The compact disc gave us our first taste of digital music – and we loved it.
Upon its arrival in the US in March 1983, the sleek 4.7-inch plastic and aluminum disc – about the size of a coaster – promised crisp, clean digital music reproduction without the pop heard on vinyl records or the hiss of cassette tapes .
The CD had some flaws. The coffee table sized Vinyl cover and lyrics were lost due to the size of the new format.
And CDs were originally sold in not so environmentally friendly cardboard long boxes to prevent theft. The plastic boxes also had pesky little metal band seals called dog bones that required a razor-sharp tool to cut through.
But CDs allow us to listen to music for more than an hour just by pressing play. We can also skip songs and shuffle. CDs drove recorded music revenues to new heights in the late 1990s and early 2000s – and remained the dominant consumer choice until 2012, when other digital formats displaced CDs.
Over the years, music lovers in the U.S. have purchased 14.9 billion CDs since the format’s inception, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
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Musicians still like CDs
Country star Thomas Rhett’s latest album, 2022’s Where We Started, is available on vinyl, CD and cassette – and, of course, as a digital download or stream.
“Everybody’s playing music,” Rhett told USA TODAY. But in the past few years, there has been a movement to make music available in more physical formats, he said.
“There’s something about owning music for me,” Rhett said.
“I feel like they’re kind of coming back”
For a group on an international tour Radkey, CD and vinyl sales of the Kansas City band’s live concerts help keep the show going. “You can always rely on the sales of your merchandise to pay for the gas and the hotel and stuff like that,” said bassist Isaiah Radke.
“CDs are still doing pretty well,” he said. “I feel like they’re kind of coming back in a way.”
I’m really coming back. Sales of physical music — mostly vinyl records, but also CDs and even cassettes — are up 4 percent in 2022, the RIAA said.
Leading the way is Taylor Swift, whose “Midnights” album has sold the most physical copies: 945,000 on vinyl, 640,000 on CD and 14,000 on cassette, according to entertainment data tracking company Luminate. Swift also sold 174,000 “Folklore” vinyl records in 2022.
When you add on-demand audio and video streams, Bad Bunny’s “Un Verano Sin Ti” is the top album of the year, according to Luminate, with the equivalent of 3.4 million albums sold, compared to 3.3 million for Swift’s “Midnights.”
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Digital music sales are on the rise
Streaming services will drive music spending to a record $15.9 billion in 2022, accounting for 84% of all spending, the RIAA said. Music streamed through subscription services, ad-supported services, digital radio, social media, digital fitness apps and other options totaled $13.3 billion.
Paid subscriptions to services like Spotify are set to grow 8% in 2022, surpassing $10 billion for the first time.
Vinyl records beat CDs for the first time in decades
Consumers bought more vinyl records than CDs for the first time since 1987, according to the RIAA. Consumers purchased 41.3 million vinyl records and 200,000 vinyl singles in 2022, an increase of 3.2%. CD sales were down 28% to 33.4 million albums and 100,000 CD singles.
Spending on vinyl records, which typically cost more, surpassed CD revenue in 2020, with $643.9 million for vinyl and $483.2 million for CDs, the RIAA said.
Vinyl album sales have been slow to grow, as in 2005 they amounted to just $14.2 million in revenue. In each of the last two years, vinyl record sales have exceeded $1 billion in revenue; vinyl is up 20% to $1.2 billion in 2022.
CD sales, which had increased 21% in 2021 to $585.4 million, fell slightly in 2022 to $482.6 million.
When was the compact disc invented?
Sony and Philips, who launched the laserdisc in 1978, began developing the compact disc in 1979. The first player and discs were released in Japan in 1982, followed by Europe and the US in March 1983. The first compact disc, released in japan? Billy Joel’s “52nd Street”.
At the time of its initial U.S. launch in 1983, only 75 stores in the country sold CDs, and the players were expensive, around $900, reports The Atlantic. This amounts to about $2,700 in today’s dollars. Discs that originally cost $16-$20 now cost the equivalent of $48-$60 with inflation.
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How does a CD work?
The digital data is stored in a long spiral array of microscopic bumps – or pits if viewed from above – measuring 125 nanometers in height or depth (in a strange coincidence, this is equal to the microscopic size of a COVID-19 virus particle). The string of data that makes up an album on a music CD, if stretched straight out, would be about 5.5 miles long, according to scientists at Yale University.
When you insert a CD into a player, an infrared laser reads through the clear polycarbonate plastic substrate that makes up most of the disc’s thickness and reflects off the embedded aluminum layer. As the laser hits the bumps, the change in intensity of the reflected beam is registered by a sensor that translates this into digital music data.
What made the compact disc successful? Great looks and portability
Several factors led to the CD’s success. Record companies and electronics manufacturers could charge more than they did for vinyl records and turntables.
CDs might cost more, but consumers could see the value. “From a purely convenience standpoint, the CD was unbeatable,” said Ken Polman, columnist for Sound & Vision and author of Principles of Digital Audio.
“Discs were almost as cheap to produce as LPs, and they were stronger than LPs. They also looked great, which was a huge selling point,” said Polman, professor emeritus of music engineering at the University of Miami.
“And the real breakthrough was that the CD allowed music to be portable. … You can play it at home, in the car, on the plane and while running. You had one format to rule them all. It was just mind-blowing to the user at the time.”
The compact disc gave rise to subsequent formats such as DVD and Blu-ray Disc, each of which stores movies, video games and music on increasingly data-rich discs.
How well did CDs sell?
Eight years after the advent of the CD, it has become the dominant format, surpassing the audio cassette. Total CD album sales of $4.3 billion in 1991 accounted for 55.4 percent of total recorded music revenue that year, according to the RIAA.
In 1999, consumers spent $13 billion on CDs—88% of the $14.6 billion spent on music. In today’s inflation-adjusted dollars, consumer spending on CDs that year would total nearly $23 billion and make up most of the $25.6 billion spent on music that year in what would be considered for the industry’s biggest hit ever, the RIAA says.
CD sales have been declining since 2000. The slight increase in CD sales in 2021 may have been caused by the shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with people staying home and buying more CDs, Polman said. “The pandemic has twisted everything,” he said. “I wonder if this isn’t just another distortion.”
Will the compact disc live on?
When the format was designed in the 1980s, optical discs were the obvious storage medium due to their ability to store millions of bytes of data (many minutes of music) at low cost.
“Once solid state storage became available, MP3 players and iPods took off,” Pohlman said. “It was the death knell for CDs because they had all the benefits of CDs, but they were even smaller and even more convenient.”
So the life of the shiny silver disc may be dwindling. But a beloved music format can live on, he said.
“I think the LP will outlive the CD. It pains me to say it, but LP is more retro technology—more real, more romantic,” Polman said. “The compact disc was one of the most beautifully designed products ever to come out of the late 20th century. It opened the door to our modern world of digital music, but I think it was a transitional technology whose time has passed.”
Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.