Why I will never stop buying CDs

Joseph Campbell famously revealed the importance of myths in contemporary society, explaining that "Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is". Today the unreliability of journalism is conveniently ignored. But the importance of myth is also overlooked. This is puzzling because it explains, among many other things, the refusal of physical music media - CD and vinyl - to go away, and the staying power of print books

In our digital age the dated concept of myth has been replaced by the zeitgeist friendly 'backstory' - a set of events that have occurred before the main story. The vitally important difference between physical and virtual media is that CDs, and vinyl can eloquently narrate a backstory; whereas streamed and downloaded music  is no more than a sequence of dumb binary characters. 

In his famous Aspen Award acceptance speech Benjamin Britten explained "Music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of a tape-machine or a transistor radio. It demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the programme perhaps, some clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts". Similarly a CD, vinyl LP or print book requires some effort, both in the purchase and the auditioning or reading. As Joseph Campbell explains "A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth". Accessing physical media, like attending a concert, is rich in participatory rituals, whereas the alluring convenience of Spotify is the antithesis of ritual. 

The resurgence of vinyl in the Gen Z market has puzzled many observers. But Gen Zers love myth and ritual - the whole contemporary cult of celebrity is built on the myth of the backstory.  As Occam's Razor tells us, the simplest explanation is usually right: the perverse appeal of vinyl is simply the ritual of the turntable - perusing the sleeve art, extracting the disc from the sleeve and cleaning it, cueing the tone arm, etc. In simple terms we care about CDs, vinyl records and print books; but who cares about a digital file? And if we don't care, we don't value.

There is no better example of a CD telling a backstory than the Owsley Stanley Foundation's recent release of a double CD chronicling the legendary 1970 concert featuring sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, accompanied by Indranil Bhattacharya (sitar) and Zakir Hussain (tabla); they are seen in the photo above. Owsley Stanley (1935-2011) - aka 'the Bear' - divided his time between mass producing LSD and masterminding the sound at Grateful Dead concert, including creating the band's legendary 'Wall of Sound'. An audio perfectionist, Stanley recorded a variety of acts as well as the Dead, these included Ali Akbar Khan’s 1970 concert. It took place at the Great Highway, the former Edgewater Ballroom, part of the Playland At The Beach complex; this dated from the 1880s and was celebrated as psychedelic rock venue. 

Ali Akbar Khan was no stranger to the counterculture. His friendship with radical philosopher Alan Watts led to the seed funding of the influential Ali Akbar College of Music now located in San Rafael, California, and he played with Ravi Shankar at the legendary 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. The 2-CD set titled That Which Colors the Mind has original psychedelic cover art by Chris Gallen, unpublished archive photographs, and a detailed 28-page booklet featuring interviews with Ali Akbar Khan’s family and colleagues. The notes also explore some of the little-known connections between the Grateful Dead and Ali Akbar Khan, some of Owsley Stanley's theories about the impact of Indian classical music on the human central nervous system, and the disciplines required to play it.

Somewhat surprisingly there are also links between Joseph Campbell and the Grateful Dead. A 1986 conference in San Francisco titled 'From Ritual to Rapture' starred Joseph Campbell, Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead, and psychiatrist John Weir Perry. Jerry Garcia explained to Joseph Campbell his theory about the similarity between ancient mystery rituals and rock concerts, saying: "They didn't know what they were saying, and we don't know what we're saying either, but we think we're saying the same thing".

Owsley Stanley’s archive of more than 1,300 concert soundboard recordings from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s includes recordings by Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Fleetwood Mac, Janis Joplin, and more than 80 other artists across nearly every music genre. The Owsley Stanley Foundation is transferring selected recordings to CD and releasing them as 'Bear's Sonic Journals'. I had to buy my copy of the Ali Akbar Khan recording from the States as it is not readily available on the UK - I am sure Benjamin Britten would have approved of that little extra effort. Predictably the sound is demonstration quality and on a high-end audio system has a realistic yet visceral quality that definitely colors the mind. Joseph Campbell's definitive book is titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  This mythical release from the Owsley Stanley Foundation may not quite have a thousand faces. But its truly multi-faceted nature is why I will never stop buying CDs.


I could write an awful lot about how journalists and the academics who build on journalism get very simple things wrong about a former church/cult in the Seattle area but I'm going to refrain from rehashing millions of words that already exist at my blog. :)

Campbell's point is a needed one. That said, we do need journalists trained in research methods and considerate of journalistic ethics but the flip side of history reciting journalism is journalism is "the first draft of history" and it may be the bane of our age that unlike earlier epochs of journalism the swift, humble and honest retraction has become far too rare. I know from experience you can earn a pretty big amount of trust if you just admit you're wrong about things as soon as possible and make a good faith effort to gets the facts right afterward. That's how journalistic careers are "supposed" to be formed, not in writing scabrous clickbait headlines with "content" to match. My journalism prof used to say "You're going to have biases but you should be honest, and work as hard as you can, to make sure your biases don't keep you from seeing what the facts are."

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