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Music

A music nerd's last stand: You'll pry my CDs out of my cold dead hands

Commentary: In this chaotic world we live in, I seek order in the form of a tremendously large CD collection.

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I measure my life out in CDs.

Erin Carson/CNET

There will come a day when some fresh-faced young person in a lab coat will try to coax an old Spoon record out of my ancient, gnarled hands.

Let me tell you something -- there's going to be a tussle. I won't be letting go of that jewel case easily, and I look forward to that day when, with whatever strength I've got left, I get to educate that youth about CDs.

It's 2019. Approximately 51 million people in the US pay for music streaming services every month. Last year, vinyl sales hit 10 million in the US. Those numbers are up 12 percent from 2017.

Yet here I am, vowing to be the last person on Earth buying CDs.

This isn't so much about the CDs themselves. Vinyl lovers (a group I count myself as part of) will talk about sound quality and big, beautiful album art. CDs don't offer much charm. No one is ever going to play a CD and mutter to themselves while clutching a cup of hot tea, "Mmm, so warm."

This is about the ongoing battle for control over my own beloved music collection. It's about how, in wild-eyed frustration, I chose a hill to die on. A hill made entirely of compact discs.

I would now like to take the opportunity to blame my dad.

Well, blame isn't quite right. The guy is a champ. He's also a former radio DJ with enough vinyl records to one day construct the Carson Family mausoleum. The thing is, you can't put Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band -- with the bright yellow gatefold, blood red back and all that colorful chaos on the front cover -- in the hands of a 6-year-old and not expect something to happen.

My dad's collection always felt magical. It was a huge physical presence that predated me and served as evidence of a version of him before he was my dad. It was important enough to not get pitched out of various moving vans as my family trekked from Texas to California to Georgia to Tennessee over the years.

I never considered not building a collection of my own.

So I started mine two years later, at a time when cassettes were losing ground to CDs and vinyl was just over. In a crucial moment while buying my first album, I picked my format, opting for a CD of the album I was purchasing because CDs, I was told, were the future.

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Way back in 2007, researchers from the University of Winchester in the UK did a study about why people collect music. One of the main reasons is that people are trying to construct a cultural autobiography representing facets of themselves -- the good, the bad and the boy bands.

That's definitely true for me. I arrange my CDs in the order they were relevant to me. My CD shelving is like an Arctic core ice sample with each shelf representing an era of my life. The most crowded shelf is from college, when everything sounded important and my friends and I cordoned off Friday afternoons to go to the record store. One look at 2007's Wincing the Night Away by the Shins, and I'm back in my freshman dorm hanging a poster of (what else?) Sgt. Pepper.

Of course there are other reasons I buy CDs. For one, I want the artists I care about to take my money so they can keep making the music I lean on for every high, low and in-between point of my life.

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Remember actually going to a store and buying CDs? I do because I STILL DO IT.

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Also, liner notes, man. Where else am I supposed to learn who co-wrote which song and which obscure '70s R&B tune got sampled on what track so I can bore my friends?

Another reason: I want to. So I do.

Pharaoh Khufu got a pyramid. Let me have a few stacks of an outdated media format.

None of which is to say I have anything against other formats. I own vinyl, I subscribe to a streaming service. And I'll admit that it's gotten harder to keep up the CD purchases, partly because I can listen to any album I want on the day it comes out and I have the chance to debate with myself whether a record is important enough to warrant a place in my autobiography of albums.

Plus, there are plenty of times when I walk into my neighborhood record store, trying to keep my money local, and just don't find what I'm looking for.

As a result, my collection is imperfect. There are albums I've forgotten to buy. Sound & Color by the Alabama Shakes, The Louder I Call, the Faster it Runs by Wye Oak. Clean by Soccer Mommy -- all important, all loved, all on my list to purchase at some point.

Certainly, there are albums I've bought digitally or on vinyl that were meaningful but go unrepresented on my CD shelf, like Passwords, the last album by my favorite band, Dawes.

There's a low-lying sadness I've come to feel as my music collection sprawls out over different rooms, hard drives and even servers. Lately I've been streaming Heard it in a Past Life, a hotly anticipated debut album by 24-year-old Maggie Rogers. If I never buy it, is it still mine? Does it have to be mine? Would that matter any less to me? Would having it on CD change that specific feeling of finding an album that will probably always sound like early spring 2019 to me?

I'm not going to bother to find out because I will buy this CD. And when that kid in the lab coat comes for me, I'll swat him away with it. 

Originally published at 5 a.m. PT.