How to survive the inevitable CD revival

In 1982, when the BBC’s primetime technology show – The world of tomorrow – did a segment on a new musical format called the “Compact Disc”, the host asked skeptically: “Whether there is a market for this remains to be seen”. We all know what happened next, but even in the early ’80s, the benefits of CDs should have been obvious: high-quality, non-humiliating sound in a compact format. Oh, and you could even skip, shuffle and repeat songs, which in a pre-digital world really felt like the future

The Compact Disc turns 40 this year and there are already signs that the format is ready for a mini-revival. For the first time in 17 years, CD sales have actually increased — and by nearly 50 percent, according to the RIAA’s sales database.

It is still a long way from the pinnacle of the format. In 2021, 46.6 million CDs were shipped in the US – compared to nearly a billion in 2000. By comparison, that 46.6 million is barely four percent of last year’s total music revenue. Vinyl albums, on the other hand, sold fewer total units (39.7 million), but are more of a money-waster for artists (seven percent of total revenue).

Some reports claim that the increase in CD sales is mainly due to mega artists like Adele and BTS releasing new albums (the first 30 alone accounts for two percent of total CD sales). But there are also other potential – and more practical – contributing factors, including the pandemic.

“CD sales are growing again as shops reopen and artists are back on tour. And while CDs haven’t seen the same kind of revival as vinyl yet, the CD format remains a steady stream of revenue for independent artists.” Rob Bach, COO of CD Baby, told Engadget. They should know because one of their services is the production and distribution of CDs for indie bands.

Kevin Breuner, SVP of Artist Engagement and Education for the company, believes there is an increasing demand for CDs as memorabilia, rather than just as a way to play music. “Part of that is that streaming hasn’t replaced anything at the merch table… the appeal of a physical item like a CD is that it’s a piece of memorabilia in a live setting, something that you can get signed by artists. Likewise, for artists, there’s nothing to replace when a fan goes back to the merch table to buy a CD or a t-shirt; that’s how it’s always been.”

There’s also the fact that what once seemed limiting to younger listeners – having to own a song if you wanted to hear it – is now another way to enjoy music. A good album is not just a collection of songs, but a structured experience to enjoy from start to finish. Of course you can with streaming, but for a CD you have to get up and get changed, Spotify is usually just a click away.

CDs launched in Japan in October 1982. The format and hardware to play it on didn’t make it to the US and Europe until the following year. The adoption was relatively quick and just two years later the first million-selling CD album – brothers in arms by Dire Straits – would boost the popularity of the glossy disc. In the early 1990s, assisted by ever smaller, affordable and even portable players, the CD was the de facto way to listen to music. And for good reason.

In this new digital world, the CD format was consistent in a way that analog could never be. What became known as the “Red Book” standard – two-channel 16-bit PCM at 44.1 kHz – would be the prevailing specification from then on. If someone said “it’s CD quality”, you could assume that’s what they meant.

This standard is considered the minimum requirement by current streaming services to be called “lossless”. Sure, how or what you record on 16-bit/44.1 really matters, but that’s a whole different story.

Jamal Saidi / Reuters

More important than all this, at least for the labels and artists, is that the arrival of the CD meant that they could resell us our entire music collection in the new miracle format. The ’90s were a good time to be in the music industry, at least until Sean and Shawn came along.

This new digital medium also had other advantages. And not just the aforementioned ability to skip/program/shuffle tracks. CDs allowed you to hide bonus tracks in new ways that would otherwise be visible on a vinyl record or instantly found by anyone who ran a cassette tape.

Even more exciting? As PCs started to become a more common feature in homes, artists and labels realized that you could bundle together very different bonus media like videos and karaoke versions – as found on some versions of American by The Offspring for example.

Before we show you some of the ways you can enjoy/rediscover the joys of compact discs, keep in mind that the experience was far from flawless.

Despite being more durable than vinyl, it is certainly possible to scratch a CD. If a record has a scratch, it’s almost charming. With CDs, it’s more like walking slowly through hell as they dig up the streets. If your drive is damaged, it may also work on some players, frustratingly, not on others. Many hours have been wasted cleaning and re-inserting a CD in the hope that it would last.

Of course, many CD players only took one disc, so you’d be swapping them out often. Knowing someone who had every CD in the right jewel case was often a sign that that person doesn’t listen to their music enthusiastically or often enough (maybe they were just a little organized, but what’s the fun in that). This “which disc is which” problem got even worse when someone decided that CD singles — a song you wanted and some lesser songs on a disc — were a good idea.

Not to mention the fragility of the suitcases they came in. Jewelcase hinges would crack just by looking at them, while central hubs (the part that held the drive in place) would crumble no matter how well you handled things. Usually during a move or the aforementioned enthusiastic listening with friends.

Unlike other formats, the CD is unique in that it played a part in its own demise. With the advent of CD burners, you can easily copy your friends’ album collection, print album artwork, and even print round stickers with the CD artwork on them. This was how music was stolen in the short period when CD burners and blank discs were affordable and online piracy hadn’t yet taken hold. The CD was then effectively relegated to the role of external storage medium before quietly falling into obscurity. Until now of course.

With those little challenges in mind, if you’re ready and willing to give the humble Compact Disc one more, um, spin, here are some recommendations, new and old, cheap and not-so, for getting into the world of CD to dive.

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