Happy 40th birthday, compact disc!
After more than a decade of work, building on an idea first put forward in 1931 for a device known as an “optophone”, Sony of Japan and Philips of the Netherlands, finally arrived at a new music storage and format they called “compact disc”. .”
On August 17, 1982, the first CD for the store was produced at the Philips factory in Germany. It was one of only two such facilities on the planet, the other being in Japan and run by co-developer Sony. History records that this first commercially available CD was Visitors, which had been published by ABBA a year earlier. Other records may have been produced on the same day, but this was the first released in the line.
Alan Cross says he could rekindle his old love affair with compact discs
Okay, if we’re going to get pedantic about things, the very first CD was a test pressing of Richard Strauss Eine Alpensinfonie with recordings by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in December 1980, but it was used in the laboratory and for demonstrations.
The first commercially produced CD was a 1979 recording of Chopin’s Waltzes by Claudio Arrau which was released in very limited numbers on August 17, 1982, just as the ABBA disc was being made. And a CD version of the Bee Gees living eyes was shown on the BBC Show The world of tomorrow in 1981. Note all the different prototype CD players in this clip, which appears to have been the first public demonstration of the technology.
More versions followed – 50 in total – all of which arrived in Japan on October 1, 1982, the same day Sony began selling the CDP-101, the very first consumer CD player, which sold for around US$750, the equivalent of nearly $3,000 Canadian today. The discs themselves started at US$15 (nearly C$60 today) and went beyond US$20 (C$78 in today’s money).
Some of these OG releases were 52nd street by Billy Joel, Pink Floyd’s wish you were Here, Turn around and IV by Toto, Journey’s Escapeand On the wall by Michael Jackson with a ton of classic recordingsall carefully selected for audiophiles that Sony and Philips are expected to be early adopters of the new technology.
North America and Europe got their first CD players on March 14, 1983, with CBS leading with 16 titles.
Tech-minded music fans were immediately enthralled by these things, amazed at the great digital sound compared to the crap audio offered by vinyl of the day, most of which featured thin chloride pressings recycled polyvinyl, which caused all kinds of nasty distortion and noise. “Perfect sounds forever” we were told. This is from the New York Times.
“The digital compact disc and player, which debuts in retail stores this month, is being compared in the music industry to the advent of stereophonic sound or long-play recording,” said writes the Times. “Nevertheless, the CD’s effect on record manufacturers, audio equipment makers and – most importantly – the music-loving consumer is likely to be more gradual than the previous two revolutions have been, analysts say.”
“The leap in technology is indeed radical,” the NY Times continued. “Compact discs are 4 3/4 inches in diameter as opposed to conventional 12-inch long-playing discs, and are about the same thickness. CDs are made primarily of clear plastic and aluminum. They play on one side, but give up to 60 minutes of playing time.”
The compact disc would bring waves of prosperity to both the recording industry and to the artists and people scrambling to replace their vinyl, cassette and 8-track records with CDs. Record stores, however, weren’t so happy – at least at first. The entire industry was suffering from a brutal recession and a bad hangover from the disco years, both of which contributed to declining year-over-year sales for the first time since the Great Depression.
Record store owners were not keen on spending money on display shelves for another format, especially during tough times. Only 75 stores across the United States first disturbed the stock of things.
One solution was the long box, a kind of unnecessary packaging that allowed two CDs to be stacked side by side in an existing 12-inch rack designed for vinyl records. Half of the package contained the CD while the other was just empty space. Retailers also believed it would also reduce shoplifting. (There was a time when cassette tapes had their own version of the long box for this very reason.)
The long box got worse too. Some CDs were fused into long clear hard plastic boxes that required industrial shears to open. I almost lost several fingers during the day trying to make a new purchase. Fortunately, the environmental recklessness of this situation has been rejected by music lovers, Canadians in the lead. We were the first nation to eliminate them.
Consumer adoption has been somewhat slower than expected by the industry (one million players between 1983 and 1984 with 22.5 million CDs), largely due to the high costs of players and discs as well than a less than stellar selection of albums. Things started to look up in 1984 when Sony converted a record factory in Terre Haute, Indiana to CD manufacturing. The first disc of this line? Born in USA by Bruce Springsteen.
Then came Dire Straits Brothers in arms in 1985, a perfectly crafted and recorded album that stereo stores began using as a demo disc for customers (and still use today, in fact). This album sounded so good on CD that people started shelling out for players.
But arguably the most significant development came on February 26, 1987, when four Beatles albums were made available on compact disc for the first time. When these records finally started appearing on CD – Please do me a favor, with the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, and Beatles for sale — many saw it as the Beatles blessing new technology and then dove into it.
People have gone crazy. Cassette sales, which had exploded with the arrival of the Sony Walkman in 1979, slumped, particularly after automakers and aftermarket stereo companies began offering CD players. The 1984 Mercedes S-Class was the first car to feature an in-dash reader. Vinyl lasted a little longer, but by the late 1990s it had been reduced to a niche market, kept alive by a dwindling number of old school music fans and turntable-minded DJs.
CDs, on the other hand, made money flow like water in the music industry – at least until the arrival of the internet, MP3s and file sharing. And then, well…
But all is not lost. If you look at the chart above, you’ll see there’s been a slight uptick in sales in 2021 in America, something we’ve also seen in Canada and the UK After being out of fashion for so long, the CD is enjoying a modest revival, probably because vinyl has become ridiculously expensive.
Forty years is a long time for a technology to survive. The CD has done its job for decades and still has some life left in it. Happy 40th.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.