassettes and CDs gifted to me over the years. I think of Jackson Browne's Late for the Sky album—a Christmas present from my brother in 1974—and Wilco's Mermaid Avenue from my son in 1999. Each represents a deliberate choice. Each choice was made with my interests at heart. My appreciation for their thoughtfulness and for the music they chose is linked to that which I can hold in my hand.

You might argue that the medium is irrelevant, that a download from iTunes is the same as a track on a record. Or, that an e-book is the equivalent of a hardback. Or, that an email is as expressive as a hand-written letter. Because I discern a difference, I hope CDs and books are viable for years to come. In the meantime, my basement archive remains intact.