Shiny Shiny is an Pitchfork column by me about a fictional “CD Revival”, consisting of interviews with four of the movers and shakers in said revival and some editorial around that. Fictional because the column supposedly dates from 2022. Go and read it first!

This blog entry is an explanation of some of the references and underlying assumptions behind my little bit of sci-fi journalism. If the piece doesn’t make sense without it, I’ve failed, but it will hopefully be of interest to anyone who did enjoy the column.

Introduction: Marc’s cassette piece is very well worth reading. I was originally going to frame this with a “letter from the future” device but decided to be as clear as I could about what the column was, since I’d tried to keep a deadpan tone in the thing itself.

The 2022 publication date is semi-arbitrary. I wanted to position it far enough in the future that CDs had stopped being a going concern for a few years, but also near enough that the 00s were a “live” cultural issue in the way the 80s have been this decade.

March 21, 2021: This is the 20th anniversary of the industry suing Napster, a decision which didn’t slow the CD’s demise, but ensured the transition would be costlier and more bad-blooded than it needed to be.

Reece Maclay: was going to be Reece Marclay, after sound/record artist Christian Marclay, who is fascinated by the physical and artistic possibilities of recorded media. But I decided to change it. “Reece”, like most first names, was picked by my looking at baby names that were popular in the mid-late 90s.

“a way of demonstrating the durability”: this was demonstrated on the British popular science TV program Tomorrow’s World, when the CD was first introduced. It’s acquired semi-legendary status among people old enough to be Reece’s parents. It’s not actually on YouTube but it ought to be!

“stopped stocking CDs five years ago”: 2017 or so – to be honest I think this might happen quite a lot earlier.

“dedicated to making and swapping CD-Rs“: craft, music and booze ‘clubs’ are fairly common in London and will no doubt remain so. I thought the main battleground of “CD culture” would be over the social use of the music – as opposed to the “almost human” physicality of cassettes and vinyl which is the site of nostalgia (and resistance) in those movements. Any CD revival will be basically a front for a battle between certain ways of using digital sound and certain other ones.

“pulling ‘found files’..onto their CD-Rs”: an assumption I’m making is that computers in a decade’s time basically won’t use file systems: they’ll have lots of apps, and will be marvellous portals into cloud-based services, and they’ll have tons of ‘space’ but it wont’ be used for data storage primarily. So dumped machines, packed with files but too power-hungry and slow to run, will be highly scavengeable in the way thrift store postcards etc are. Most of these machines will be today’s desirable portable things, by the way.

“Chantal Fielding“: “Chantal” is a 90s baby name, Fielding is after Anna Fielding who replied to a question about this piece on Twitter. Hi Anna!

“Prismatic Spray“: The name of an old AD&D spell. It’s in Rochester because that’s where the CD’s inventors, Kodak, were based.

“literally everything you look at you can find out everything about it“: the combination of augmented reality and the ‘internet of things‘ means that everything in reality is becoming “clickable” to some degree, acquiring an aura of . In this environment the pendulum may well swing back away from “authenticity” (today’s most desirable quality) to “mystery” (being able to cloak information or mislead or baffle).

“trying to work out who the playlist owner is“: haven’t really worked through the details, but this is assuming that the norm for the informal end of “club nights” (like our Poptimism one) will be a crowdsourced, ‘celestial jukebox’ type deal.

“The rejection of music’s networked elements”: it struck me reading Marc’s piece that one of the roots of cassette culture was rejection – a rejection of the digitalisation of music. This is no bad thing – any change is always a balance of loss and gain and people reminding us of the loss are very important. I wanted “CD culture” to have a similar rejection as its backbone, and settled on the ‘social’ elements of music as something people might push against. Later in the piece this fits into the context of a more general social media backlash.

“the amateur press associations of 20th century fandom“: Prismatic Spray is a CD-driven APA, pure and simple. I used to be a member of several APAs and suspect the model might revive in the near future.

“the best themed CD-R“: the inspiration here were the “Rough Guide” series of CDs curated by ILM members – the time limit bred creativity.

“Inire Wolfe”: Wolfe is a reference to Gene Wolfe, my favourite sci-fi writer, and Father Inire is a character in my favourite book of his, The Book Of The New Sun.

“Hall of Mirrors”/”secret architecture“: In the book, Father Inire uses an array of dimension-shifting and teleportation devices which are known as “mirrors”. He has also built a kind of chateau, the House Absolute, which contains one house existing parallel to but physically hidden inside the other, so the concept of “secret architecture” in CDs is a little reference to the book too. Game-playing, declared or otherwise, is an important part of a fully social-media-integrated world.

“Zaireeka principle”: A reference to the Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka album, as written about by Pitchfork’s managing editor Mark Richardson in a 33 1/3 book. Zaireeka can only be listened to ‘properly’ if played simultaneously on four CD players.

“the artistic roots are different”: a lot of underground music-making takes its cue from various DIY based scenes, which often incorporate honesty and transparency as virtues. But there’s a parallel underground tradition of pranking, game-playing, bricolage etc. This tradition is intertwined with the DIY one, of course – both share some key values. In an environment where “honesty and transparency” have become the watchwords of what is essentially the new establishment you might expect the other tradition to resurface and bare its fangs (or at least enjoy itself). I decided this tradition would play the same kind of role in my “CD Culture” as the noise/DIY scene did for players in Marc’s cassette piece.

“post-social”: i.e. the backlash against social media culture – from within and below: any current 2010 backlash (stressing its dangers, stupidity etc,) being largely by non-participants and from above.

“Neoism and Fluxus“: they’re on Wikipedia. I’d forgotten Neoism entirely and only remembered looking up mail art for the APA mention.

“troll artists“: like most of the stuff mentioned, these already exist.

“bot-creators”: thinking here of things like David Bausola’s “demographic replicator” project, essentially creating bots on blogs and Twitter for unwitting members of the public to react to. It’s being investigated for market research, as well as for art and entertainment purposes.

“recommendation-scramblers”: scripts which fuck up the radar of predictive algorithms by generating clouds of chaff, and leave your tastes free from exploitation by The Man. Turn your personal aesthetic into a Dazzle Ship!

“Karen Eliot“: a portable identity used by the Neoists. I’m fascinated by these shared nom-de-plumes and expect to see more of them. Perhaps I already am.

“Starstrukk”/”My Humps”: guesses at potential 00s “Never Gonna Give You Up”s. Quite poor guesses, probably: perhaps St Rick will still be our patron.

“deliberately lo-bitrate”: not content with imagining a CD Revival I decided I’d sneak in a revival of sub-128kbps MP3s too.

“to the lossless warmth of most streamed music”: when I asked for ideas around a CD Revival a lot of people said “CDs are good because of sound quality” – but in a decade or so this won’t still be an argument, internet speed and a move away from private storage will do for that.

“ghostwave”: sorry!

Cursor Daly: Feeble semi-pun on Carson Daly.

“Loads of CD nerds were neuroscience majors”: speculation on what a common topic of study will be, the 10s equivalent of doing computer science in the 80s maybe.

“in an age where the smooth user experience and the invisible interface is everything”: going back to the points about the end of file-based navigation systems. This is extrapolation from the directions represented by the iPod and the iPad, plus the way alternative culture generally likes to reject the ‘homogenous’.

“lo-bit R’n’B and Scando-pop, reflecting the era he’s hoping to evoke”: the assumption here is that – if the term still means anything – ‘indie’ musicians will continue to draw at least some inspiration from popular styles which have been historicised.

“sneak into stores”: a riff on an old situationist action, but this one with a genuine delight at the idea of selling physical music at its centre.

“Of course if you scan the code on the CD you get the music free”: my assumption is that most acts will give away at least some of the digital versions of their music, perhaps all of it. Free is the underlying expectation.

“the same spikes and troughs of popularity”: one effect of social media on audiences is that your viewership/readership tends to be made up of a lot of spikes, rather than a growing or shrinking ‘audience’: ‘trend data’ isn’t as useful, which has implications for the ideas of building a career, etc.

A quick note on the characters in this piece’s opinions: none of them represent me, though I like them all. I don’t necessarily agree with them, and they are straw men in that sense. But I was careful to only invent projects I thought would be really fun and exciting. Also, one of the ideas underlying this – that “social media” is something which works best in small-group, collaborative, game-like experiences, is one I believe in very much.

The characters in the article have a spectrum of opinion and most of it is already out there. The strands about your tastes becoming public property are kind of related to the anxieties expressed by Jason Lanier in interviews around his book. The ideas of game-playing and mischief-making are hardly uncommon online and have a tradition going back long before that. Regret at the passing of broadcast media is currently more common among my generation so might die out entirely but I was thinking it would survive in the same semi-ironic way a nostalgia for ‘rock star excess’ endures: big remains potentially beautiful.

(Of course like most pieces with an element of ‘futurology’ none of the underlying stuff in “Shiny Shiny” isn’t happening now. And just as the time to start shouting about the loss of physical music was about 15 years ago, if you agree with the ‘post-social’ bits in this column the time to start worrying and thinking about them is now.)