Sworn to Secrecy: A Tale of the CD-R

Mike Silverton

[August 2005.]

I intended to write about a solution to a problem. Here’s the background — to what I’ve been asked to keep anonymous.

A friend’s music — we’ll call him X — appears on a recent release in tandem with guitarist Y. The mood and execution are suavely improvisational. It’s brilliant stuff. This friend earns his keep in the main on recording’s production side. He’s listed in the credits of scores of releases. I was for a time Fanfare’s electro-stuckee. X came to my attention as a gifted composer-performer of his own electroacoustic music. There and elsewhere, I wrote supportive reviews of his work. I won’t reveal titles, lest I give away the game. Besides, I’d be astonished if you recognized them. We’re discussing a paper-thin niche.

And that brings me to my proscribed subject. You may or may not know that compact discs are rarely pressed in numbers fewer than a thousand. Smaller runs are cost-ineffective. It’s a judgment call withal. Another friend, Z, the CEO, CFO, expeditor and shipping clerk of a rather busy “little,” tells me that sales of his releases average in the low hundreds. Nevertheless, he orders 1000-piece pressings. One lives in hope.

Guitarist Y happens also to be the proprietor of the label on which X’s collaboration with Y appears. An earlier release on Y’s label, a solo appearance for X, is a factory pressing. They’re easy to identify: silk-screened label side and a silvery finish to the playing side.

CD-R’s are also easy to identify: paper labels and a rainbow finish to the playing side, or a pale-green cast, depending on the blank. Here’s where the plot gets twisty. X’s duo with Y is other than a factory pressing. It doesn’t require a practiced eye to note the difference. Wow, thought I, what a clever idea! Rather than incur an unnecessary expense, create a far smaller number of CD-R’s in anticipation of promos and sales. The paper label is nicely designed, as is the one-fold insert. The X-Y CD-R duo is issued in a conventional jewel case with a conventional tray card.

I told X that I’d love to write about the ease and convenience digital brings to recordings fated to attract small numbers of buyers. Should X-Y’s duo prove a hit — demand rising to a thousand or more — a factory pressing’s no problem. (Even among the “majors,” classical sales number in the hundreds or, at best, the low thousands. I guess you’d call the category I’m writing about “esoterica.”)

I thought X would be delighted. Who doesn’t enjoy being written about, particularly if the comments are laudatory? But X demurred. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea….” The problem, you see, is the CD-R medium. Guitarist Y, the label’s main man, would be anxious about the likelihood of a stigma. “Come again?”

Private copies are one thing. As a commercial entity, the CD-R would invite the same kind of abuse that befell the compact disc at its inception, or so our nervous Y supposes. Discerning listeners would regard a commercially released CD-R with suspicion and perhaps disdain. “Can the quality really be the same?” “Should I be spending my money on a home-brew medium?” “Isn’t it — well — cheesy?”

Well, no. I’ve played X-Y’s duo. Sounds fine. I’m not crazy about the guitarist’s other solo and collaborative efforts. X’s participation raises the bar. This is rewarding and sophisticated music-making, and it kills me not to name it here. So there.

Postscript: Label-proprietor Z’s library contains a huge number of other folks’ releases, mostly edge-dwelling goods. He’s bought a few CD-R’s not so identified and it annoys him. Apparently the CD-R gambit isn’t as rarely played as I had thought. That’s why I asked Z. If anyone knows the scene, it’s he. His pique surprised me — and blunts my point. I wonder, how would you feel, having paid for what you assumed to be a factory-stamped disc only to discover it’s a CD-R. On reflection, I’m not sure how I would.

As the final straw, Z also tells me that certain distributors refuse to handle small-label CD-R’s. What on earth made me get into this subject?