Poll: Are online downloads killing off the CD?
15:29 18 March 2013
For anyone who saw it, the sight of Tomorrow’s World presenter Judith Hann spreading jam on a new-fangled compact disc before popping it into a Sony CD player is indelibly etched on the brain.
Having wiped off the excess jam, Judith pressed play – under the beady eye of a Sony heavy sent to guard the precious machine – and exclaimed that the sound was amazing: “just like the musicians are in the room”.
This was the moment we were fooled into believing that CDs were indestructible: not only were they the future of music, they were the future of music that we could eat our lunch off, too.
However, in much the same way as the CD turned out to be far from indestructible – so did the format itself. Thirty years after a much-heralded launch, the CD is languishing in the charts, limping behind downloads as the favoured form of purchase for music fans.
The birth of the CD began in the mid-1970s when experts at Philips began experimenting with an optical audio disc which would boast superior sound to vinyl and be a more robust alternative to LPs.
Within a few years, a special laboratory had been established to produce CDs and their corresponding players and scientists quickly dismissed the initial 20cm discs in favour of an 11.5cm disc packed with up to an hour of audio.
Sony were on Philips’ heels and held a demonstration of its first disc in 1976. The two music giants then joined forces for the commercial launch of a 12cm disc in 1982.
It was the beginning of something very, very big.
Although CD players were punitively expensive in the early years, they quickly became the must-have gadget for music fans and prices began to fall as the popularity of the CD increased.
The CD quickly grabbed the market share from the dominant format – the cassette – and poured more cold water on the LP, despite afficianados persisting in their claims that music sounds better on vinyl.
Technology, however, is relentless and – just like a long line of data storage devices such as the cylinder phonograph, the vinyl record, the audiocassette and the CD-ROM – the CD is gradually being replaced by better storage technologies.
Sales have decreased yearly since 2000 as consumers make the transition from discs to MP3s. While CDs shrunk a music collection in comparison to the LP, a music library of countless thousands of albums can now be stored on a computer that doesn’t require any shelf space whatsoever.
The CD, however, is unlikely to fade into complete obscurity in the near future.
The format is still the preferred way to enjoy high-fidelity listening and the availability of older and out-of-print titles from MP3 distributors remains limited.
It follows a venerable line of music formats which have enjoyed mixed fortunes over the decades: the LP was introduced in the 1940s only to be threatened by stereo discs in the 1950s and then four and eight track tapes emerged in the late 1960s.
By the early 1980s, cassettes were the favoured format for music only to be overtaken by the CD, which only began to lose its foothold in the late 1990s when the internet began to make a real impact on the way we listen to and purchase music.
As CD sales drop, vinyl sales increase (relatively speaking – downloaded music is king by a huge distance). But do vintage CDs have the same appeal as vintage vinyl?
Peter Cossey owns The Movie Shop on St Gregory’s Alley in Norwich, an Aladdin’s Cave of incredible collectibles and rarities from the world of movies and television.
CDs are still for sale at The Movie Shop – although their popularity is very much in the shadow of vinyl records – and Peter believes the music format hasn’t yet heard its own digitally-mastered death knell.
“Music formats will always be superseded by something new, but that doesn’t mean that old formats will die a death – people download films but there’s still a market for DVDs,” he said.
“You just have to look at vinyl records as an example. When tapes and CDs came along, everyone claimed that vinyl would be dead but actually, it’s becoming more and more popular and, more to the point, younger people are beginning to choose vinyl.
“When you’ve got a young audience choosing a music format, you know that it’s still alive. Collectible vinyl records do tend to be more desirable because they’ve got beautiful covers, sleeve notes or are on coloured vinyl but CDs still have a place in the market.”
Peter said that although he sold fewer CDs than vinyl, there were still customers who preferred the compact size and ease of CDs and who hadn’t yet switched to MP3 players and downloads.
“I’m off to Manchester tomorrow and I’ll be listening to CDs on the journey because they’re convenient,” he said, adding “a customer came in who has 4,000 LPs but is looking to downsize and is going to struggle to house them all. If they were CDs, there’d be no problem.
“Downloading music is all well and good but people like to physically own things. In just the same way as vinyl can be collectible, so can CDs and there are some that can go for a lot of money – particularly early CDs or ones which contain music that you can’t get hold of in any other format.
“CDs can be very, very collectible and valuable. It’s a small market, but there is a market and it’s one that could grow as CDs become rarer. It’s amazing how markets can develop for collectibles and you can never predict what’s going to happen.
“People say to me all the time: ‘what should I buy now that will make me money in the future?’ and I say that I can’t tell them, that if I could, I’d be a very, very rich man! Perhaps it will be CDs. One thing’s for sure, I don’t think the CD will die out any time soon.”