“The last best physical music format”

The weather was beautiful outside, but I was exhausted and in pain. Coughing, blowing my nose, I couldn’t do anything except press the TV remote while in bed. It may have seemed like a misfortune in the moment, but being quarantined in Singapore for a week had at least one silver lining. After watching hours of videos about obsolete media formats, I discovered one of the coolest things I’ve seen: MiniDiscs (MD’s).

But before I tell you about MD’s, let me share a bit more about my emotional connection with CD’s.

Anyone who knows me can tell you that my affinity for physical music media runs deep. No, not vinyls. The era of music I listen to didn’t get pressed onto them (unfortunately). It’s a medium that was once so ubiquitous that everything was on it. That’s right: CD’s.

My relationship with CD’s is a strange one. I grew up being aware of their existence, but by the age that I started listening to music more seriously, MP3 players were the obvious choice. At the time, China had no concept of copyright enforcement. Everybody, myself included, was unknowingly pirating MP3’s. Yet, my friends and I were still saving up money to import CD’s. Maybe it was just an urge to collect, or maybe we wanted to boost the chart rankings. Now, however, I understand that it was actually my desire to validate the significance of music and my bond with it. I wanted to cast them into a physical form, to revere them as objects of culture.

I still remember the first time I held a Japanese single in my hand: no more than 3-4 songs for big chunk of cash, A-side and B-side included. Art, lyrics, and the quirky design of an outward-facing disc, requiring me to be extra careful. It felt wonderfully satisfying, like I had this full, multi-sensory music experience that I could sit down and interact with. It felt like a piece of art that I could hold to my chest and say: “this is important to me.”

Since then, my CD collection has grown one disc after another. Despite having multiple streaming apps, still nothing compares to the tangible process of physical media: opening the case, popping out the CD, then waiting in anticipation as the disc whirls faster and faster in the player. As I listen to the tunes, sometimes I thumb through the artwork, sometimes I sing out loud to the lyric book. Every part of this interaction requires my participation. Every part builds toward a ritualistic process that places my mind in a perceptive state, where music is the center piece of the moment, not an acoustic backfill.

It’s these intentional moments that I enjoy the most.

MD’s just seem like a natural part to this ecosystem. A quick history: in the late 80’s, Sony invented the format in hopes of replacing cassette tapes and CD’s. And it really seemed like the future of music. MD’s were smaller than floppy disks, yet more durable than CD’s. Users could record, rearrange, and name their own tracks. Songs on MD’s sounded so good that tapes didn’t stand a chance.

But due its initial cost and the imminent rise of MP3 players, MD’s failed. Oddly in Japan, it was briefly popular for bringing CD and MP3 music on the go before iPods snuffed the future out of this futuristic medium. Today, it still enjoys a loyal but small following.

In retrospect, it was the “modern” mixtape, the “laser playlist,” or the “last best physical music format” as r/minidisc calls it.

I was immediately drawn to the look of these discs. They invoked a futuristic, cyberpunk image of a parallel and cinematic world that diverges from ours. Imagine this:

How about this:

What kind of “disc” did you imagine? It had to look like this, I thought.

Yup, it’s the format of choice for the chunibyo.

But really, it’s also simply a tangible way to carry music mixes in a physical form. I’ve always struggled to create playlists in streaming apps. Not only because some songs are just not available, but because these apps lacked a canvas for creativity. I used to design and print out booklets containing song-inspired images, lyrics, and stories to share with my friends as a way to share “paper mixtapes.” MD’s seem like the perfect way to revive this craft again.

For me, CD’s are a way to appreciate the artist’s intent as is. So MD’s might be the new canvas of my own derivative work (二次創作).

“The last best physical music format.” How can I be nostalgic of something that I never used before?

(Cover image by Dongkyu Lim)

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