35th Anniversary of the Compact Disc


The origins of the CD and its related technology are varied and often disputed. For a more complete look at the issue, I recommend this article on Low End Mac, but general consensus is that today marks the 35th anniversary of the product as we know it today.

The “First” CD

Various recordings hold claim on the title of “first CD”, depending on your criteria. In 1979, the first test pressing was a recording of Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie. The first public demonstration was a presentation of The Bee Gees’ Lying Eyes, on the BBC TV show Tomorrow’s World, in 1981. It was 1982 that saw the really big steps. The first commercial CD produced was a collection of Chopin waltzes performed by Claudio Arrau. The first popular music CD was ABBA’s The Visitor. And then, on October 1, the first CD player was introduced to the market, along with the first 50 titles, lead by Billy Joel’s 52 Street. There were a full 100 titles available by the end of that year. The first CD player was Sony’s CDP-101, priced at $900 (about $2300 in today’s economy).

The New Standard

It’s hard to say objectively when the format was accepted as a new standard, but one important milestone was in Februrary of 1985. That’s when RCA Records converted David Bowie’s 15-album catalogue to the new format. 1985 was also the year that CD-ROM technology hit the market. 5 years later, CD-RW (called CD-Rerecordable at the time) attempted to replace the blank tape and the floppy disc. The first CD to sell a million copies was Dire Straits’ 1985 classic Brothers in Arms. That doesn’t surprise me at all, I remember seeing it in every collection I got to browse, especially among DJs.

The format was certainly challenged, though. Both the Mini-Disc and the Digital Compact Cassette attempted to get in on the racket. Both have since been relegated to niche markets (some of you probably know someone who still has a Mini-Disc player). The format revolutionized methods for hiding bonus material on albums. It also allowed a mischievous programmer to hide the original South Park short “The Spirit of Christmas” on the PlayStation game disc Tiger Woods 99 PGA Tour Golf (you could only play it by putting the disc in your computer’s CD drive).

And while digital downloading and streaming has, in part, prompted a major decline in the sale of physical media, it’s not dead yet. According to Wikipedia:

By 2015, only 24% of music in the United States was purchased on physical media, two-thirds of this consisting of CDs; however, in the same year in Japan, over 80% of music was bought on CDs and other physical formats. Despite the rapidly declining sales year-over-year, the pervasiveness of the technology remains: Companies are placing CDs in pharmacies, supermarkets, and filling station convenience stores targeting buyers least able to utilize Internet-based distribution.

So happy 35th anniversary to the Compact Disc, whose future is just as complex and uncertain as its origin story.

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