Here in the digital future with no CDs

There are two types of people in the world: those who still listen to CDs and those who live in the future.

A few weeks ago our home stereo died. It was a little work-horse system that had served us well for seven years. Nothing lasts forever. The stereo coughed and spluttered and could no longer swallow its food. Thankfully the end came quickly.

We’ve replaced it with an iPad mini. It lies inconspicuously on the cabinet and belts Pharrell Williams’ Happy through a couple of surprisingly grunty bluetooth speakers.

So this is the future. I have to say, it’s pretty cool.

Twenty years’ worth of compact discs sit darkly on the bookshelf. Last month they were an essential part of our lives. Suddenly they’re relics of the past.

This is a bigger transition than the moves away from vinyl and cassette. Physical products with their own weight and presence have been raptured into a digital eternity. They exist as little icons on a screen. That part makes me a bit sad. I can’t hold my favourite CD in my hands anymore. It is no longer a possession.

But the music itself is the same. Douglas Adams had a great quote about books that I think applies even better to music: “Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food.”

What is music, anyway? We treat it as the soundtrack to our lives. It is the aural air that we breathe without paying close attention. I wash the dishes with Mark Lanegan. I write poetry with Arvo Pärt.

How often do we sit and listen to music on its own terms? Composers and musicians work hard, with intent, to craft songs and sounds that will take us on a particular journey. And what do we do with that artistry? Vacuuming.

That’s partly why I am unnerved by the scope of streaming services like Spotify. There’s something overwhelming about having all the songs in the world at your fingertips.

It’s a bugbear I’ve had ever since people started walking around with 10,000 songs on their iPods. All that choice should be wonderful but something feels out of kilter.

That’s a whole other conversation – what is the value of music? I’m not saying music should never be free or easy to access, but I am bothered by how flippantly we can treat it.

I do like it here in the future though. You can find anything you want. There are more opportunities for musicians to be discovered than ever before. Want to check out the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards winners? A quick search and you can hear them without leaving home.

I feel for the music stores. They must know they’ve been living on borrowed time these past few years. What will I do at shopping malls now? I usually avoid shopping malls except to browse books and music. Now I only have reason to visit the bookshops and the walls are closing in there too.

I’ll wrestle more thoroughly with digital books another time. For now I’m quite fond of Stephen Fry’s quip: “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.”

Now that we have an iPad in the house we will probably have to learn about Minecraft as well. This is a game the kids are obsessed with. It’s a bewildering virtual universe of mining and blocks and monsters.

Meanwhile, outside in the real world, our boys have been digging two enormous holes in the garden. It’s a serious operation, two months of activity so far. They call it mining. The neighbours’ kids often join in with their own tools.

Some families have Minecraft. We have a real mine. You can’t download that sort of fun for free, not even in the future.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 28 November 2014. Reproduced with permission.