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The Rise and Fall of the CD

Updated on July 9, 2012


CD's were first produced in the early 1980s, but they didn't become a popular craze until the early 1990s. Part of this was due to the technology gradually becoming more affordable to the general public, and part was due to a campaign to paint CDs as the most technologically advanced, highest quality music medium yet produced. Whether or not that is true is debated to this day. And while it is impressive that we are still talking about CDs nearly 30 years after their production began, it is obvious that CDs and physical media as a whole are on the way out.

Dawn of the Digital Age

I remember gradually becoming aware of CDs in the early 1990s. The shelves of what were then called "record stores" were built to accommodate 12-inch vinyl records, so CDs often had to be placed in a special external case that propped them up to the height of a vinyl record. Some CDs were made with this height included in the packaging. In fact, that external cardboard packaging has become pretty valuable to collectors these days, as many people threw the extraneous material away so the CD would fit on their home shelves.

I also remember ruling out the purchase of CDs for quite a while. Prices for one disc ranged from $14.99 at the cheap end to $22.99 at the average to high end. The same material on cassette (which was still available for quite a while at the same time as CDs) would be anywhere from $4.99 to $10.99.

Becoming Mainstream

Eventually, though, CDs began to fall to prices that everyone could afford, and so did CD players. By the late 1990s, more and more cars came standard with CD players. Portable CD players also became extremely affordable. I remember saving up my pennies to by a big, bulky Sanyo portable CD player with no "electronic skip protection" for around $53. Around three years later a Sony model could be purchased for less than $40. Many of the models around that time bragged about how many seconds of "electronic skip protection" they had. Ideally, you would be able to jog around with one of these in your pocket and it would not skip. They worked surprisingly well, but they weren't infallible.

As the early 2000s dawned, teenagers like me were amazed at the new-found ability to burn our own CDs. This type of control over recording on a digital disc had previously only been offered by Sony's MiniDisc format, which was basically a flop. Cassettes were still the norm for making your own mixes until after 2000, when CD-R drives became affordable for the masses.

MP3s, or, the Beginning of the End

For a lot of young adults in the early 2000s, including me, the first half of the decade was defined by burning disc after disc of your own compilations, either from other CDs or from the emerging source of MP3. This compressed file format made it quick to download whole songs and whole albums, but to play any of this material in your car, you still needed to burn it to CD.

Then iPods and all of their imitators arrived, and now you could put hundreds or thousands of songs on one device, carry it around with you, and not have to worry about "electronic skip protection." Cassette adapters, previously used to connect portable CD players to cars without them, were soon marketed as iPod accessories.

In the second half of the 00s, companies finally figured out how to legally market and sell MP3s, led, again, by Apple Computer with their iTunes software. Now there was little reason to buy the actual CD anymore.

The Fall, and the Fallout

Today, stores like Best Buy that once devoted large sections of their stores to CDs only stock a few rows worth, and those rows are ridiculously easy to navigate now compared to the late 1990s. No one goes to the store to buy the CD anymore, it seems. And while the digital realm has created the ability for millions of artists to now sell their product directly to the masses (and, I might add, without the environmental pollution caused by manufacturing millions of discs, inlays, and cases), it has also led to the decline of the album as an art form.

That is another topic altogether, but there can be little arguing that the dominance of MP3 has all but destroyed the album as a work of art. Consumers can now download and pay for only the songs they like, placing them in whatever order they like. Many don't even care what order the songs appear in, delegating this task to the "shuffle" command of their iPods, and now their iPhones and car MP3 players. CDs continue to be available, but for how long?


The digital world and the new marketplace of MP3 and digital music formats have basically supplanted the CD as the preferred musical format. This is a bigger shift than it seems, because this new medium is not physical at all. Every evolution up until the CD was a physical device, and now that physicality is yesterday's preference.

This has both good and bad effects, but it remains to be seen just how far-reaching those effects will be on the individual musician and the music industry as a whole.


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