The rise of the compact disc
The first album to sell one million copies on compact disc alone was Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms, a fact that does nothing to boost this writer’s faith in the collective good taste of humankind. Brothers In Arms knocked Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required off No.1 to become best-selling album on the Australian charts during 1985, and was beaten in 1986 only by Whitney Houston.
The first album to be manufactured on compact disc by the Phillips-owned PolyGram pressing factory was ABBA’s The Visitors, in 1981, and the first album commercially released on compact disc came the following year, with Billy Joel’s 52nd Street. This roll call of pop’s biggest stars indicates just how advantageous the compact disc (CD) format was to major artists, and to the record labels that owned their work. Like no other format before or since, the CD became a financial bonanza for major labels – labels that, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, increasingly became subsidiaries of enormous multinational corporations.
Credit for the development of compact disc technology is generally given to the consumer electronics companies Philips and Sony, who joined forces in 1979 in order to speed up the research and development of a digital audio disc, which both companies had been working on independently. In his book Appetite For Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age, writer Steve Knopper points further back – all the way to 1965, and the height of the vinyl era – in locating the origin of CD technology. American physicist and inventor James T. Russell, who worked for Battelle Laboratories, worked throughout that year in building a prototype “mechanical-optical structure” that used binary-encoded glass plates, read by an optical laser, to play recorded sound. Patents filed in 1966 by Russell would be used, decades later, in court cases brought against Philips and Sony for royalty payments owed. Both companies agreed to pay US $10 million, but the money didn’t go to Russell. It went to the Optical Recording Corporation, who had bought the inventor’s patents in 1985 – the same year that Dire Straits became the first recording act to sell one million CDs worldwide.
The specifications of CD technology make for dull reading, but it’s worth knowing the basics. A CD is a polycarbonate plastic disc, with a thin reflective layer of either aluminium or gold applied to it. Binary data (the zeroes and ones that form the basis of digital files) is encoded as a series of microscopic ‘pits’, read by a laser and converted to audible sound. Sony launched the first commercially available CD player in Japan during 1982, and the CD format was aggressively marketed as a solution to the characteristic ‘crackle’ of vinyl, caused by the accumulation of dust in the record’s grooves. Thirty years on, we know that CDs are just as susceptible to scratches and damage as vinyl – not to mention ‘disc rot’, bronzing and other defects that render them unplayable – but upon first appearance, many people believed the CD represented an infinitely stable format that would perfectly reproduce recorded sound. Classical music was – and still is – a huge sector of the CD market, with audiophile listeners taken by the crisp, crackle-free playback of their favourite symphonies.
CDs and their associated technology – pressing plants for manufacture, digital tape recorders and mixing desks for use in the studio – were expensive, which is why the technology benefited large companies. Philips and Sony both owned major record labels in the early 1980s (PolyGram and CBS, respectively), which in turn incorporated dozens of smaller ‘imprints’, or subsidiary labels. Both companies also had enough money to build and operate CD pressing plants. A company able to manufacture CDs with music recorded on one of its own labels, and with the enormous marketing budget to promote that music via press, MTV and radio, stood to make a lot of money.
Because CDs were more expensive to produce than vinyl records, they were also more expensive for listeners to buy. A key factor in the resistance of major labels to the rise of MP3 and web-based music distribution in the late 1990s and 2000s was the dramatic – and rather literal – reversal of fortunes from the hugely profitable 1980s. As Knopper points out in his book, labels used the advent of the CD to restructure the contracts they signed with musicians, deducting as much as 25% of royalty payments earned in order to cover the cost of packaging and manufacture. Musicians were paying for their label’s overheads, while fans were paying steadily increasing prices for CDs – buying new music, but just as often replacing their vinyl collection with CD reissues.
While vinyl never disappeared entirely as a format – and has in fact undergone a noticeable revival this decade – during the 1980s it increasingly became the preserve of second-hand collectors, DJs, and independent bands. The ‘DIY’ aura of a self-pressed record, or the outré finds of a dedicated crate-digger, did nothing to dent CD sales which made the US record industry $103.3 million in 1984 alone, just two years after the format became commercially available. As record stores dispensed with their vinyl ‘bins’ – large racks in which to display 12” vinyl records – the main alternative format to CD in the 1980s remained the cassette, which, being significantly cheaper than CD, was especially popular with teenagers. The Sony Walkman, a portable cassette player available in Japan from 1979 and in the US from 1980, was the listening device du jour for surly adolescents, bored commuters and perspiring joggers alike. Though Sony portable CD players were released as early as 1984, they did not achieve global popularity until the early 1990s. For Sony, the money rolled in any which way: from their record labels, and from the company’s market dominance in the manufacture of CDs, CD players, and Walkmans.
One format that the CD did away with almost entirely – except in the genres of punk, reggae and indie rock – was the 7” single. CD singles were certainly pressed and sold, but unlike their vinyl counterpart they never represented value-for-money. Individual songs were increasingly promoted by video, especially on dedicated music television channels like MTV, and the onus was on fans to buy the accompanying album. Gone were the days of stand-alone singles (unless the song in question was a real one-hit wonder) and a carefully chosen B-side. The very idea of the B-side as a repository of an artist’s interesting failures or non-album gems gave way to cheaply produced remixes, essentially aural padding for CD singles. Only in dance music and hip-hop, where producers knew their craft and catered to vinyl-loving audiences, was the single remix – generally on 12” format – taken seriously.
A CD’s capacity for 74 minutes of data (later stretched to 80), as opposed to an average of 40 minutes (20 each side) for vinyl, encouraged artists to record longer and longer albums – or alternatively, for labels to stuff CD album releases with remixes, ‘bonus’ tracks, demos and other filler, particularly in the lucrative market of CD reissues. The Beatles hit number one in Australia for 30 weeks with their 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which at 39 minutes, 42 seconds was very close to the absolute length for a vinyl album. Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms, by contrast, was 55 minutes long, while thirty years after Sgt Pepper’s, Celine Dion ruled the Australian charts in 1997 with Let’s Talk About Love, which clocked in at a bloated 74 minutes and 35 seconds, the outer limit of the CD format. (No prizes either for guessing which company profited from Dion’s excess: Sony, who owned the Epic label that the Canadian star was signed to).
So if the CD format put paid to the single, made overlong albums technologically viable, sidelined vinyl and brought in billions for multinational companies, then what were the benefits for listeners? Debate still rages as to whether CD or vinyl is the better format for audio storage and reproduction, with many musicians, engineers, producers and fans arguing for the ‘warmth’ of analogue over digital sound. But there’s no denying that for the average music buyer, the convenience of hitting ‘play’ on a CD player, without the careful handling, dusting, and flipping of sides necessary to vinyl, was key to the CD’s commercial success. If stored properly – away from heat and light, in plastic cases – CDs do last a long time, and are certainly superior to cassettes for long-term storage. Their durability and relative compactness compared to vinyl (it’s the compact disc, remember) has been the basis of CD ubiquity in the computer industry, at least until recent years, with CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW and CDPhoto formats all proving massively popular for data storage. And without the optical technology that brought CDs into being, we wouldn’t have DVDs or BluRay. In fact, we’d probably still be watching VHS, which beat out Sony’s Betamax to become the reigning video format of the 1980s. It’s one of the few times Sony has ever lost a lot of money, or launched an electronic technology that it didn’t then dominate – until Apple’s iPod changed the music industry all over again.