Thirty years ago today, Sony unveiled the first commercially available compact disc, Billie Joel's 52nd Street, designed for the Sony CD-101P, the first commercially available CD player. Since then, compact discs have grown from audiophile specialty to world-ruling music format to anachronistic punchline. And in 2011, sales of digital music eclipsed compact discs for the first time ever, even though more than 300 million CDs were sold.
NPR has an in-depth look at the rise and legacy of the CD, while Tech Hive recounts the development of the technology. Both pieces take a sort of goodbye-to-all-that view of the CD, which had 25 or 30 years as the favored format and now is fading into obsolescence. From Tech Hive:
But now superfast networks are here, and storage is plentiful, making the two best aspects of the CD obsolete. Thus, the value of the compact disc has decreased dramatically.
Obviously the era of compact disc's dominance has ended. But we think there are still a lot of good things about CD in 2012, even if industry insiders are claiming the end of the format is near. In fact, earlier this year, we mounted an impassioned defense of music CDs, which sound excellent, last forever, can be ripped to your computer easily, and come very, very cheap in the used shelves at places like Amoeba and Rasputin:
Consider the beauty of the compact disc: A perfect circle of polycarbonate exactly 120 millimeters wide, made just large enough to hold the entirety of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. The CD weighs almost nothing, fits in a coat pocket, lasts longer than you will, and produces a sound of otherworldly crispness and perfection. It's higher quality than any other format before it, and far better than most digital downloads available today.
Compared to the basically indifferent act of clicking on an MP3 or a stream -- which has all the charm of opening a chain e-mail from your annoying aunt in Florida -- putting on music in any physical format is a herculean feat of decisiveness. There's thought in it. And in a world where people are paying to keep themselves off the Internet, physical music is a bulwark against the creep of shrinking attention spans. Once you've put a record on, it's actual work to change it. ("Work" here meaning that it requires more than just another click.)
Besides, we can't let music slip entirely into the digital ether the way that letters, videos, and newspapers seem likely to. Some music is important enough to be made manifest, to have a presence in that rare theater known as Real Life. If modern industrial culture insists on producing bacon-flavored milkshakes, bulging rubber scrota for the back of pickup trucks, and pink Snuggies, it can also find room to release new music in a tangible form.