Why I Left (Burned CDs All Over) New York
I used to burn CDs just to keep in my bag until I saw a deserving straphanger or a sad-looking pedestrian and I’d hand it to them before getting off the train, or slip it into their bag as I walked past. I’d leave mix CDs around New York City, hoping strangers with disc drives would find them and enjoy my music taste. I'd hide them in the bathrooms and hallways of my Lower East Side high school, no contact info, just a decorated sleeve with a playlist on the back, the CD tucked inside, and "Love Hannah" written beneath the back flap in all-caps. The CDs were always gone when I checked, but no one ever reached back out from the void — not that I'd made it easy for them to find me.
I burned my first CD in 6th grade for a swap with a boy named Rex who was in the school jazz band. I stayed up late the night before we agreed to trade, dodging porn files while ripping tracks off LimeWire. Only after I perfected my playlist and tried to burn it did I learn you can’t put audio files onto a DVD and play it in a Walkman. After that virgin CD burning, I was hooked.
It would always be an uphill battle for me, trying to flame the dying embers of mix CD culture in the mid-aughts and into the beginning of this decade. But the dregs of the physical music-sharing experience I was able to squeeze out enabled me to give away what I loved. There are few things as cheap to gift and as compressed with love as a mix, and for that I owe burned CDs an obit.
My friend Liza and I began trading CDs regularly for the duration of middle school. We poured our hearts into the cover art, creating five-inch-square mini-murals for one another. I’d spend hours Sharpie-ing CD sleeves at close range and she’d create collaged jewel cases composed of dozens of tiny scraps of magazine pages. I became so intent on not repeating songs I’d given her that I created a Word Document where I’d type out all my burned playlists. I always referenced it before making a new mix (it’s now over 50 pages long in 11-point type). Yet, despite the effort we put into our little music exchange, our Facebook Wall from 2009, the last year of middle school, is full of frustrated posts about how our computers had glitched out, or iTunes was malfunctioning and not saving tracks from the most recent CD.
I already knew CDs were a relic by the time I was 15 — we were practicing an anachronism. Most people were already apathetic about the technology. It was 2010, Apple products were taking off and flip phones were being replaced with newer, fancier, feature-packed models every few months. Mix CD technology was clearly stagnant, with no hope for growth in sight.
I’d still dig around the internet looking for fun ways to improve my mix game — I found CD-shaped stickers, pre-patterned sleeves, audio discs made to look like vinyl records — but more than anything I just prayed the Staples on 4th Avenue would still carry blank discs so I could tell my friends to buy them there and not have to give them one out of my precious store to burn for our exchange.
In high school I began trading CDs across state lines to Jersey, where my friend Sorraya lived. It was always a hassle finding CD-sized envelopes – if there was ever a market for such a thing, it had entirely dried up by the time we began our exchange in 2011. Sorraya was put on to burning CDs by her grandpa on a basement desktop back in 2003, when she was in 3rd grade. She became fully initiated when her mom bought her the new Sean Paul “Dutty Rock” album for her birthday and she started burning copies and selling them to kids at school for $5. (Her teachers eventually caught on and shut her business down.)
By the end of high school I was giving far more than I was getting. None of my friends drove, and few had CD drives by the time I graduated in 2013. I had to begin checking beforehand: If I burn you a mix CD, can you play it? People would ask me to just make them a YouTube or Spotify playlist instead. It broke my heart; it was the end of an era.
When I hit up Sorraya and Liza to get their thoughts on the matter, they were in agreement: the mix CD is dead with little hope of resurrection, but it was great fun while it lasted. “I really liked having a physical object,” Liza told me. “Digital versions of CDs like streaming playlists rarely come with physical components (and thus the thought that goes into creating them).”
Algorithm-driven music and streaming services do little to fill the hole left by a lack of physical sharing culture. You lose the flow, the storytelling process, and all that tangible effort you can feel embodied in a CD when someone just sends a link or makes an online playlist. Less love goes in, and less love comes out. The experience is stripped of its inconvenience: no malfunctioning hard drive distorting all the audio on the entire second half of the CD, no ink spots on the protective sleeve, no faulty desktops.
But it also lacks the personalization: no more cover art, no more specially curated track order, no more physical object to hold and keep in your desk. Mix CDs had been my main source of new music for the majority of my life, and they came with a built-in friend to talk with about the songs. There are, of course, musical communities to be had online, but I miss the intimacy and camaraderie that came with the old exchange.
I still have a small stack of blank discs and white sleeves in a box I keep in my closet. For years I held out on buying a laptop without a disc drive, and when I finally caved last year, I still bought an external one, which lives with the unused sleeves and CDs. All my music is in the cloud now and while it is possible to still burn songs to a disc, there are too many additional steps involved. More importantly, I no longer know many people capable of listening to the format, and virtually no one who would reciprocate.