In 1982, when the BBC’s prime-time technology show – Tomorrow’s World – did a segment on a new musical format called the “Compact Disc” the presenter skeptically asked “Whether there’s a market for this, remains to be seen”. We all know what happened next, but even in the early ’80s the benefits of CDs should have been clear: high quality, non-degrading sound in a compact format. Oh, and you could even skip, shuffle and repeat tracks, which, in a pre-digital world, truly felt like the future
The Compact Disc turns 40 this year, and there are already signals the format is primed for a mini revival. For the first time in 17 years, CD sales actually went up – and by almost 50 percent, according to the RIAA’s sales database.
It’s still a long way from the format’s peak. In 2021, 46.6 million CDs were shipped in the US – compared to nearly a billion back in 2000. For context, that 46.6 million barely accounts for four percent of last year’s total music revenue. Vinyl albums, by contrast, sold fewer overall units (39.7M) but are more of a money spinner for artists (seven percent of total revenues).
Some reports claim that the uptick in CD sales is mostly due to mega-artists like Adele and BTS releasing new albums (the former’s 30 accounted for two percent of total CD sales alone). But there are other potential – and more practical – contributing factors, too, including the pandemic.
“CD sales are growing again now that retail stores are reopening and artists are back on tour. And while CDs haven’t yet seen the same type of revival as vinyl, the CD format remains a steady revenue stream for independent artists.” Rob Bach, COO of CD Baby told Engadget. They should know, as one of their services is the production and distribution of CDs for indie bands.
Kevin Breuner, SVP of Artist Engagement and Education for the company, thinks there’s an increasing appetite for CDs as memorabilia, rather than just as a way of playing music. “Part of it is that streaming hasn’t replaced anything at the merch table … the appeal of a physical item like a CD is that it’s a piece of memorabilia in a live setting, something you can have signed by artists. similarly, for artists, there’s nothing that can replace when a fan goes back to the merch table to buy a CD or a t-shirt; it’s always been that way.”
There’s also the fact that what once seemed restrictive to younger listeners – having to own a song if you wanted to hear it – now presents a different way of enjoying music. A good album isn’t merely a collection of songs, but a structured experience to be enjoyed from start to finish. You can, of course, do this with streaming, but a CD requires getting up to change, Spotify is usually just a click away.
CDs launched in Japan in October 1982. The format and hardware to play it on didn’t land in the US and Europe until the following year. Adoption was relatively swift and just two years later the first million-selling CD album – Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits – would cement the shiny disc’s popularity. By the early ’90s, assisted by increasingly smaller, affordable and even portable players, the CD was the de facto way to listen to music. And for good reason.
In this new digital world, the CD format was consistent in a way that analog never could be. What became known as the “Red Book” standard – two-channel 16-bit PCM at 44.1kHz – would be the prevailing specification from there on out. When someone used to say “it’s CD quality” one might assume that’s what they were referring to.
This standard is considered the minimum requirement to be called “lossless” by today’s streaming services. Of course, how or what you record at 16-bit/44.1 is really what matters, but that’s a whole other story.
More important than any of this, for the labels and artists at least, is that the arrival of the CD meant they could re-sell us our entire music collection in the new wonder format. The ’90s were a good time to be in the music industry, at least until Sean and Shawn came along.
There were other benefits to this new digital medium, too. And not just the aforementioned ability to skip/program/shuffle tracks. With CDs, you could hide bonus tracks in new ways that would otherwise be visible on a vinyl record or instantly found by anyone that left a cassette tape running.
Even more exciting? Once PCs started being a more common feature in homes, artists and labels realized you could bundle in entirely different bonus media like videos and karaoke versions – as found on some versions of americana by The Offspring, for example.
Before we show you some ways you can enjoy/rediscover the joys of compact discs, bear in mind the experience was far from flawless.
Despite being more durable than vinyl, it definitely is possible to scratch a CD. When a record has a scratch, it’s almost charming. With CDs, it’s more like walking slowly through hell as they dig up the streets. If your disc was damaged, it also might work in some players yet, frustratingly, not in others. Many an hour has been wasted cleaning and reseating a CD in the hope it would take.
Of course, many CD players took only one disc, so you’d frequently be swapping them out. If you knew someone who had every CD in the right jewel case, that was often a tell that this person doesn’t listen to their music enthusiastically or often enough (It’s possible they were just slightly organized, but where’s the fun in that). This “which disc is in which case” problem became even worse when someone decided CD singles – one song you wanted and some less good songs on one disc – were a good idea.
Not to mention the fragility of the cases they came in. Jewel case hinges would crack just by looking at them, while center hubs (the part that held the disc in place) would crumble no matter how well you handled things. Most often while moving house or the aforementioned enthusiastic listening with friends.
Unlike other formats, the CD is unique in that it played a part in its own demise. With the advent of CD burners, you could easily copy your friends’ album collection, print out album artwork and even print circular stickers with the CD art on them, too. This was how music was stolen for the short period when CD burners and blank discs were affordable and online piracy hadn’t taken hold. The CD was then effectively relegated to the role of external storage medium before quietly regressing into obscurity. Until now, of course.
With those small challenges in mind, if you’re ready and willing to give the humble Compact Disc another, uhm, spin, here are some recommendations, new and old, cheap and not-so, to dive into the world of the CD.