The CD Turns 25 A Medium Designed to Replace the Record Helped Unsettle the Recording Industry August 27, 2007Twenty-five years ago this month, copies of the compact disc "The Visitors" rolled off a German production line. The album, the last studio effort by the Swedish pop group ABBA, was the first commercial pressing of a CD. Philips and Sony imagined the CD as a replacement for the LP record, which it certainly became. They couldn't guess what else would happen to it. They didn't predict that it would also become a medium for storing data. They didn't know its first quarter-century would neatly symbolize the life cycle of many a modern technological innovation. And they almost certainly didn't expect the CD would eventually contribute to the demise of the entertainment format it was meant to dominate. (The BBC has a good overview1 of the CD's history and an interesting sidebar2 on its development.) The CD hit every checkpoint on the typical technological path. Apprenticeship as a largely theoretical product? Check -- Philips began work on the CD's forerunner in 1970, and held a press conference touting the CD's superiority in 1979, three years before that ABBA CD. Standards fight? Check -- while Philips and Sony wound up working together, and are often held up as an example of corporate collaboration, the back and forth over formats and the technological fine print wasn't always friendly, and the delays left audio geeks grumbling. Early-adopter cred? Check -- veterans of the CD era may remember how amazing it was to crank a CD up before a song started and hear nothing. Pain for those early adopters? Check -- sometimes you didn't hear nothing, because lots of analog albums were basically shoveled onto CDs without being properly remastered. Stubborn insistence from the rearguard that the old ways were better? Check -- vinyl lovers continue to carry the analog banner against the digital hordes. All sorts of unintended uses? Evolution in ways no one could have expected? Shoved aside by something new? Check, check and check. I remember how CDs gradually made their way into record stores, first appearing as curiosities and then displacing more and more of the vinyl stock. I remember first seeing one in the wild in 1985, in the dorm room of a high-school classmate. Everything about it seemed impossibly modern, from the expensive CD player (which, we kept marveling, actually had a laser inside it) to the shiny discs themselves to the almost-unnerving clarity of the sound. I had hundreds of records by then, in condition ranging from good to trashed, and I felt like a cargo cultist confronted with such wonders. I didn't make the leap to CDs until 1987, when I got a player for Christmas and bought a couple of "Nice Price" CDs, with their indifferent remastering and lousy packaging. Then it was just a small matter of replacing my vinyl collection over several years marked by countless trips to used CD stores. The CD's success wasn't due just to superior audio quality. In the beginning, it was also a status symbol -- undeniably futuristic with its mirror finish and prismatic lines and whorls emerging from peek-a-boo depths. It came with its own geek lore, from the idea that outlining the circumference with a green marker would enhance the sound to the tale that it held 74 minutes of music so Beethoven's Ninth Symphony would fit on a single disc. (Wikipedia covers this in depth5 -- the story seems to be true, but as a strategic gambit in a tug-of-war between Sony and Philips.) And eventually we discovered that CDs had drawbacks -- album art, photos and lyrics were much less satisfying when squished into a smaller format, the hinges on CD cases broke if you so much as looked at them funny, and CDs actually took up more space on shelves than LPs. But they ruled the world for all that. From that position of dominance, the CD morphed into a medium for storing data as well, replacing the 3.5" disk. In the mid-1990s CDs still had enough cachet that I was amazed by the idea of junk CDs, but America Online soon cured me and anybody else of that notion -- in the late 1990s it was routine to find AOL CDs littering my neighborhood's street corners, where they'd Frisbee'd away from the trash cans they'd been pitched at. And today? CDs have gone from Jetsons to jetsam. They're an annoyance the leftovers from ripped albums and burns made for trips in rental cars. (And often left behind -- when I rent a Zipcar, seems like I find a forgotten CD mix about a third of the time.) Most of my audio CDs have been consigned to boxes to guard against a cataclysmic hard-drive failure (and because I can't legally sell them and keep the digital files). A few weeks ago I threw out dozens of CDs -- old, unlabeled song mixes supplanted by iTunes playlists, obsolete versions of Windows, and generations of software that came with long-gone PCs. (Speaking of obsolete, boxes of dusty 3.5" disks and random Zip disks also got the heave-ho.) This isn't to scorn the CD -- it really was a technological miracle, one that helped make lasers a consumer technology. As a data-storage medium -- an adaptation of its original purpose -- it's no surprise that it's been supplanted by exponential gains in hard-disk capacity, increased bandwidth and the rise of remote storage. But it's the CD's role as an entertainment medium that's most interesting to me. According to Nielsen, U.S. CD sales fell to 553 million last year from their peak of 712 million in 2001. Debating why music sales have cratered is like debating why the Soviet Union collapsed -- the industry puts the blame on piracy, while others point to a shakeout in music retailers, decry major labels' pushing one-hit wonders at the expense of developing bands for the long haul, or argue that the Net, videogames and other activities have displaced time once spent listening to music. The factor I think doesn't get enough attention is consumers' longstanding disenchantment with the rock album. As discussed here6, once the digital age allowed music buyers to reject the album they did so in droves, whether by downloading single songs from iTunes or stealing single songs from peer-to-peer networks. And the CD presaged what would happen. Before the CD, most rock albums had similar fingerprints: You got 40-odd minutes of music spread over 10 to 12 songs. The CD's longer length exploded that. As the CD became established, albums got longer -- and, I'd argue, weaker. On CD, albums' running times were padded by additional material that once would have been left aside or released as the B-sides of singles. While music geeks like me welcomed the additional material, it made albums too long for single sittings. Listeners were inclined to pick and choose among the tracks, an easy process with CDs. Skipping a track no longer meant lifting a needle or fast-forwarding through tape -- you just pushed a button. And CD players let you shuffle tracks, or program CDs to rearrange the order or skip songs. Jukebox software lets you do all that much more easily today, but we first started experimenting with it in the CD era. In the 1990s, the music industry saw the CD as its salvation, with sales buoyed by consumers replacing records and tapes with the shiny new discs. And it probably was. But even as the CD was propping the record labels up, it was also laying the groundwork for a transition that may prove their undoing.