Compact disc

How long before CD Rot destroys all of Kanye West’s compact discs? Not very


Kanye West is done with CDs: coming out Pablo’s life only via a tidal flow and referring to its blank album wrap for 2013 Yeezus As an “open coffin for CDs,” West pledged allegiance to the digital future and called on consumers to consider the misconception of physical copies. He was making good points. The CD, once considered an immortal and efficient way to store music and files, has proven to be neither. Not only is cloud storage more convenient and environmentally friendly, compact discs don’t last. A phenomenon called CD rot makes discs unreadable over time.

When it debuted in the music industry in the 1980s, the CD was a revolution in durability, a godsend for a generation high on warped tapes and scratch-prone vinyls. When College dropout debuted, we thought this drive would last forever. This will not be the case. A CD consists of a layer of aluminum, coated on one side with lacquer – which is why one side is always brighter than the other – sandwiched between two circular layers of a brittle plastic called polycarbonate. When this reflective metallic layer tarnishes or corrodes due to moisture or UV light, its chemical composition is physically altered, making music data unreadable.

In some cases, you can see the rot. Hold the CD up to the light and you will probably notice tiny pinholes in the metal layer or what looks like a coffee spill on the surface of the disc. The music on this dope mix isn’t long for this world.

Your college CD mixes will, for better or for worse, not be here forever.

While CD rot is inevitable, some discs are more resilient than others as industry standards for making CDs varied widely in the early years. A defective batch of CDs, produced in Britain between 1988 and 1993 and printed with music from labels like Decca and London Records, is known to be particularly vulnerable to a variant of rot known as ‘tan’. The silver coating of CDs fades to a dark, unplayable brown.

But the most important predictor of CD lifespan is the quality of their processing: jewelry cases help; the cold helps; shade helps; wiping helps. Yet the inevitable is inevitable. Even the Library of Congress, with its air-conditioned archives, struggled to preserve CDs. The most optimistic estimates, like that of the Optical Storage Technology Association, predict that compact discs can survive for 50 to 200 years, if we are extremely careful.

Two centuries is not “eternity” we were promised, but it is probably longer than we need. After all, only 30 years after CDs changed the way we listen to music, the technology we need to play them is being phased out of cars and laptops in favor of digital audio players. In 2014, digital music sales exceeded physical sales revenue for the first time in music history. Kanye may owe his career to CD, but he’s – perhaps wisely – trusted for his longevity in the cloud.