1983 marks the year compact discs go on sale for the first time in the United States. They had been first released in Japan the previous October, and their arrival and existence would signal several major changes in how music was conceived, created, distributed and ultimately consumed. It is the point where the digital revolution truly begins because, without the shiny silver coasters, there is no iTunes, no Apple domination, and very little of what is considered the illegal distribution of music.
The CD was not an immediate hit with the buying public, hampered by two factors: the prospect of having to replace an entire music collection and the cost at which to do it. If the now-seen-exorbitant $12 for new CDs shocks you, that was peanuts to when this was brand new technology. That price-point assured that, for the formative years, the compact disc would remain boutique, the playthings for gadgetheads and the comfortably well-off.
My first personal experience with the actual sound of CDs came when I accompanied a friend to a high-end electronics store in the mid-Eighties. He was looking for a pair of speakers for his brand new amplifier. I wandered into the listening room, which was designed to approximate the living room of no one I’ve never known my entire life. Leather sofas, huge projection screen TV (the kind where, if you sat too far right or left the image vanished completely), five-foot-tall speaker towers, and this silver-gray thing that looked rather like a Fisher Price toy record player. The discs were approximately the same size. It seemed to indicate I should push play, so I did.
Out came track one from Boston’s Third Stage album, “Amanda.” Now, let’s set aside certain aesthetic issues like the fact that the mix was far too treble-y, the drums were clearly synthetic, and when measured against the band’s first two albums Third Stage is almost a parody. Having grown up with abused vinyl played on the lowest of low-end equipment (remember those flip-top suitcase record players?) and with cassette tape players where tape hiss had to be forgiven as the price one payed for convenience, this was a sonic kick in the face. It wouldn’t be until several years later that my income would increase, the cost of machines and software would decrease, and somehow we met in the middle. My first CD deck was a JVC, one of the technology’s pioneers. My first purchased disc…Hello I Must Be Going by Phil Collins.
I know, I know. But I really liked the song “Like China,” okay?
Vinyl lived, mostly, in co-existence with cassette tapes which allowed portability thanks to the Sony Walkman and car dashboard stereo units. Pre-recorded tapes diminished record sales but did not kill them outright. Instead, the medium survived through the proliferation of blanks, first from recording off-air radio and from turntables, then to tape-to-tape dubbing. This form of sharing troubled the music industry but in the end the copies were just that, and no matter how clean the recording was it would always be a generation away, inferior to the source.
At first CDs were a locked-in format and acted more like vinyl than tapes. You dubbed from CDs to blanks so you could hear your songs on the go. This was a much bigger blow to the traditional LP, but it wouldn’t be long before CDs would rival tapes too. Innovation moved in parallel and the home computing invasion would open to a wider audience with much more power in every machine. Large floppy disks became smaller, less-floppy disks, and finally came the CD-Rom. Soon people would want to record data for storage on CD-Rom just as they did with floppies…introducing the CD-R and the “burning” disc drive.
That’s where it all starts to cave in for the music industry. Prior to the home computing boom, the only way to get CD quality sound was to buy the CD and so they experienced a brand-new boom in sales. New albums debuting on the medium competed with classic back-catalog titles and “gotta have” names. But what are CDs if not software packages, and the songs themselves but data files, and if you can move data from your computer to a CD-R, why not do the same with audio data? And the terrifying part (at least to the labels) is that CDs are not copies like cassettes. The audio information is decoded from digits, ones and zeros that are more like a strand of DNA. CD copies weren’t copies — they were clones.
The Internet debuted to the public in 1983 as well but it wasn’t until the 1990s that digital audio trading and posting truly reared its head. Modems were not powerful enough and thus were quite slow. WAV files were prohibitively huge to download. The convergence of powerful cable modems and the advent of the MP3 was a harbinger of things to come, filling that protective void that kept the files from “leaking” out onto the “information superhighway.”
In the early days of the MP3, there were plenty of conversations and arguments about inferior sound, but much of that stems from the sound of those first CDs. With the high treble and low bass, and with the actual volume output on them being pretty dim, all these detriments made the music regularly sound brittle, tinny, and cold. MP3s were just files converted from other files, the source versions being WAVs which is every standard compact disc you own. MP3s were compressed with lower bit rates to make them digitally more manageable for sending and storage, but in its infancy the downsides of the new (warbly, low quality, low bit rate) were further diminished with the downsides of the old (poor source material). For some, however, imperfection was not a problem and there was no better price than free.
Even though the quality of MP3s have improved, enough so that a vast majority of the purchasing public insists upon them over physical product altogether, audio perfectionists still find the format inferior and, perhaps equally, impersonal. CDs supplanted vinyl and cassette. MP3 and Apple’s proprietary AAC (MP4) supplanted the CD, and with the advent of streaming music services the notion of “owning” MP3 is even starting to be viewed as “old school.”
In an odd twist the vinyl LP made a comeback in the mid-2000s for audiophiles and collectors of media. Cassettes are traded among hipsters mostly in piquant irony rather than for any substantive reason. Even the lowly 8-track is revived from time to time for the hell of it. But CDs likely will never hold that same room-quaking moment for listeners the way it did that afternoon “Amanda” came roaring out of showroom speakers. It is hard to imagine a renaissance for this technology moving forward.