Has The Compact Disc Lost Its Shine?

It’s 30 years since Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms began the CD boom. How did the revolution in music formats come about and what killed it?

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The compact disc, 1985-2015?

Thirty years ago this month, Dire Straits released their fifth album, Brothers in Arms. En route to becoming one of the best-selling albums of all time, it revolutionised the music industry. For the first time, an album sold more on compact disc than on vinyl and passed the 1m mark. Three years after the first silver discs had appeared in record shops, Brothers in Arms was the symbolic milestone that marked the true beginning of the CD era.

“Brothers in Arms was the first flag in the ground that made the industry and the wider public aware of the CD’s potential,” says the BPI’s Gennaro Castaldo, who began a long career in retail that year. “It was clear this was a format whose time had come.”

As Greg Milner writes in his book Perfecting Sound Forever, the compact disc became “the fastest-growing home entertainment product in history”. CD sales overtook vinyl in 1988 and cassettes in 1991. The 12cm optical disc became the biggest money-spinner the music industry had ever seen, or will ever be likely to see. “In the mid-90s, retailers and labels felt indestructible,” says Rob Campkin, who worked for HMV between 1988 and 2004. “It felt like this was going to last for ever.”

It didn’t, of course. After more than a decade of decline, worldwide CD income was finally surpassed by digital music revenues last year. With hindsight, it’s clear that technological changes had made that inevitable, but almost nobody had foreseen it, because the CD was just too successful. It was so popular and so profitable that the music industry couldn’t imagine life without it. Until it had to.

In 1974, 28-year-old electronic engineer Kees Schouhamer Immink was assigned to the Optics Group of Philips Research in Eindhoven, Holland. His team’s task was to create a 30cm videodisc called Laservision, but that flopped and the focus shifted to designing a smaller audio-only disc. “There were 101 problems to be solved,” Immink says. Meanwhile, in Japan, Sony engineers were working on a similar project. In 1979, Sony and Philips made an unpredecented agreement to pool resources. For example, Sony engineers perfected the error correction code, CIRC, while Immink himself developed the channel code, EFM, which struck a workable balance between reliability and playing time. “We never had people from other companies in our experimental premises,” Immink says. “It was unheard of. Usually you become foes, but in this case we really became good friends, and we’re still friends after so many years. It was remarkable, actually.”

In June 1980, after complicated negotiations in Tokyo and Eindhoven, the so-called Red Book set standard specifications for the compact disc digital audio format. The story goes that the size (12cm) and length (74 minutes, 33 seconds) were changed at the 11th hour when Sony’s executive vice president Norio Ohga insisted that the disc should have enough space for the longest recorded performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, his wife’s favourite piece of music, but Immink suspects that is a myth. There were so many technical and financial considerations that it’s unlikely such a key decision came down to one woman’s love of Beethoven.

The CD was introduced to the British public in a 1981 episode of the BBC’sTomorrow’s World, in which Kieran Prendeville mauled a test disc of the Bee Gees’ Living Eyes to demonstrate the format’s alleged indestructibility. It caught the public imagination, but Immink found the claim puzzling and embarrassing because it was clearly untrue. “We should not put emphasis on the fact it will last for ever because it will not last for ever,” he says. “We should put emphasis on the quality of sound and ease of handling.” (Paul McCartney recently recalled the first time George Martin showed him a CD. “George said, ‘This will change the world.’ He told us it was indestructible, you can’t smash it. Look! And – whack – it broke in half.”)

The engineers were evangelical about the CD’s superiority to vinyl and cassette, but the industry and public still needed persuading. “I was not convinced we would be a success at the time because I had seen the failure of the videodisc, which was a nice product, technically speaking,” Immink says.

So, in April 1982, representatives of Sony and Philips set off to Billboard’s international music industry conference in Greece with a spring in their step. The record industry was suffering a painful recession (“Is Rock on the Rocks?” asked Newsweek) and this new digital marvel was surely the solution. To the labels, however, it was an invitation to gamble millions of dollars on a potential white elephant: an alien format that was expensive to manufacture and expensive to buy. Jerry Moss, chairman of A&M Records, claimed that the new format would “confuse and confound the customer”. It was a rough conference. “There were many black-disc lovers who didn’t want to change and said: ‘We don’t see why we have to go digital,’” Immink says.

At least Sony and Philips had their own record labels – CBS and Polygram, respectively – so they pressed ahead. CBS released the world’s first commercially available CD, a reissue of Billy Joel’s 52nd Street, in Japan in October 1982. Philips missed the production deadline so the international release was put back to March 1983. It’s hardly surprising that only 5.5m CDs and 350,000 players were sold that year when so few titles were available.

Faced with low manufacturing capacity and high costs, labels trod carefully. Jeff Rougvie, who later worked for the pioneering CD-only label Rykodisc, was in retail at the time. He couldn’t even order individual titles from Sony, only a predetermined box of six: “A couple of classical titles, a couple of rock titles and Thriller. And of course you’d sell Thriller and the other five would sit around. Labels thought it was an audiophile-only product that was going to sell primarily to classical music buyers. They did not see it as a mass-market format.”

1 Comment

  1. What has been killing the Red Book / CD format is the substandard quality of the American CDs. The chase to the lowest possible cost in order to maximise profit means the pressing plants have been supplying pretty high percentage of defective disks. Further nail in the CD coffin has been the fact that many producers and recording labels have been making atrocious CD masters – usually dynamically compressed and with shrill treble. I have CDs of a multiple Grammy winner [Miranda Lambert] and her CDs are so noisy and shrill that they are unlistenable. This was not possible to do in the vinyl times, it was not posssible to make an LP with so compressed sound because the needle would jump out of grooves. The vinyl format forced the sound engineers to make a good master tape regarding the dynamics being natural.
    Ther Japanese have kept their CD manufacture and master tape quality ‘on the level’. They also, now, are moving to upgrade the format. SHM-CDS [with highly transparent material for CD manufacture] combined with platinum or gold plating instead of standard aluminium [for more precise laser beam guidance and reflectivity] are coming on the market. I am buying Japanese pressings and keep avoiding the American ones, as much as possible.

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