The following op/ed comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured inset), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. UK-based Forde’s new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press.
A major music industry anniversary happened three months ago but it passed by without a huge celebration. It happened with barely any acknowledgement at all.
Something that helped power the global record business to its absolute zenith was, as it hit a significant milestone, met with indifference at best and disdain at worst.
The commercial debut of the compact disc was not publicly applauded as it turned 40. There was no ticker tape parade.
It was not the subject of a thousand TV and magazine retrospectives. Something that was so powerfully remarkable in its time was barely remarked upon.
The CD in 2023 feels like something – akin to an ill-advised haircut or early MySpace posts – that the music business is now acutely embarrassed by. That was then, the industry says as its cheeks glow with something that might be shame, and this is now, frantically pointing at streaming and the renaissance of vinyl as its truest and deepest loves.
Nothing in music is permanent. So if it is to die, the CD at least deserves to leave with some of its dignity intact rather than being coldly sent off with a shrug.
The CD was of enormous significance but its place in history is being lost.
The first CDs were released just over 40 years ago in Japan (October 1, 1982, to be precise). Billy Joel’s 52nd Street (originally released in 1978) is commonly cited as the first album to be released on CD that day, but it was actually just one of 50 titles issued on this new format.
The format itself can trace its origins back to 1976 and a joint initiative between Philips and Sony. It got its public unveiling at the dreary sounding Philips Introduce Compact Disc press event in the Netherlands in 1979.
It was in development for a long period of time and it took just as long to truly grab the public’s imagination. It was not until the early 1990s that it overtook the cassette to become the dominant format for music sales. Thereafter, it was the rocket powering the global business all through that excessive decade to deliver previously unimaginable profits.
It might now, subconsciously, be regarded as a Judas goat, a quisling format that caused all that digital pain and turmoil at the turn of the millennium.
Short version: the CD put perfect digital recordings in the hands of consumers for the first time. The implications of that move were not apparent until much later with the crashing together of the development of the MP3, the rise of CD ripping and the early uptake of the internet. This brought the record business to an event horizon in 1999 with Napster and thereafter all hell broke loose.
Even though the industry got bloated beyond belief on the profits of CDs in the 1990s, it indirectly helped pull the business inside out like a glove puppet. It seems that this betrayal, even though it was all the industry’s own fault, will not be forgiven.
“The CD put perfect digital recordings in the hands of consumers for the first time. The implications of that move were not apparent until much later with the crashing together of the development of the MP3, the rise of CD ripping and the early uptake of the internet.”
In 2022, the CD was barely mentioned. If it was, it often felt begrudging. There was also a tang of the tawdry about it.
Perhaps the “biggest” CD story in this anniversary year came from a performer who had their first hit in 1958, the year the LP turned 10 (that’s how long ago it was).
In a move to try and re-prioritise CDs in supermarkets, Cliff Richard released his new Christmas album in a “magazine format”. Christmas With Cliff comes stuffed inside a 20-page magazine. Symbolically, the disc itself is hidden away, like the inverse of a covermount. It is almost as if people are contrite about it.
Cliff’s album was all really a marketing wheeze and part of a wider push to get the album to number 1 on release week, but it was not enough to see off Stormzy. It tried its best, though.
The CD is the poor relation now. It is the budget option to buy when wanting to see an act do an in-store show (as the vinyl will cost you £30+) when they are seeking to boost their release-week chart position. It has been made to feel disposable, a third-rate product, a former contender. “Come and see us play a small venue for £12,” say the acts doing this. “Oh, and here’s a circular gewgaw or whatever.”
It is still used occasionally. Mojo magazine still does a covermount CD (taking it off Q was seen as hastening its demise), but you get the impression they would prefer to have an LP covermount. In mono, obviously.
“The CD is being allowed – encouraged, even – to atrophy. There is no hipsterised rebirth being planned for it like with the cassette.”
The CD is being allowed – encouraged, even – to atrophy. There is no hipsterised rebirth being planned for it like with the cassette. A “do not resuscitate” note has been hung off the end of its gurney.
There is a bleak sense of symmetry to its entry into the business and its exit from the business. In 1983, for example, record labels were not exactly falling over themselves to bring this format to the masses. CDs were incredibly expensive to buy (as was the hardware to play them on) and only a handful of titles were available to buy anyway.
EMI’s antipathy towards the CD at the time, as seen in this BBC news report from 1983, was hardly anomalous at the time. They sat it out until they were sure it was worth it. It was not until 1988 that the jewel in EMI’s catalogue crown was even put forward for the CD reissue treatment.
Labels who were hesitant to embrace the CD at the start almost feel ashamed about its persistence now. That bit in between (the glory days of the CD when it was a money-generating machine on an unprecedented level) is strategically skipped over now.
Yes, we just have to come to terms with its decline. But the CD, if it is to die, deserves a more stately send off than it is currently getting.
This format made you as a fan. It built the business you operate in today (for good and for ill). You would not be doing what you do today without it. The least you can do is give it a decent eulogy so that it can roll off into the sunset with at least some dignity. Music Business Worldwide