When she isn’t working real estate or keeping our house from falling into pure chaos, my mom sells second-hand items on eBay for extra money. As of late, antique hunting has become more than just a third job for her; now it is a passion. During breaks from school, I often find myself tagging along on her endeavors. The two of us drive out from the suburbs of DC and into rural Maryland and Virginia, searching for the best ghost town Goodwills and roadside businesses. My mom digs for anything that might be worth something, from old sports memorabilia to collectible Disney mugs. The real seller, though, is the music: Records, cassettes and most importantly, CDs.
Like a lot of people who grew up in the early 2000s, I was the proud owner of a solid CD collection. It was the norm to have a boombox sitting on your dresser, coated in stickers and in need of a good whack to get it going. After school, I often found myself at the music store in my local mall, scouring for whatever I was into at the time. When I was thirteen and at my angstiest, Nirvana overtook the Radio Disney holiday compilations from my elementary school years. During the weird seventh-grade psychedelic phase, the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and MGMT’s “Oracular Spectacular” became two of my most prized possessions. My stacks changed as I did, moving through phrases too fast to follow.
CDs are weird when you really think about them. They’re not as clunky as records or tapes but are nowhere as seamless as digital music. However, there’s something comforting in that inconvenience: Making the run back inside the house after getting into your car and realizing the CD that’s playing isn’t the one you wanted, the fact that there’s not really a great place to store them in your car, the process of trying to get a disc into your new, CD drive-less laptop and the fact that they scratch so easily. Most of my collection was lost or given away once I got a smartphone. I had all of the songs I could ever need at the tips of my fingers. There was no use for anything else.
As I stood in a record store in Falls Church this past August, however, I was brought back to what my life was like before that philosophy. Watching as my mom dug through crates of CDs, holding up titles we used to sing together, I remembered the occasion that picking out music used to be. I remembered feeling both overwhelmed and energized by the fact that I didn’t know what I was going to find or walk away with. I remembered the many nights spent lying on my bedroom floor, flipping through sleeves and feeling like I was somewhere else completely. There was still some magic left. I wanted to experience it again.
I spent this past summer trying to reconnect. Sometimes with my mom by my side, other times on my own, I started growing my collection again. Yard sales and the backs of thrift stores became my new favorite hangouts, where I curated to my current tastes (I can’t see my middle school self indulging in Hinds or Mötley Crüe). After hearing about my quest, my friend gave me all of her old CDs that she was getting rid of. They came in handy on a road trip, when the signal to my phone ran amiss in the middle of rural Delaware. Bon Jovi’s “Greatest Hits” kept me occupied as I belted out the lyrics to “Bad Medicine” over and over again.
Physical music like CDs have been in decline for some time now, or so it seems. According to a recent Rolling Stone article, CD sales are currently being overthrown by vinyl, whose revenue has grown 25.7 percent since the end of 2018. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reported that vinyl sales were accounting for more than a third of the profit from physical music releases, while CDs were declining three times as fast. The failing sales do more than just hinder profit. Starting as far back as 2011, Sony’s key CD plants are closing down, leaving many people without jobs. As recent as June of this year, a proposal to shut down the United Kingdom’s Digital Audio Disc Corporation (DADC) is also jeopardizing the future of many employees.
Believe me when I say that I enjoy records as much as the next person. However, vinyl is an expensive love, costing nearly twice as much for something even more inconvenient than CDs. More intriguing than the price is the personal attachment. LPs are what my parents and their friends grew up with. CDs are something our generation can call our own. We had the pleasure of getting to argue with our siblings on long car rides about which disc to play. We had the satisfaction of seeing a mix we spent hours picking out finally come into its own physical form. If coming back to CDs this summer has shown me anything, it’s that you can still hold onto those memories, to the person you once were. Though we’ve grown up, and also come of age in an era of digital music, are we forgetting where we really started?
As I was finishing a draft of this article, my mom Facetimed me to show off the box of CD’s she’d snagged at a garage sale for her eBay store. There were dozens thrown in the cardboard container she had, filled to the brim with names like Heart and Prince, which she practically stole for a little more than ten dollars.
“I thought, ‘Is this guy crazy?’” she laughed over the phone. “I would’ve paid so much more.”
I wonder if other people would ever consider doing that, too.
Image by Chloe Wei