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Music collectors deserve to get top-notch CD packaging, too

Dear record companies, dear musicians, dear design people: We want better protection for our investments. If we pay big bucks for a box set, package the CDs in jewel cases. If we are willing to pay the bucks for the cardboard packaging, we certainly will pay a few dollars more for jewel boxes! Most people who buy CDs do not treat them like trash. It’s a shame you currently do.

Richard J. Kunkel

As a longtime music collector (seriously since about 1969, passively a couple years before), I’ve been around the block a few times. I’ve seen a lot of formats come and go, and one of the smartest things I never did was buy an 8-track. I wasn’t overly keen on the CD when it came out in 1982, or so, and I resisted buying any till 1986. The reason? One of my favorite pieces of music of all time on the world of the earth came out, with extra material. I quickly made the switch.

But here is what I have recently had to endure. CDs, as we know, were touted to be the be-all of music: lots of additional room, expanded frequency ranges, takes up less space, and on and on. We can debate their inherent weaknesses if you wish, but glossing over them, we see things like few, if any, extras included. Many a vinyl LP had posters or lyric sheets. Some CDs may have lyrics, but you need the Hubble telescope to read them. LPs had great covers, a few in 3-D, die-cut or embossed. Not a lot of CDs do. And the early CDs were very harsh and shrill, because they were mastered for vinyl instead of the expanded ranges. But we learned.

CDs were supposed to drop in price, as there was so little used in their manufacture: no petroleum products in the disc, and only a small amount in the jewel cases. When I stopped buying vinyl, the list was about $7.98 in most stores. CDs typically cost at least twice that much and are veering ever closer to the $20 mark (and don’t forget how much higher their prices were the day they were introduced).

I have also had an issue with some CDs molding. Luckily, so far, I was able to clean the mold away. This happened mostly with those in digi-packs. Is it the glue? Or being sealed in a poly bag? I don’t know, and I don’t care. I only found it annoying and thought I lost the recording. While I have yet to have a real CD stop playing, I have had some early bootlegs cease to play. Poor pressings or cheap discs or both? I don’t know the answer; I only know that I own have at least three boots that are gone forever. Will it happen to commercial CDs?

Vinyl is “finyl”; you can’t yet say that about CDs. I have LPs that are from 1952, and they play fine. The CDs that stopped were from the 1990s. Anyone can make a CD off a computer these days, but if you put rare material on it, will it last? There are standalone burners as well, but the same question is raised as to longevity.

And for our investment in CDs, what do we get? We are being given our music wrapped in garbage! With an LP, you got the vinyl protected somewhat by a paper sleeve. It kept it from rubbing against abrasive cardboard. For a small investment, a collector could buy higher-quality storage sleeves that protect not only the vinyl but the cover, too. Many collectors left the shrink wrap on if possible, and double covered that with poly sleeves. Imports, especially from Japan, used nice inner sleeves on vinyl, poly lined or rice paper. While I preferred the poly-lined ones, the rice paper is nice, too.

So why over the past few years are we ruining our CD packaging? While it isn’t universal, it is awfully common to see a simple cardboard sleeve housing a CD. From the first pull out, the CD will scuff, perhaps badly. A quarter-inch scratch on vinyl will usually make you listen to an annoying tick sound for 30 seconds or so, and there are filters to alleviate that, if necessary. But a quarter-inch scratch on a CD? You stand to lose 10 minutes or more of music! No, it won’t pop or tick, it will simply become unplayable. If you have access to a repair kit or a proper buffer, you can try to take care of the scratch. But those would rarely be needed if the CD was packaged commensurate with its cost! If I pay $20 for a CD, I don’t want it wrapped in trash; I want it protected! The single best way to do that? A jewel case. Not only do jewel cases protect the disc, they protect the artwork. A cardboard sleeve or digi-pack leaves the artwork exposed. Every time you shuffle it about on your shelf to take it out or put it back, every time you touch it, you add possible dirt and oils.

Even if you bag the CD package, you still have to remove and replace the bag, which causes cover wear. And you still touch the artwork. And if it’s a cardboard sleeve, you scratch the disc nearly every time you take it out or put it back in! Just how dumb is that?
Meanwhile, if you damage a jewel case, it is both repairable and replaceable! An entire case can be had for a buck apiece in most places — less if you buy in bulk. I save broken pieces and parts to use for repair. Break a center spine? That, too, is replaceable. Break a center spindle on a digi-pack, and what you are left with? I once opened the expensive Grateful Dead box set, “The Golden Road,” which had all the Warner Bros. releases. Every one was a digi-pack. But here was the horror story. My copy of the rare, two-disc “Birth Of The Dead” — which was only available in that box— had a broken center spine! The disc had flopped around loose; luckily, it was undamaged. I quickly wrote the label and received a replacement digi. Of the many damaged digi-packs I have, and I have many, that is the only happy ending. No dig to the Dead, as I like the band a lot (hence why I bought the box set and dropped a couple hundred bucks on it). But the packaging blows. An unintended consequence of poor packaging is that I seldom play the disc. I’m sure the label doesn’t care, nor the band. After all, they made their money. But shouldn’t the buyer get great quality, rather than something shoddy that just lets the company boost its profits?

There are so many examples of digi-packed CDs gathering dust in my collection. Robin Trower “What Lies Beneath.” Jerry Cole “Surf Age.” How about the special-edition release of “Fly Like An Eagle” by Steve Miller? What’s so special? It isn’t the packaging — a multi-gatefold digi-pack that contains a CD and DVD. Oh, it has a booklet, but good luck pulling it out of the pouch; they seem like they’re glued in. And since it is a multi gatefold, it of course requires a more expensive poly sleeve. I had to order Los Straightjackets’ “Play Favorites” from the band, as it’s not for sale in stores. And it came in a gatefold cardboard sleeve! Yep, it opens up, and you slip the CD in a raspy cardboard pouch. Or how about The Doors’ “Live At The Bowl ’68?” Another gatefold cardboard package; how nice.

Pink Floyd Dark Side of The Moon Immersion Edition

Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of The Moon' Immersion Edition tops Richard Kunkel's list of releases that, for their price, should've offered better protection for the discs than the sleeves that were provided. Publicity photo

But the most criminal violation, in my opinion, is the Pink Floyd “Dark Side” Immersion Edition box set, which cost well over $100. The CDs inside? All packaged in simple cardboard sleeves! Place them on your collection shelf and try to figure out what they are, given the absence of a spine title.

I don’t mean to pick on anyone, merely point out examples. In each and every case, I had to pay more out of my own pocket to buy my own jewel boxes to store the discs. Then, of course, I need to download the artwork and spend hours formatting the liner notes to add to them to jewel cases: more expense and more hassle. My only hope? Although many bands are cutting corners on the quality of the packaging, so far it is not universal.

Way too many box sets lack individual cases, but digi systems are lacking the box itself. The “Live At The Fillmore” set by the Move is this way, as is “West Coast Seattle Boy” by Jimi Hendrix. A really bad example is Can’s limited-edition box, “The Lost Tapes 1968-1975.” It’s a great set, but all three discs are slipped over a hub with a cardboard backing, and the discs were loose in the box I bought.

Then, there is the trouble of oversized CD cases. So far, every violator I’ve found has been of the digi-pack or cardboard-sleeve variety. These simply do not fit on commercially-designed shelves, as the clearance is not high enough. The end result is the same: You need to buy a jewel case and re-do artwork and liners.

I can tolerate the slimline double CD cases. But again, from a consumer standpoint, they are not very good. Their only saving grace is they can be replaced (but not usually repaired). Sure, the slimline cases take up only 3/8 of an inch of shelf space, compared with an old-school, fat-boy double, triple or quadruple case, which can hog up to 7/8 of an inch. But here’s a 411: Most fat-boy cases can be repaired. Slimlines? Not so. For starters, there seems no standardization of design. Does the case flip right to left or left to right? When you reach in to grab the disc, you usually end up touching the back of the disc behind it. Or, worse yet, when you depress the spines to remove the top disc, you risk having the other one fall out and sustain damage.

So, dear record companies, dear musicians, dear design people: We want better protection for our investments. If we pay big bucks for a box set, package the CDs in jewel cases. If we are willing to pay the bucks for the cardboard packaging, we certainly will pay a few dollars more for jewel boxes! Most people who buy CDs do not treat them like trash. It’s a shame you currently do.