2012: The End of The CD Era?

In recent weeks, news stories quietly announced that major labels are making plans to discontinue the recording and sales of music CDs in late 2012. Yet, as MP3s have taken over the market as the prevailing way to record and purchase music, there are still many – millions even – who purchase and listen to CDs on a daily basis.

As the CD prepares to meet its possible end soon, ponders the history of the little shiny, scratch-attracting disk, how MP3s have changed the music game, and how CD-lovers will fare when it’s all said and done.

A Brief History of the CD

Before 1980, those of us old enough to remember how music was stored will recall the handy but delicate cassette tape. A staple in the boom boxes of the 1980s, the cassette tape was a cheaper alternative to the bulky, dated 8-track tapes of the 1970s, and a much more compact and average user-friendly way to listen to albums than the vinyl records that dominated the industry for generations.

By inventor James Russell’s definition way back in 1965, a compact disk (CD) is a tool for digitally storing media. Beyond the simple technology, limited storage, and craftsmanship of tapes and records, his was an innovation that made it possible to record computer files, pictures and graphics, and most importantly, store a large amount of music or other data in a small size. Pioneer CD company Sony insisted that the world standards first created by eventual CD partner Phillips, were changed to ensure that a CD was large enough to hold the entirety of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – 74 minutes long.

The plastic circular CD is read and written to by a laser tucked inside a tiny slot called a CD drive, and over the years and 22 patents later, it has morphed into several types, such as CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-I, and CD-RW. As is the case with most new technology, the CD was not particularly known – or affordable – until TV and stereo manufacturer Phillips brought it to the masses in 1980.

In 1980, the CD hadn’t yet caught on as a highly popular or profitable way to sell recorded music, but in 1982, Phillips director Lou Ottens had already announced, “From now on, the conventional record player is obsolete.” Following suit, Sony was soon working in 1984 towards a portable revolution in music listening technology that would change everything – the “Discman.”

CDs Meet The Music

The first album pressed on CD was The Visitors by abba, and the first CD release was Billy Joel’s 52nd Street, recorded and produced by Sony in 1982. Hardly anyone heard those first albums on CD in their homes, as the technology was still exclusive to mainly affluent consumers and industry buffs. A year later, as prices dropped, music labels began to trust that consumers would actually purchase players and drives. Soon, cassette tapes were (not completely) replaced by CDs, and nearly 1,000 music titles were pressed on CDs.

The first platinum-selling CD album came in 1985 – Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms – and according to BBC News, it is still the world’s most successful album on CD. By the mid 1980s, most major labels were on board with CD production; however, Hip-Hop, which was still fighting for relevance and respect in the music market, was largely left out of the first-year CD experiment.

Not long after came the first platinum-selling rap album, 1986’s Licensed To Ill by the Beastie Boys, and its sales peak was largely assisted by the new CD phenomenon of the time. DJ technology stayed on course, too; by the early 2000s, the first “scratchable” CD turntables were introduced to the market, allowing for DJs to have nearly the same experience as spinning vinyl; without, of course, the signature vinyl “hiss” that gives records their raw, distinctive sound.

Welcome The Digital Revolution?

Sales for music CDs of all genres peaked in 2000 at 2.455 billion; according to BBC News, in 2006, that figure was down to 1.755 billion, and CDs aren’t expected to rebound. In the early to mid 2000s, the evolution of mini disks, DVDs, Sony’s BluRay disks, and other storage types that were birthed from CDs began to signal signs that the format might soon be rendered obsolete.

In 2008, CD sales dipped to drastically low numbers, as the crunch of MP3 technology began its final choke hold on the CD music industry. Music downloading leaders iTunes and Spotify have revolutionized consumer purchasing – with a credit card and an Internet signal, one can download whole albums within seconds or minutes.

Undoubtedly, the MP3 age has had an enormous, business model-changing effect on the music industry. Major and independent music labels, stymied by dropping CD sales over the past decade, have scrambled to figure out how to market digital music while still profiting from CDs. After all, there is a large segment of the listening audience that has not embraced digital technology, and still relies on the CD-stocked shelves of Best Buy, Walmart, and other retailers. According to Apple figures, just five years ago, only 11 percent of Americans owned an iPod; in 2008, perhaps due to the recession, that number had dropped to three percent. Still, what’s old is old, and MP3 players have seemingly won the day.

Early this month, Sideline Music and countless other media outlets reported that the few remaining major music labels are planning to eliminate CD recording by this time next year. According to Sideline’s coverage: “The major labels plan to abandon the CD-format by the end of 2012 (or even earlier) and replace it with download/stream only releases via iTunes and related music services. The only CD-formats that will be left over will be the limited edition ones, which will, of course, not be available for every artist.” Reps from EMI, Universal, and Sony declined to comment on recent reports.

So, Now What?

For countless millions of CD-lovers, 2012 may mark the end of an era. And, some people may not at all be prepared for the revolution. Middle-aged and senior adults are least likely to have embraced the digital evolution of the past 10 years, leaving them vulnerable to having few options beyond the CD. In addition, the “digital divide” that already exists in low-income communities (hampered by no computers or Internet access), will likely increase from a lack of resources for poor people to transition to all-digital music and MP3 players.

Sadly, public collections in libraries, music institutions, and surfing Amazon may end up as the only ways to locate and listen to CDs that enthusiasts don’t already own. The end of the CD era, therefore, marks a somewhat sad transition into a new digital day. While cumbersome to travel with and store over the years, the CD played an early, eye-opening role in our envisioning how the advancement of technology would play out in our daily lives.

So, should CDs be eradicated forever, simply because the Internet and digital tools have overtaken our attention spans with their lightning-fast, nearly invisible, conveniently portable ways? Only time will tell.

[My 89-year-old grandfather, who owns an impressive collection of several hundred CDs, including everything from jazz to early rap, certainly hopes they don’t go away.]

  • yes the 8 track is dead the cassette is dead and cd has been dead fora minute and someone will come along with something that will replace the mp3 and they have it is called the cloud so technology moves on.

    • The cloud is not a replacement for MP3.  You load your MP3 content into the cloud and can play it from anywhere, you can always pull your cloud content local and pop it into an MP3 player.  Cloud is not a different format, it’s a different storage solution allowing easier access.

      • I agree with you completely, @RobertC, but in a way Maxwell Smart is kinda right in the way that streaming audio services like Spotify, Pandora, LastFM are going to increase in popularity as internet connections get better across the board, and interfaces become more public friendly. I think we’re moving towards a day when only the diehard fans will seek a physical product of any sort, and they will get it im sure (exclusive special collectors edition packages, etc) but the majority of people who ‘just want to hear that song’ will likely subscribe to music streaming services like they do netflix, and just play it when they want it. MHO only.. 
        Oh and the Turtles must die.

  • I can’t stand purchasing content digitally for two reasons. 1) I still like the ability to look at the book and 2) digital storage is never a sure thing. One PC crash and you’re out hundreds of dollars….

  • That is a very unwise choice. They obviously didn’t think it through. Car manufacturers will have to change the set up of their audio to accommodate mp3 format which all people who have older cars don’t have. I bought an mp3 from amazon it didn’t download it crashed and I never got my money until after a long fight for one song. Your pc crashes all your songs are erased now what do you do if you didn’t back them up? Reading cd album thanks and credits. Looking at the art work. When you burn a blank regular cd to play in mp3 it’s quality is worse compared to wav format. It’s going to cause problems it won’t last trust me. 

  • This is crazy , cuz my computer guy told me the same thing 3-4 yrs ago? Said an SD memory card would replace a cd , holds more, etc.

    I remember the 1st time I heard a CD , it was EPMD’s second album , with : The Big PayBack – booming , my boy hit rewind & I thought he had the fastest cassette rewind in the world.

    Like damn, 1 press of rewind & the $hyt automatically jumps back to where the song starts? I asked, he replied ” No , that’s a CD!” , showed it to me & $hyt.

    Now? I doubt records / music will be selling at all soon , so many artist moving into movies, etc., it seems music doesn’t pay like it used to , or artist act like it does.

    Pretty soon , all these rappers that talk about selling drugs……might have to actually sell drugs.

    • Realist4200

      lol I remember when I got my first CD player after having nothing but tapes… Good shit.

       But you’re right tho… Sales are gonna be fncked once this goes into effect (sooner or later it’s bound to happen…). I don’t like putting my money across the internet, so I don’t have itunes or none of that sh!t – I’m sure there’s other people out there who buy music but don’t have those services. So that’s one reason the sales will drop. Another one is – The shelf life of an album is gonna be way too short. Digital releases just don’t grab people’s attention or hold momentum like something that you can actually pick up would. The industry’s already f#cked beyond repair tho… So I guess it’s not even really worth fighting against at this point.

  • Realist4200

     Bullsh!t…. I don’t download sh!t, if I like an album I go buy the CD. Better quality, album artwork, book with all the producer/sample info… and I simply like to admire my big ass CD collection that I’ve probably spent 5+ thousand dollars on over the years (f#cking crazy when you think how much that adds up). I understand times change and there’s better technology out there, but it just isn’t a good look.

     I know somebody says this every time something changes in the music industry, but this might be the nail in the coffin. If you lose the last physical form of the music (CDs – cassettes and vinyl already met their grave), it just becomes a sound in your iPod or computer playlist… Easily forgettable and easily lost in the ocean of music stored on that device. New music already has a short life… Hot song comes out and 3 months later it’s “old”. But this is gonna make it even shorter. I guess it’s inevitable that it will happen sooner or later, but it’s truly gonna be the end of an era.

  • You guys are playing a part in the “Death” of the CD. In Urban and Country music, the CD is the principle format bought by almost 90% on almost all albums released! he albums that have big digital sales are the Pop/Xover/Rock albums. They don’t make up ALL album sales. By killing the CD format would be killing majority MUSIC sales! With media outlets, like AllHipHop, reporting things like the “Death” of a format, consumers are going to stop supporting music altogether and stream as much as they can. It’s the exact same thing that happened when media outlets kept reporting that no one is selling records anymore when Lil’ Wayne and Taylor Swift was killing stores! Stop that and support! 

  • Josh Yeary

    EVENTUALLY the CD format will go away, next year, or years down the road. I think it is awesome that your grandfather has such an expansive CD collection, but please make sure that he understands that his personal CD’s won’t disappear. If you have them, awesome. If you still want new music, you can pick up a cheap Coby mp3 player that plays the songs just as well as an iPod (minus the sleek design and interface that don’t do a thing for the quality of the sound) for about $20.

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  • eduard.morgunov

    Well guys, I felt same way, but more upset when my favorite format the Compact Cassette started getting pushed aside in 2002-03 by CD. Supposibly because the tape didnt have enough “quality”. Or ppl just took a dump on it and said they wear out. Today all my tapes sound better than any format I have collected. Somehow they didnt wear out, still sound amazing, And I been playing them over and over frequiently. Some how I managed to have all my tapes I been recording sound better than CD simply by using High-End equipment and Type II & IV tapes. It sucks when u start collecting something and out of no where u find out that they must change things around. Especially I got into fixing tape decks and CD players which is really fun for me cuz I like to see stuff like that at work. Tapes too started getting more interesting overtime when I found out I had over 56 different types of brands and all different styles, colors, and types of tapes. Its interesting how all blank tapes go by style and time it holds for example HF90, SA60, SD74, XR120, UB90 and so on…

    • problem is, CDs are better quality than a lot of MP3s, since they were ripped from a CD at some point usually. And especially if we’re talking music playing on a cd player hooked up to speakers/a car vs an mp3 player hooked up to speakers/a car. CD wins. So I’m really not sure what their plan is here. Dumping quality for what? So we have to fumble with our touchscreen devices while driving instead of the easy-to-press car stereo interface?

  • Guest

    This Is Cray,Ain’t nothin like havin the Physical copy of your favorite Artist album art work & Prod cred and all other things that come in Compact Disc this comin from sumone who owns about three ipods.Only thing i want miss is the skippin of the disc from it bein scratch

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