This is a copy of an oral presentation delivered at Information Overload? Music Studies in the Age of Abundance, University of Birmingham, UK. (8–10 September 2021). Feedback or corrections welcome by email.
Slides for this presentation are available on request.
CDLink platform: history and form
CDLink was a short-lived software platform that allowed allow authors of websites to control the playback of audio CDs inserted into a user’s optical media drive. The idea was to empower both record labels and consumers with the ability to create websites that linked directly to the content of audio CDs. The key to the format was the use of timecoded instructions, contained in a simple proprietary file format known as the Voyager CDLink Control Language. Today, I’ll go into a little detail about what I’ve been able to gather about the CDLink platform. My main source of data here is archived versions of websites from about the period 1995 to 2000, archived by the US-based non-profit Internet Archive, as well as a handful of personal communications with programmers who worked with this platform. There is some precedent for the discussion of the CDLink in preservation circles, as archivists and librarians seek to provide access to electronic publications that rely on now-obsolete hardware and software.1 Apart from some consideration in contemporary educationalist publications, however, CDLink does not really feature in the history of late-20th-century digital music.
One reason, perhaps, is that CDLink is easily viewed as a transitional platform in the history of digital audio: its affordances bridge those of the plain old audio CD format (mediated by minimally interactive standalone CD players) and those of so-called interactive multimedia. For this reason, it has fallen somewhere between the purview of the currently limited histories of the audio CD format and the richer literature around multimedia CD-ROMs.2 A pity, since CDLink fostered a non-commercial and amateur scene, which became ultimately eclipsed by commercially produced “Enhanced CD” releases that followed in the late 1990s. These later releases featured largely uncustomizable, label-made content sitting alongside audio data.
Rarely did these later productions encourage the kind of end-user led publishing envisaged by the designers of the CDLink platform. CDLink was launched at 7 p.m. on July 12, 1995 at an event in New York’s Knitting Factory, at an event “jointly sponsored by Rykodisc, SPIN magazine, and the New Amsterdam Brewery.” A press release explained:
Beginning July 12, 1995 one only has to go to a Voyager CDLink site and insert an audio CD in the computer’s CD-ROM drive. Clicking on a “hot” link–text, images, graphics–will immediately call up the referenced audio segment–flute solo, guitar riff or impenetrable lyric (impenetrable until now, that is).3
CDLink was evidently a technology for the era of dialup networking—an age of bandwidth scarcity and online audio-definitional poverty. One researcher, writing in 1996, dramatized the situation: “to download a 10 second CD-quality audio excerpt via a 28.8 Kbps modem […] takes over 8 minutes!”4 This complaint reflected the state of internet access, in North America at least, where most users accessed the Web though dial-up telephone connections that very rarely exceeded this already low bitrate, limiting the viability of high-quality multimedia downloads.5 As the Voyager Company put it:
CDLink makes an end-run around the bandwidth bottleneck; that stack of discs gathering dust on the stereo represents a bundle of high-resolution digital media that’s already been delivered to the user.6
This meant that (with the major proviso that the user had the right CD to hand) access-times for high-quality audio could be driven through the floor, allowing for interactive online audio experiences that did not incur the same toll on sound quality imposed by contemporary audio streaming formats, such as the early RealAudio formats also introduced in 1995.
Little surprise that these algorithms, based on compression algorithms better suited to the human voice, were disliked by audio specialists: they rapidly undid the gains made in the distribution of high-definition digital sound. In 1982, the then-new CD format was heralded to specialist consumers as “the end of the generation gap”: it brought digitally recorded and mastered studio sound—which had begun in earnest in the late 1970s—to the consumer without the analog mediation thought liable to introduce noise into musical signals.7 Because digital recording technology was not so widely available at launch, it was first viewed by record labels and publishers as a channel for the re-issue of back catalog material.8 These presented as digital transfers of existing analog masters or in the new “compilation” forms afforded by the digital format.9 The retail price of a CD was about $18 in 1995.
By then, commentators had already begun to wonder aloud what made it useful to pay almost $20 for an album they may already have owned. All this is quite independent of the vibrant and for our purposes irrelevant debate about whether CDs sounded any good at all. CDLink offered record labels a solution. The goal of CDLink was to perform a kind of remortgaging of the cultural capital of critics and musicians in order to justify the expense of the format.
Voyager CDLink breathes new life into the world of audio CDs. Music writing–whether by critics, professors, or groupies–is transformed by building music itself into the discussion. Artists can annotate their work and illustrate individual points musically; record companies can add enormous value to previously released content and rejuvenate their libraries. Fans now have a whole new reason to buy audio CDs.10
This motivated their launch-day partnership with Rykodisc, a Boston-based independent label founded in 1983 that specialised in re-issues and purchasing popular back catalogues from labels unsure how to profit from the new CD format.11 Linking musical text and critical paratext, the CDLink essays mentioned in the 1995 launch-day press releases reflect the squarely middlebrow tastes that the Voyager Company had come to be associated with:
Former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek will explain why he loves X’s classic punk albums Los Angeles [(1980)] and Wild Gift [(1981)]. Tufts University music professor and jazz pianist Michael Ullman will teach the ins and outs of Thelonius Monk’s Brilliant Corners [(1957)]. Users can read Spin magazine’s reviews of twenty of the best alternative albums, from Deee-Lite’s World Clique [(1990)] to Peter Gabriel’s Us [(1992)] to Sonic Youth’s Dirty [(1992)]. Rykodisc’s site features Jimmy Guterman taking apart Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom [(1982)] and putting it back together as well as Bill Lantz dissecting Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats [(1969)].12
The Voyager Company, founded in 1985, is perhaps most well known today for realizing the creative and commercial potential of CD-ROMs as a platform par excellence for interactive multimedia. Beginning in 1989 with Robert Winter’s astoundingly successful interactive listening guide for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Voyager programmers tightly integrated rich multimedia, hyperlinked text, and high-quality audiovisual recordings into over 50 software releases for Mac and PC.
With CDLink, Voyager revisited the principles behind their innovative multimedia releases for the more participatory technological environment of 1995, asking: how could the new interactive markup language of the web—HTML—be used to empower web authors to control optical media players in a similar way? To achieve this, programmers at Voyager defined a new file format to specifying CD control commands called the Voyager CDLink Control Language. This very straightforward plain text language encoded simple instructions for the computer’s CD-ROM, which could, by design, also play back regular audio CD releases. A reference file explains the various operations allowed in these .VCD files: PLAY, PLAYTRACK, STOP, LOOP, EJECT and so on.13
Consider this annotated CDLink-enabled essay by Spin journalist (and self-professed “white hip-hopper”) Charles Aaron on Nas’s 1994 release, Illmatic.14 Aaron writes: “as producer Pete Rock sets the moody-mood with jazz-piano chords, the 20-year-old rapper from New York’s Queensbridge housing project drops the sneaky-deep punchline: ‘I’m out for dead Presidents to represent me’.” Three elements are hyperlinked with the tell-tale blue text that indicates a reference to another HTML document. If we were to click on the term “jazz-piano chords,” the browser does not navigate away to another page, but downloads a tiny, plain-text file. This file triggers a short, 6-second long extract taken right from the start of the fourth track on the release, “The World Is Used.”
That is, it would do so if we’d remembered to BYOD: almost all CDLink sites required that the user both own and insert the correct disc at the right time as well as the download Voyager CDLink software itself, which was freely available on the Voyager site until about 1996. This requirement for a helper program meant that the 20% of people who accessed the Web through America Online’s proprietary internet browser could not experience CDLink.15 Access was hardly universal: in 1995, 36% of all households in the US owned a PC or a Mac, and just under half of those (48%) had a CD-ROM drive.16 Nevertheless, this was was up significantly from 10,000 on 1990; the CD-ROM was on a rapid ascent, even if it was not yet ubiquitous.17 For those lucky enough to have a such “multimedia-ready” computer, a variety of interactive musical and sonic experiences awaited online.
An overview of CDLink experiences
Over 70 sites that used CDLink technology were dutifully indexed by the Voyager Company, which maintained a registry of CDLink sites.18 This registry is preserved in the Internet Archive but is now subject to extreme link rot. According to the terms of the product’s software license, although they were not really enforceable, page authors were required to acknowledge Voyager with a link back to their site and provide them with the details of their creations for inclusion in the CDLink Registry. “Registration is important to the success of CDLink,” they noted, “and a service to you, too–we want everybody to see your CDLink pages.”19
The Voyager Company cheerfully explained that the technical barrier to authoring CDLink pages was so low that the first 25 CDLink pages to be published on the Voyager site were “prepared in just a few days by a handful of liberal-arts graduates using only text editors.”20 Thus, only half (33) of all the entries linked in Voyager’s official CDLink registry were official co-productions with record labels (as, for example, was Charles Aaron’s essay on Nas’s Illmatic).
I estimate that the 70 or so total sites indexed by Voyager in the registry represents only a small fraction of the CDLink-enabled experiences to be found on the web. In order to get beyond the “official” view on the CDLink ecosystem represented by the Voyager registry, I sought a view from above. Since the early 2000s, the Internet Archive has crawled and archived billions of web pages, amassing one of the single largest datasets of interest to historians of the internet, and to social scientists and humanists more generally.21 What follows is based on the analysis of a list of just over 20,600 URLs retrieved by by Helge Holzmann and delivered to me in early July 2021.
About 6,000 unique CDLink files can be found on 170 unique hostnames; the latter figure gives a very conservative lower bound for the number of CDLink experiences archived since some of these sites (especially
.edu domains) play host to dozens of subsites, such as student assignment pages. Sometimes, these sites amounted to little more than glorified remote controls for CD players, some even imitating the structure of the device in the layout of HTML elements (as shown in these examples from a Bob Dylan fansite and two Australian homepages). More transformative, perhaps, were the occasional time-synced lyric pages, which allowed visitors to jump directly to a passage associated with a given line of a song’s lyrics. For yet others, CDLink facilitated full-fledged interactive scholarly essays, like the 1996 contribution by PhD student Michael Heumann to the Hope and Vaseline online magazine on “Sexual Chaos and Industrial Terror in the Music of Trent Reznor.”22
CDLink’s capacity to not only reorder tracks (using the
PLAYTRACK command), but to reorder timecoded subsegments of each track (using the
PLAY command) gave rise to novel, non-linear paths through CD recordings. For example, Patrick Verboven’s site provided a CDLink file that concatenated all the so-called “operator” sequences from Prince’s album The Gold Experience (1995): spoken-word interludes originally interwoven between full-length songs in the album’s regular track order.23 The same techniques could support more sustained analysis. In a musicologically sophisticated use of CDLink, Dave Herber presented a direct “A/B” comparison between two tracks on The Beatles’ Past Masters release (1988) to make an admittedly niche and convoluted argument about the origins of the master tracks used in the band’s Parisian recording of Sie liebt dich (1964).24
Moving from relationships between tracks to relations between individuals, a particularly intense microsocial relation is exemplified in a pair of CDLink enabled sites, maintained by two graduate students working a national science research institute in Brazil and dating from around 1996. One site, by “Pear Red,” is modest in scope: it consists of time-coded lyrics pages for each of the 12 songs on The Cranberries first full-length release, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? (1993).25 It features some very subtle design elements: each song is accompanied with a different scan of a promotional image for the the album; each song is subdivided into stanzas that are hyperlinked with an unobtrusive red underscore character; and the footer of each page on the site features a tasteful simulation of CD player controls, whose hyperlinks mix both links to other pages and to CDLink files.
“While you’re waiting,” the author directs us to “the CDLink Queen page” in the same server, by “Apple Green.” Apple Green’s site is not only more utilitarian but also more heavily viewed than Pear Red’s site.26 By 1997, it had racked up over 15,000 views and its profligate linking to other Queen fansites suggests that it had by that stage firmly established itself in the online Queen fan sphere. Like Red’s site, album pages collect link to song pages, which then contain links to CDLink files. What Apple Green’s site lacks in design, it attempts to make up for in comprehensiveness: it is on the way to becoming a ramified guide to over a dozen Queen albums. Crucially, the link from Red was reciprocated: Green links back to Red’s website (“a catwoman in my life”) and thanks Pear Red “for helping me to produce these pages….”
There is also an infrastructural intimacy to this relation: both fansites where hosted on the same webserver at the research institute where both young astrophysicists studied and worked. About a third of the .VCD files archived are hosted on
.edu domains, which are reserved for educational institutions. Because of the roots of the Internet in state-funded research institutions, educational institutes could make webspace available to faculty and students at marginal cost, providing inter-networked spaces for digital publication from before the beginning of the Web (Abbate).27 Sites hosted on educational infrastructure would have benefited from the non-commercial clause of the CDLink license, which explicitly exempted “educational institutions” from licensing fees.28
|Top-level domain||% total .VCD files (n = 13736)|
Educators noted the advantage that CDLink did not appear to violate copyright as it did not require copies to be made of commercial media: the students (or the library) would own the content orchestrated by their interactive assignments.29 Thus, The Internet Archive records dozens of educational resources and student assignments making use of the new hypertext forms enabled by CDLink. In these educational applications of CDLink lay the kernel of the idea that new media provided ways to enable the kind of music writing that relied on close hearings of musical texts, without the mediating technology of the score. More generally, these sites the notion that new media was a largely democratizing influence in music criticism, narrowly understood. Although the text-heavy form of HTML demanded a fluency in hypertext expression, CDLink offered web users a tool with which to reorder musical time and bring it into sync with the time of written narrative, short circuiting the visual representations of music in print which, to that point, had characterized that niche genre of writing.
The work of synchronization
Unfortunately for the Voyager Company, CDLink was launched at the cusp of an explosion of interest in the MP3 format, which, like the RealAudio streaming format that preceded it, enabled the delivery of audio online in the context of interactive hypertext. The fact that CDLink was relatively short-lived is no indictment of its cultural significance, however. Bridging hypertext technology and time-synchronized, high-quality digital audio, the CDLink platform itself can be viewed as a link in a historical chain of media technologies that coordinate audiovisual multimedia and text, reaching back to the invention of program notes, through the close-listening guides prepared by early 20th-century musicologists. Certainly the story involves the short-lived efforts of the Media Fragments Working Group at the W3C, the timecoded YouTube and NicoNico comments that populate the web today on through to new media teaching and learning environments like MediaThread as well as commercial ventures such as genius.com.
So much for synchronization on the media-content level.30 What is involved on the kind of synchronization that characterizes the encounter with the Web’s not-so-recent past?31 Coming into sync with the Web of 1995—an archive for digital music ready for planetary-scale anthropology (Born)—requires a kind of self-abasement in the face of the highly gappy historical record.32 Links rot. Indexes drift. Often, the only way to recapture anything of the media-technical “grain” of these experiences is the platform atavism to which emulation (see Rhizome’s oldweb.today) and code archaeology (Marino) aspire.33 This is why I claim that the apparent superabundance of the digital record today is always mediated by the information retrieval techniques of tomorrow.
I’m less interested in how this claim instantiates the familiar old saw of the historian: that the archive already constitutes a kind of filter which, for want of a better expression, predigests our histories. What’s more interesting to me, at least, is how such a statement is configured with respect to the specific media-technical environment that gives rise to it. In 2021, the digital supposes not the “data deluge” threatening to overwhelm the US security state the 1960s (Jones, Lennon) or the 18th-century “avalanche of printed numbers” (Hacking, Appadurai, Bouk) but an rather the supposedly overwhelming tide of especially obdurate or ephemeral “records,” tangled in webs of devices and regulations that seem to alternately protect and eradicate data sovereignty (Vismann).34
Our future access to this material is no longer mediated by our position within an archival collection tied to any one library or institution, or our privileged access to particular ethnographic informants or witnesses, but by our standpoint with respect to a particular sub-discipline of computer science. “Information retrieval”: a subdiscipline whose Delphi is a garage in Menlo Park, CA and whose oracles stake claim to culture as vectors or as points embedded in so-called “latent” space.35 Today, information retrieval flattens the cultural sterrain and renders it addressable, computable, and commodifiable. But this is hardly a foregone conclusion, of course, to say nothing of its future—which is why the merits of a politics of refusal must be carefully weighed against the possibility that we lose access entirely to the digital historical record. The case of CDLink suggests that reflex rejection of the logics of information retrieval, masquerading as thoughtful conscientious objection, likely leads to the loss of music data’s evanescent pasts.
Helge Holzmann (Internet Archive) and the Internet Archive itself. Mark Kolmar (pers. comm.) This research was supported by a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship, awarded by the Irish Research Council in 2019 to Eamonn Bell for the project “Opening the ‘Red Book’: The digital Audio CD format from the viewpoint between musicology and media studies.” Project no. GOIPD/2019/239.
Jeff Martin, “Voyager Company CD-ROMs: Production History and Preservation Challenges of Commercial Interactive Media,” 2010; G. Brown, “Developing Virtual CD-ROM Collections: The Voyager Company Publications,” International Journal of Digital Curation 7, no. 2 (December 2012): 3–20.↩︎
On audio CDs, see Jeremy Wade Morris, Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015), esp. chs. 1 and 2; Steve Knopper, Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age (New York: Free Press, 2009).↩︎
The Voyager Company, “Voyager: CDLink 12 July Press Release,” June 6, 1997, https://web.archive.org/web/19970606172601/http://www.voyagerco.com/cdlink/getstarted/pressrel.html.↩︎
Elbert H. McLaughlin, “The Coalescence of Music and the Internet: A Hybrid Solution for the Use of Music Materials in World-Wide Web Publication” (Master’s thesis, McGill University, 1996).↩︎
Pew Center survey; WWW users survey.↩︎
The Voyager Company, “Voyager”.↩︎
Melle Jan Kromhout, “Hearing Pastness and Presence: The Myth of Perfect Fidelity and the Temporality of Recorded Sound,” Sound Studies, January 29, 2020, 1–16, https://doi.org/10.1080/20551940.2020.1713524.↩︎
Michael Chanan, Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music (London: Verso, 1995).↩︎
Colin Symes, “Beating up the Classics: Aspects of a Compact Discourse,” Popular Music 16, no. 1 (January 1997): 81–95, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261143000000702; Will Straw, “In Memoriam: The Music CD and Its Ends,” Design and Culture 1, no. 1 (March 2009): 79–91, https://doi.org/10.2752/175470709787375751.↩︎
The Voyager Company, “Voyager”. My emphases.↩︎
Dorian Lynskey, “How the Compact Disc Lost Its Shine,” The Guardian: Music, May 28, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/may/28/how-the-compact-disc-lost-its-shine; See also, Steve Morse, “Amazing Little CD Firm That’s Really Rocking,” Boston Globe, April 2, 1989; Kevin Boyce, “Rykodisc Turns 20,” CMJ New Music Report, October 7, 2002; Frank Uhle, “Ryko Corporation,” in Encyclopedia.com (International Directory of Company Histories), n.d., https://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/ryko-corporation.↩︎
The Voyager Company, “Voyager”.↩︎
The Voyager Company, “Voyager CDLink (VCD) Control Language Reference,” June 6, 1997, https://web.archive.org/web/19970606172542/http://www.voyagerco.com/cdlink/about/vcd_ref/cmdref.html.↩︎
Charles Aaron, “Voyager: ILLMATIC,” December 19, 1996, https://web.archive.org/web/19961219024610/http://www.voyagerco.com/cdlink/spin/nas/nas.html.↩︎
Pew Research Center, “News Attracts Most Internet Users” (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, December 16, 1996), https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/1996/12/16/news-attracts-most-internet-users/; Matthew Mirapaul, “CDLink: Multimedia Liner Notes To Complement Your Music Collection” (New York Times on the Web arts@large, January 25, 1996), www.nytimes.com/library/cyber/mirapaul/0125mirapaul.html.↩︎
“Americans Going Online...Explosive Growth, Uncertain Destinations” (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, October 16, 1995), 4, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/1995/10/16/americans-going-online-explosive-growth-uncertain-destinations/.↩︎
Laurence Vittes, “Music, the New-Fashioned Way : IMCDs–Interactive, Multimedia Compact Discs–Place a Computerized Encyclopedia at Your Fingertips as You Listen to the Masters,” Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1990, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-08-12-ca-1093-story.html.↩︎
“Voyager CDLink: The Registry,” accessed August 26, 2021, https://web.archive.org/web/19961219005113/http://www.voyagerco.com/cdlink/registry/registry.html.↩︎
The Voyager Company, “Voyager.”↩︎
The Voyager Company, ibid.↩︎
Sanjay K. Arora et al., “Using the Wayback Machine to Mine Websites in the Social Sciences: A Methodological Resource,” Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 67, no. 8 (2016): 1904–15, https://doi.org/10.1002/asi.23503.↩︎
Michael Heumann, “Entertainment Through Pain: Sexual Chaos and Industrial Terror in the Music of Trent Reznor,” October 20, 1996, https://web.archive.org/web/19961020140551/http://www.primenet.com/~aboo/nin.html.↩︎
David Haber, “She Loves You,” December 19, 1996, https://web.archive.org/web/19961219080246/http://www.voyagerco.com/cdlink/beatles/slyvcd.htm.↩︎
By way of comparison, popular “free” web hosts like GeoCities and Tripod.com would not launch until 1995↩︎
, “Voyager: CDLink Licensing Information,” June 6, 1997, https://web.archive.org/web/19970606144612/http://www.voyagerco.com:80/cdlink/about/license.html.↩︎
Michael S. Hime, “Kamien CD-Intro,” June 14, 1997, https://web.archive.org/web/19970614033455/http://www.vanderbilt.edu/Blair/Courses/MUSL140/Kamien/CD-intro.html.↩︎
Jens Schröter, “De- und Resynchronisationsketten. Die Schicksale des Plattenspielers,” Kulturtechniken der Synchronisation, January 1, 2013, 367–85, https://doi.org/10.30965/9783846748084_016. See also, I expect, Axel Volmar and Kyle Stine, Media Infrastructures and the Politics of Digital Time. Essays on Hardwired Temporalities. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021); Jonathan Sterne and Emily Raine, “Command Tones: Digitization and Sounded Time,” First Monday, September 4, 2006, https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v0i0.1607.↩︎
Niels Brügger, The Archived Web: Doing History in the Digital Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2018).↩︎
Georgina Born, Music and Digital Media: A Planetary Anthropology (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming).↩︎
Mark C. Marino, Critical Code Studies (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2020), https://books.google.com/books/about/Critical_Code_Studies.html?id=k4LPDwAAQBAJ.↩︎
Matthew L. Jones, “How We Became Instrumentalists (Again): Data Positivism Since World War II,” HIST STUD NAT SCI 48, no. 5 (November 1, 2018): 673–84, https://doi.org/10.1525/hsns.2018.48.5.673; Brian Lennon, Passwords: Philology, Security, Authentication (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018); Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance, Ideas in Context (Cambridge; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Arjun Appadurai, “Number in the Colonial Imagination,” in Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia, ed. Carol Appadurai Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer, South Asia Seminar Series (South Asia Seminar, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993); Dan Bouk, “The History and Political Economy of Personal Data over the Last Two Centuries in Three Acts,” Osiris 32, no. 1 (September 2017): 85–106, https://doi.org/10.1086/693400; Cornelia Vismann, Files: Law and Media Technology (2000; repr., Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).↩︎
Adrian Mackenzie, Machine Learners: Archaeology of a Data Practice (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017); Nick Seaver, “Everything Lies in a Space: Cultural Data and Spatial Reality,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 27, no. S1 (2021): 51, https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9655.13479.↩︎