On Aug. 17, 1982, our relationship with our music changed forever. The compact disc was born.
It’s hard to explain, for those of you who weren’t around then, how big a change this was. You just popped a CD into your player, and it played. That was it. No longer did we have to go through the rituals of cleaning and wiping our vinyl albums to reduce (but rarely eliminate) the hisses and pops. No longer did we have to wince as our 8-tracks clunked to the next track. No longer did we have to fast-forward our cassettes when they started making that straining, whining sound. Music appreciation was not for the faint-hearted.
CDs changed the way we stored our music, too. Records had to be kept in the sleeves, upright, away from damp areas, or we’d find we had a wonderful collection of big taco shells. 8-tracks never stacked well and quickly filled up your car’s passenger side floor, and eventually they’d wear out and play the same four songs over and over and over, driving your mom insane when you left one running all night. We all became amateur splicers and learned how to get spilled Coke of our cassettes, and I remember the panic when the sound would suddenly stop and I’d have to scramble to pop it out before the tape erupted like the stereo was throwing up.
For the most part CDs just… worked.
True, we did have to give up the big album art, and for a while CDs came packaged in this odd double-size box to address this loss (and so they’d fit into the existing record bins), but we managed. After I finally saved up enough to buy a player I jumped into CD collecting with both feet. I don’t remember the first one I ever bought, but knowing me it was most likely something from Weird Al.
But that still wasn’t the biggest and longest-lasting change that came with CDs, which was this: We learned that the recording industry could not be trusted.
Sure, we all know that now, but then we had a childlike naivete about these things. They were in it for the music, man, just like we were! They’re just bringing us the very best music reproduction possible, how cool is that? Sure, they cost more than records did — by that point LPs had risen to over $7 each, unheard of and already causing grumbling when CDs suddenly debuted at $12 a pop – but we were assured that was only because CDs were brand new and R&D costs had to be recouped. Prices would surely drop, they told us. Records cost $2.50 each to make, after all, but CDs cost maybe a buck. Go ahead and buy that new CD player, kids, and just wait for music to become cheap and plentiful.
Funny thing, though. R&D must have cost them more than three space shuttles, because 25 years later the price still hasn’t dropped. Fancy that. It couldn’t be because the industry didn’t want to give up the profit share they’d become accustomed to, that would be… well, just what we expect from them now, actually. We learned what all the musicians, agents and DJs already knew: They’re in it for the buck. A hard lesson for '60s and '70s musicphiles.
But that’s fine, because the disc is always turning. Lately the music industry has been learning a hard lesson of its own. Along with the smaller size, hardier construction and better sound, by putting music in a digital format CDs also made music portable in a way it had never been before. We could loan records or we could make mix tapes, but each one required some attention and labor. Once you rip a CD into MP3s, spreading the music around is easy, almost inevitable. CDs these days are more like backup storage for the music that we immediately copy to our iPods, our computers and our friends. Finally music is as cheap and plentiful as we were promised all along, if not quite the way they intended, and CD sales are dropping as people buy (or otherwise acquire) the music through downloads.
Don’t worry, recording industry. Of course it won’t last. I’m sure that any day now we’ll all spontaneously go back to paying top dollar for music that can only be played under your strictly defined conditions. Rest assured, people are only taking your music right now without paying to… um…. to cover their R&D costs. Yeah, that’s it.
Happy birthday CD, and thanks. You don’t even know what you started.