It all started one weekend when some friends, Jim and Tessa, came over for dinner. I asked what they'd been doing all day. Jim answered for both of them: "We've been throwing away CDs," he said. "We're working our way through them alphabetically.' As he explained it, his role in the exercise involved quality assessment - working out whether a CD was something they'd realistically ever listen to again. If he decided it was, he handed it to Tessa to feed into their new 3TB external hard drive; if it wasn't, he tossed it into the "charity shop" box. "There's no point selling them," said Jim. "They're completely worthless." (While this is an overstatement, it's certainly true that CDs, even limited pressings done for a band's fan club, have nothing like the value they had a decade ago - just look on eBay or Amazon Marketplace.)
This was astonishing news. Jim was famous for his CD collection, which ran into the thousands and occupied vast stretches of prime shelf space. He had devoted most of his adult life to growing it, and no visit to his flat was complete without a listening session and tour of its outer reaches. How could he bring himself to do something so brutal?
"It isn't brutal," he protested. "It's a humane cull. Just think of all the CDs you never play any more. I bet you've got loads." He walked over to my shelves and pulled a few CDs out at random. "Take this Turin Brakes one. You bought it because you liked that strummy song about having WD40 in your veins. But did you listen to any of the other tracks?" I shook my head.
"Well then. Oh hang on, what's this? That Elvis Costello album with the string quartet - The Juliet Letters. I bought this, too. It's awful, isn't it? Really boring and worthy. Chuck it out. As for this..." He pulled out Aquarium by the Danish-Norwegian popsters Aqua. "I remember you buying this, back in 1997 or whenever it was. You said it was a 'post-ironic Europop masterpiece'. It wasn't, was it? Don't look like that - you can feed 'Barbie Girl' into iTunes before tossing it."
In fact, Jim is not alone. CD disposal (or recycling) has become commonplace among thirtysomethings scared of being trapped somewhere between the past and the future - and worried about how much junk they seem to have acquired. For many expats, an accumulation of CDs - stashed away in an attic back home, or crammed into an expensive storage facility - is a problem that waits to be dealt with.
"I have at least 200 CDs in my parents' garage," admits 28-year-old Stuart Turnbull, a Dubai-based marketing executive who moved from the UK a year ago. "The cost of shipping them was prohibitive, and most of the music is on my iPod anyway. I tried to sell a few on Amazon's second-hand trading site, but I got so little money for them I gave up. I know it's only a matter of time before my parents tell me I have to get rid of them."
The writing has been on the wall for CDs since at least 2001, the year Fortune magazine got so excited about Apple and its "new kind of gadget that has the potential to change how we think about personal audio-entertainment gizmos". Of course, the iPod did more than that. It cemented the idea that music was like air and didn't require any sort of physical complement - no case or sleeve; no artwork beyond a tiny picture on a screen; no sleevenotes or detailed track information. (So you want to know which musicians played on a given track, or who produced it? Tough. Look it up on the internet.)
When the beleaguered record label EMI relaunched The Beatles' back catalogue with shiny new remastered editions in 2008, the basic quality of the packaging was noted by critics. But then why would you bother mimicking, say, the original Sergeant Pepper sleeve (as the 1987-vintage, first-generation CD did) when you know that hardly anyone is going to be paying attention?
For many, though, CDs and vinyl records aren't just "sound carriers" but emotional totems. Like photographs, they evoke powerful memories. (Where did you buy that Nirvana album? Who were you dating at the time? Where were you living?) It follows, then, that throwing away a CD should be like tearing up a photograph. So why isn't it?
The problem for the CD, invented in the late 1970s by Philips and Sony and introduced in 1982, is that it has no aesthetic appeal: it isn't a beautiful object in the way that a vinyl record was, especially in vinyl's 1970s heyday when gatefold sleeves and lavish artwork were all the rage. (Think of the graphic designer Storm Thorgerson's extraordinary work with Pink Floyd.) Even when a CD has emotional significance, it remains easy to disparage as "podfood" because it looks disposable.
Last year, Sony Japan announced that it would no longer be making that 1980s icon the cassette Walkman - which shocked those of us who thought they'd stopped years ago. The cassette tape's demise was linked to its poor sound quality. But in their defence, CDs still sound great compared to MP3s. A future-proof, loss-less form of compression that doesn't take up loads of memory has yet to be invented. Convert your CDs into MP3s or even superior-sounding AAC files (the type used by Apple) and even if you're no audiophile, you'll notice the difference in quality, especially when they're played on a high-end docking station.
Ambitious and futuristic though it sounds, Jim's transferring-CDs-to-a-hard-drive plan still cleaves to the romantic idea that music is something you own physically, even if it's in the form of digital files. Within several years, say trend analysts, not only will a locket-sized MP3 player be able to hold 250,000 songs in its terabyte memory, but music will either be streamed into our homes à la Spotify or stored somewhere in the "cloud", ie on the internet. Jim's external hard drive will soon look as clunky as the eight-track cartridge player my father used to have in his car.
I pointed this out to him, but he didn't seem to mind. "I don't care," he said. "I just want the shelf space back."
It can be an overwhelming job, but once you ditch these, you won’t look back
1. Any 1980s hits compilation featuring Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now by Starship.
2. Any solo albums made by former members of Duran Duran.
3. Soundtrack albums bought on impulse after being moved by a film: you got it home and found it basically comprised 64 minutes’ worth of variations on the main theme.
4. The second Strokes album.
5. Anything given away free by a magazine.
6. Earlier versions of albums you subsequently bought in remastered form, ie the early 1980s RCA editions of David Bowie’s classic 1970s albums. Although, on second thought, these are now quite valuable. And they don’t take up that much space, after all...