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, AllHipHop.com 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music, but in 1982, Phillips director Lou Ottens had already announced, “From now on, the conventional record player is obsolete.”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.]