Thirty years ago today the Compact Disc (CD) was created. In the ’80s it was luxury audio technology for yuppies, but by the early ’90s the medium, which could also contain software and games, became ubiquitous. Go to a store like Amoeba Records now and vast troves of new and used CDs are still available for purchase.
Around 2000 it seemed that Napster had definitively sounded the CD’s death knell. Suddenly, the physical musical artifact began to give way to the disembodied, ethereal MP3 format. What Napster and various other P2P file-sharing services couldn’t do (kill the CD’s mass popularity), Apple did in 2003 when it opened the iTunes Store. After 2003, music consumption became primarily digital and computer-driven.
So what are we to make of the CD now?
An entire generation of kids will probably read of the CD’s 30 year-old birthday today, look up from the glowing LCD screen, eyes glazed, 100 apps open on their smartphone or tablet and mumble, “What was a CD?” They will never know the acute pleasure of the CD, and how it delivered us children of the ’80s from wonderfully neat but inferior sound quality of cassette tapes. They will never know the mind-boggling 100-disc changers; nor the absurdity of cleaning a CD by rubbing toothpaste or breathing on the surface, then wiping it clean on a t-shirt. They will never know the great fun in microwaving a CD and watching electricity arc on its surface, or in flinging discs like futuristic weapons across a room at your friend.
While the CD may seem to be near-death (no one much talks about the format these days), the format is still selling reasonably well, especially in the UK. Indeed, the format will probably always have a niche market. The CD-ROM is still used for software, although software downloads will only continue to grow. Record labels still send physical releases to us music critics. Audio-books have a big CD market presence. And, of course, DVDs and Blu-Ray discs are widely popular, even with internet services such as Netflix and Hulu.
The CD is also incredibly useful for having a back-up of one’s purchased music. And while it is great to have iTunes or Spotify, if that’s your thing, we should all remember that it is not a good thing to have one’s music purchase trapped in those services. On road trips, for instance, I still use a combination of multiple formats—CDs, iPhone or MP3 player. Variety is utility.
And so while this new generation may not have any clue about the CD, or any use for the format in the future, I feel confident in saying that I still have a use for it in the future.
[Photo: Bob Krasner]