38 years ago, CDs rewrote our relationship with music and primed us for 2020

Chris DeGraw/Digital Trends

The year was 1982. The U.S. was at the tail end of a bruising recession that had lasted for several years. Ronald Reagan was the president. First Blood and Halloween III: Season of the Witch were newly arrived in theaters. Dallas was America’s favorite TV show. The DeLorean Motor Company ceased production after its founder was arrested for selling cocaine to undercover FBI offices. And, in Japan, a new gadget from Sony called the CDP-101 — the world’s first commercially available CD player — went on sale for 168,000 yen, the equivalent of $1,966 in 2020 terms. The compact disc had arrived.

Shortly thereafter, CDs were the big new thing. They were smaller than records. They promised to be nigh-on indestructible, offer “perfect sound forever,” and, heck, usher us into the future with reflective, music-playing discs that ran using lasers. Short of selling them with in-built shoulder pads, what more ’80s concept could you have?

In short, CDs were the shape of things to come. Until, of course, they weren’t. Approaching 40 years since the CD made its debut (38 years is, admittedly, a funny anniversary to celebrate, but CDs turn out to have been a slightly funny format), the strange thing about CDs is how they have largely faded from our nostalgic consciousness.

“They’re a transitional state, signaling the collapse of one era and the rise, but not yet apex, of the other.”

In 2018, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) said CD sales were declining three times as fast as vinyl sales were growing. In the first half of 2020, vinyl outsold CDs for the first time since the 1980s.

Today there is plenty of nostalgia for vinyl, despite the fact that, in many ways, it has never gone away. Cassette tapes have no shortage of fans either, along with a grungy cool factor like vinyl’s worse sounding, but still popular buddy. Jump forward a few decades and the movies Guardians of the Galaxy and Baby Driver have ignited nostalgia for the iPod, Gen Z’s childhood preferred method of storing music. But CDs? The medium which promised perfect sound in our homes, our cars, and — by way of a Discman — our pockets? Not quite so much love there, it seems.

“With the CD, the calculus was about utility,” Eric Rothenbuhler, Dean at the School of Communications, Webster University, told Digital Trends. “You don’t love that; you don’t miss it when it’s gone. If something else is more useful, or cheaper, or more convenient, you switch to it.”

Rothenbuhler is a child of the vinyl era of LPs. Personally, I grew up with the CD. While my parents had a record player and long car journeys were accompanied by the hiss of audio cassettes and pre-digital radio, and my later teen years saw the arrival of MiniDisc players, Napster, and the iPod; CDs were the omnipresent medium. The first album I ever owned (1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves soundtrack) was a CD. Today, I still have hundreds of them, piled up at the back of a cupboard: A time capsule of my music tastes from, perhaps, 10 to 25 years old.

A bridge from analog to digital

Rothenbuhler isn’t wrong, though. There’s something transactional about CDs. I don’t feel the same nostalgic twinge I do, for, say big-box video cassettes or N64 cartridges you had to blow into every now and then to get them working. But there’s a very important reason they were so important to the direction of recorded music.

CD R Discs

I believe that there’s a good reason for the lack of love shown to CDs. CDs, far from irrelevant, fit neither wholly into the world of analog media nor digital media. They’re a transitional state, signaling the collapse of one era and the rise, but not yet apex, of the other.

“CD is this odd mixture of both analog and digital,” Rothenbuhler said. “It has a physical body, but not a particularly attractive one. Yet its communication ability is digital. When it gets scratched, you don’t hear the scratch like you do with vinyl. You might know where all the scratches come on your [vinyl] album, whereas if it’s a CD, it just quits working.”

Technically, of course, CDs are digital. Their content — whether songs or whatever else — are laid down burning data in the form of ones and zeroes onto the CD’s shiny underside using a sharply focused laser, then utilizing a laser to read these tiny pits and turn them back into machine-readable information.

“The ability to ‘rip’ music from CDs helped create Napster, which begat iTunes, which begat streaming subscription services.”

But in their physicality, as actual discs that spin in an actual CD player, they are part of the physical, analog world, albeit not in the most appealing of ways. As Rothenbuhler points out, the scratches on a vinyl LP have a warmth and character to them; the pops add texture to the audioscape in a way that not a single person on the planet would argue about CDs skipping.

Even the design of a jewel CD case appeared to be part of this transition from analog to digital. At 5.59 by 4.92 inches, a CD case was significantly smaller than the more luxuriant 12.3 inches squared of a vinyl LP. It was as if the importance of the album’s physical presence was literally diminishing, getting smaller and smaller until, blip, music became entirely virtual.

This digitalness of CDs changed the way we listened to music, and not just in the airbrushed, slickly produced way that so many CDs wound up sounding. A vinyl LP album encouraged a reverential listening to an album start to finish. While you could skip songs (and it’s no coincidence that hip-hop’s famous scratching and sampling was born on vinyl), it was nowhere near as user-friendly as pressing the “previous” or “next” button on a CD player. As strange as it might sound today, I have vivid memories of the audacity of the “randomize” button, decreeing that no longer would the albums I had listened to dozens of times have the same prescribed order their creators had intended. The CD began the transition of breaking the album down into a series of tracks. It taught us that the modern unit of music is not the album, but the single track.

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Before iTunes and Spotify came along to expedite this process, CDs did this not just with the randomize and skip buttons but, more importantly, through CD burning. CD burners, which grew in popularity through the late ‘90s and early 2000s, meant that anyone could create their own custom CD playlists, prefiguring one of the big selling points of Spotify and others years later. (In fact, the ability to “rip” music from CDs helped create Napster, which begat iTunes, which begat streaming subscription services.) By encouraging us to listen to songs on our computers, aided by the short boom in multimedia extras for albums and singles, CDs helped prep us for a world in which music became virtual.

The end of physical collections

Nostalgia is, by its very nature, melancholic. The word comes from the Greek “nóstos” meaning “homecoming”, and “álgos” meaning “pain.” It was coined in the 17th century to describe a very specific set of melancholic symptoms exhibited by Swiss soldiers who were fighting away from their homes, before usage shifted to its current, fonder connotation. If there’s an irony to the CD revolution it’s the fact that, by shuttling us into a digital realm of computerized ones and zeros, it represented the last gasp of the physical collection.

Today, music is rented. A subscriber to, say, Apple Music has access to 50 million songs — equivalent to a stack of CDs almost 30 miles high — but they don’t actually own any of it. Cancel your subscription one month and the music is no longer yours, if it ever was. This also means that artists and labels are free to continue remixing and fiddling endlessly. If Kanye West decides to continue tweaking his 2016 album Life of Pablo forever, making it what his label Def Jam calls a “living, evolving art project,” he is able to do so. Nothing is fixed.

Fitbit Versa 2 spotify
Joel Chokkattu/Digital Trends

CD jewel cases may have held up terribly in the long run (cloudy, cracked plastic has nothing like the same well-loved aesthetic as old LPs), but it was music that you owned and could play without a monthly fee and a data connection.

“I miss really valuing each piece of music I got to own,” Caro Beresford-Wood, a user experience designer, told Digital Trends. “I miss being so excited about a particular artist, that I’d save some money and head to the store to buy their CD, and popping it into my CD player as soon as possible. The anticipation of getting to listen to music was so fun back then. Now, I like having CDs because it’s fun to hold onto them, to have them spark conversation, and to play them in my car with friends who want to reminisce with me.”

There are, of course, other physical ways to hold onto your music. But CDs being the tail end of this particular era gives them a poignancy. “I believe there will be nostalgia for the idea of the collection,” Rothenbuhler said. “I have a collector’s personality: My books, my records, my guitars. I even hold on to pairs of jeans I can’t wear anymore, but I loved. Our domestic life is built around our things. We painted on the walls of caves, but I’m sure we also collected favorite sticks and stones, you know. CDs are part of that.”

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