Fantastic Formats: An Exploration into the Popular Music Format Part 2

The inimitable CD
The inimitable CD

Fantastic Formats is a series looking at the impact and meaning of today’s music formats, describing and explaining the multi-format world in which we store and listen to our music. This month The Waveform Transmitter’s Andy Weights tackles the CD.

In 1974, a group of Dutch Philips audio industry revolutionists began a project that would change the way we listen to music forever, by developing a compact audio disk to replace the fading vinyl format. The aim? To improve the quality of the sound and be compact enough to store lots of data in a small space.

Skip the track to 1977, and the same innovators had built a dedicated lab with the goal of developing CDs and CD players for the masses to use. Philips already had the compact cassette on offer, so ‘compact disc’, to the developers, was the obvious name.

At the same time as all of this was taking place in Holland, a little company from Japan called Sony had been working on the same inventions and in 1976 demoed its audio-vision to the world. Not long after they had unveiled their invention, Philips and Sony joined forces and by the launch in 1982 had begun making music history.

The Philips/Sony factory in Germany actually belonged to Polygram, the recording company, which Philips presided over at the time.

The first CD believed to be manufactured at the plant was The Visitors by ABBA. In Japan, on October 1st, 1982, Billy Joel’s album 52nd Street was credited with being the first commercial release on the new digital audio disk, with the Sony CDP-101 player the very first CD player.

Sony's CDP-101
Sony’s CDP-101

Skip the track forward again – this time a decade – and CDs are the most popular format for music lovers. The market was at its boiling point during the 90s, the shiny little buggers had already surpassed sales of vinyl in 1988 and were still on their meteoric rise to becoming the world’s most popular media storage format.

One unfortunate side effect from this melodic super-future was the re-mastering process. ‘Loudness wars’, during the late 80s and 90s, completely spoilt some fantastic records. The quest was to improve the sound, but with the big companies applying pressure for sales, new sounds, and increased volume, many producers struggled and failed.

Today we see more respectful remastering technique’s being applied but with bargain bins and cheap music outlets recycling the chaff, you may still end up with a sonic dud.

Not until the 2000s did CDs begin to take a dip in popularity.  Now, with the advent of internet streaming and the download usurping the format crown, are we beginning to see the end of CDs?

53.6 million CDs were sold in 2015, with 2016’s sales falling down to 47 million, but the trend seems to underline the format’s resilience and hints that – at least for the next few years – the compact disc will play its part in a healthy, multi-format scene with vinyl, streaming and downloads as company.

The little invention from Holland is still a relevant and important format, allowing us to access music from our own timelines without turning on a computer or smartphone. You can hold the liner notes in your hand and feel a little comfort staring at your collection as you wonder what to put on next.

35 years on and I still have CDs – I still play them on my CD player and on journeys. My collection has memories and nostalgia galore. A lot may not have moved nor been played for years, they can’t stay in alphabetical order no matter how much I try, whether chewed by dogs, sold, lent out, or lost I have ruined more than a few and yet I still don’t cease to enjoy the format.

Modern recordings are being produced more and more independently with the compact disk working well as an inexpensive method for an artist to sell music at gigs or online. I’m sure for this reason, just as cassettes have still got a small simmering market (with some labels such as Vancouver’s 1080p only releasing on cassette as far as their physical formats are concerned) and vinyl LPs have risen from the ashes, CDs will not be going anywhere far in a massive hurry.

Compact disks are becoming a bit retro due to their age and the fact that some kids today don’t even know what they are and some people choose to dislike them tells a sorry part of the story. The CD has transcended into being vintage but it’s not going to stop some of us from enjoying a format we grew up with and love.

Next month we’ll be taking a look at the cassette.

(Figures sourced from BPI)

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