The CD turns 30. Where to from here?

The Compact disc turned thirty years old last week. The first commercially available CD, Billy Joel’s 52nd Street was released on the 1st of October 1982 in Japan. It went on to sell over 7.5 million copies.

The comparatively tiny 120mm wide, 700 MB capacity disk that could hold the equivalent of 80 minutes of music, profoundly changed the way we listen to music. From its small size to large capacity compared to vinyl, it ushered in a crackle and pop free audio experience to millions of people. To date it is estimated that over 200 billion CDs have been sold worldwide. If you took all those CDs and stacked them on top of each other the pile would be 240 000 Kilometers high, reaching well out into space. To put that into perspective the Earth is only 12 000 kilometers wide!

Billy Joel - 52nd Street. The first commercially available CD. Walk into an electronics store in Japan on that fateful day in 1982 and it would have set you back the equivalent of $US730 or adjusting for inflation $US1 750 to pick up the Sony CDP-101, the world's first commercially available CD player. The name 101 was chosen by Nobuyuki Idei, the head of Sony's Audio Division because 101 represented 5 in binary notation and he believed the player to be ‘medium class’. By the time you got to the counter, picked up 52nd street which was $US15 or $US35 adjusted, you would be $US1785 out of pocket in todays money. All for the wonderful sounds of digital audio.

A war has been raging between Audiophiles since the Compact Disc was invented. Which one sounds better? Vinylphiles as they are called believe that a digital format such as CDs just don’t sound as “warm” and “natural” as Vinyl. Other Audiophiles argue that CD is technically superior and therefore better. Take a look here for a quick snapshot of the debate. Ultimately you should let your ears decide. If you enjoy the sound from vinyl, good for you and likewise for CD.

CDs ruled the roost until digital music sales started to take off, thanks in part to innovations in portable technologies such as hard drives, user interface innovations and improvements in music encoding technologies such as MP3. Devices such as iPods and other MP3 players then started to pop up.

So how well is the CD surviving? Looking at the data provided by the Australian Recording Industry Association for the last few years, not very well. As shown in the graph below sales CD are tumbling every year, with some of the slack been taken up by digital as well as Vinyl sales. Who cares you might be thinking? While the numbers themselves are academically interesting, it is important to think about these formats in terms of what it means for artists, as they will generally follow where the money is being made. We could be seeing a trend to giving away or renting music (A.K.A Spotify) with more of an artist’s income coming from live gigs.

If these trends continue the future seems clear, digital will eventually be used by the vast majority, with Vinyl a niche market and maybe also CD finding a niche. It has been fun CD, you have served us well. Heres to you.

References (click to view)


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