An essay about the revolution that came with the CD.
| The record had been the recording industry’s one and only medium for over 50 years. Although it received many upgrades that improved sound quality and increased the amount of music per side, the basic record itself didn’t change. In those days, music was considered a form of entertainment that special time was set aside for, like television. It wasn’t flexible enough to be considered as mainstream as it is today. Simply put, the technology of the time kept music from becoming central to society.
This changed with the turn of the decade in the early 80s. The coming of the digital age was expected by many, but the outcome was greater than anyone could have predicted. Although many of the changes didn’t come immediately with the release of the brand new compact disc, what did was a world of possibilities in terms of what music could do, where it could expand, and even how it could be pirated.
With the compact disc came a slew of technical improvements. Possibly the greatest one was the new and improved sound quality. The background static of yesteryear was virtually nonexistent. This leap made the difference between the sounds we hear around us in everyday life and new recordings seem indistinguishable, bringing music closer to reality than ever before.
An additional benefit of the compact disc was the ability to skip tracks. Not only did this new feature prevent people from scratching their albums trying to find the song they were looking for, but it shifted the focus from entire albums to individual songs, increasing the number of single hits significantly. It was an amazing change in both convenience and in the cultural view of music.
In addition to these huge developments were a couple of other small, yet important, features. The thick aluminum layer coated with acrylic on the surface where the data is read makes compact discs more resilient (“How CDs Work”). If a person were to take great care of their collection, their music could possibly last for the course of their lifetime. There are many people who still have compact discs from when they were first released, and they still work perfectly.
One last spec to include would be the increased data per unit. This reduced the costs for many manufacturers because more music could be fit on to a single, smaller unit. It was a godsend for particular artists, too, for they could record a long album without the nuances of breaking apart their work to format it for a record.
Technical modifications aside, the release of compact discs was revolutionary because of what it did to music, not only because of convenience. It immediately became the new standard, which not even DVDs or MP3 managed to accomplish instantly. The reason: it was a complete turning point for industry, creativity, and technology for years to come.
Listeners were the major target for this new impact, and the effect was staggering. This was in part due to the flexible nature of compact discs. CD players were all around more portable (although somewhat bulky at first) than record players. In addition to that, the first portable CD player was released in 1984 and was the size of a regular CD case (“A Great Invention…”). By this time, people could listen to music almost anywhere, anytime they wanted. As these upgrades were gradually made to players, music started to gain a greater role in the mainstream audience. Because of this greater access to music, it became less of a special activity and more a subliminal focus of everyday life.
Track skipping also had an enormous impact on listeners, too. Whereas earlier in the age of records a band would come out with a popular single one at a time, the compact disc gave people the power to listen to any song on an album instantly. Peoples’ interests focused more on single hits more than ever before, rather than the album-long concepts that dominated most of the vinyl age.
While listeners were occupied with their musical revolution, the music industry was skeptical of the new change. While some welcomed the new medium, many record companies viewed this new technology to be a potential threat. They didn’t want to invest so much money into a new medium after they had gone through a great deal to develop standards for LPs. This controversy was short lived, though, for it seemed that compact discs boosted music sales more than ever before.
Compact discs were selling by the millions by the first year they were released. In fact, by 1988, 100 million of them were being manufactured annually, which was the peak at which LPs were made (Sony Global). Record companies were making more money through top-selling artists such as Michael Jackson, Dire Straits, and Madonna. Major record labels were getting richer and started to monopolize the music industry. These record labels are still around today, and remain wealthy and powerful.
While these huge names were financially affected by this technology, the recording artists themselves found themselves being both artistically challenged and empowered. Around the same time the compact disc was released, new musical technology was being developed and released (such as the synthesizer) that expanded the arsenal of sounds that artists could use. This was a perfect time at which to release the compact disc, because it allowed artists to record this newly acquired sound with the quality it was intended for. Also, recording studios using compact disc technology were able to record more tracks than the highest quality LP available, giving artists the ability to add more layers to their work.
The amount of available data per disc also kept artists from having to alter their work. Since the average LP could hold approximately 25 minutes per side, musicians were given borders to how far they could take their music. The death of these limitations had a great effect on artists such as Pink Floyd, who in 1975 had to divide one of their most ambitious songs in half to format it for LP due to its length (“Inside Out”). Now, artists have the privilege of making albums up to 80 minutes long without even having to break between tracks.
But, with every new technology comes a way to pirate it. The compact disc is no exception. In fact, the compact disc’s synchronization with computer data makes pirating more potential than in the days of vinyl. Since the mid-90s people have been finding ways to rip and burn music to blank discs and distribute them. With MP3 technology available now, pirating is even more widespread, due to the fact that it makes it much easier to hold mass amounts of pirated material and load them to any device.
These problems aside, we stumbled upon an amazing development in culture with the release of the compact disc. It is one thing to be able to establish a new standard immediately (as shown by today’s developments, where Blu-Ray technology still hasn’t even taken off yet), but to start a revolution in the process is something worthy of the highest of praise. The effect left by compact discs is still apparent today, and even after 25 years they remain the highest-selling recording medium in the industry.