The History of the Vinyl Record and the Production of New Technologies
In 1980, three years before the electronics corporations Sony and Philips had even introduced the first CD (Compact Disc) to the market, people began to predict the death of the vinyl record. This was, in part, due to the fact that the two companies had announced the impending release of something called a “digital-disc player.” In response to this news, reporters and journalists from around the world quickly began to gravitate around Sony and its plans for the future of music technology. Mark Kirkeby, a writer for Rolling Stone described his exclusive interview with the president of Sony Industries, Michael Schulhof:
Sony seems optimistic that digital is the future of disc sound reproduction. ‘We don’t expect the LP to be obsolete overnight,’ said [Michael Schulhof, president of Sony Industries]. ‘There will certainly be a period when the analog disc and the digital disc coexist. But we would hope that by 2000 the industry will be primarily digital. The audio quality is just so much greater. The change will be similar to what happened when stereo took over from mono.’ (Kirkeby, 1980: 60)
As an afterthought, it is fascinating that Sony’s president was able to precisely calculate how long it would take American society to make the shift from using analog to digital technology. But more importantly, Kirekby’s exposure reveals that the creators of CDs were predicting the impending downfall of vinyl, before even releasing their product to the market. One reason for Sony’s extreme confidence in the future success of CDs was because of how CDs were discussed in the media as the next step in the evolution of discs (Goodman 1980).
Although American newspapers and magazines described CDs as if they were an extension of record technology, some music critics warned their readers of the serious threat that digital technology posed to the functional use of vinyl records. For example, before the invention of CDs, the function of the vinyl record was to play music. If someone wanted to hear their favorite song or listen to a new album, the vinyl record was the only type of technology that was able to perform this function. Therefore, vinyl records during this period of time had a high function value.
However, as new digital technology emerged that essentially mimicked vinyl records in both concept and function, society was introduced to additional ways of listening to music more conveniently. CDs threatened the functional use of vinyl because people now had access to music in ways that did not require using records or record players. In comparison, CDs were marketed by Sony and Philips as having a greater functional use than vinyl records because they were more durable, reliable, and could be used outside of the home.
As the media continued to forecast CDs as the next step in the evolution of discs, the music industry was forced to invest a considerable amount of their capital into the success of CD technology. In order to make space for CD manufacturing plants and their large amounts of resources, vinyl manufacturing facilities were shut down by the hundreds. Although industry insiders expressed their discontent for this “technology trade-off,” they were still very excited about the future of CD technology (Booth 1983:57). One Warner Brothers executive reportedly said, “Clearly, the Compact Disc has great advantages, even above and beyond the superlative audio quality. It has the look and feel of something new” (Booth 1983: 57). This quote is important because it is exemplifies how many record industry executives felt at the time— mesmerized by the promising image and sound of CDs. These executives were thinking about profit margins, and never once considered how it might change the ways record collectors experience the music.
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The Invasion of the CD
In 1983, Sony and Philips finally unveiled the CD to the general public, claiming that it was more durable and reliable than any other medium on the market. While the ubiquity of industry support and positive media reviews of CD technology contributed to CDs’ fast and enduring success, one reporter discussed the early criticisms of CDs and interviewed several critics. For example, a California audio dealer objected to the “dirty” quality, the “grittiness” in CD recordings. The critic described CD sound as “a coarsening of orchestral and vocal textures,” as well as “a lack of depth information” (Lander 1983: 86–7).
Many in the record collecting subculture share this opinion, that the sound of vinyl is superior because it is less compressed. For example, in an issue of Rolling Stone from 1983, journalist Stephen Booth attempted to capture the disgruntled sentiment of record collectors:
The epitaph for analog shouldn’t be how poor it sounded, but how good. Yet the sad but inescapable fact remains that analog simply is not capable of reproducing the memory of a musical performance with perfect fidelity to the original. Enter digital audio. (55)
Booth’s response to the invention of CDs is fascinating for two reasons. First, he explains that the invasion of CDs is practically inescapable, and that ultimately, he believes that digital audio is more reliable than analog sound. Despite this, Booth also suggests that vinyl, while flawed in certain ways, deserves the respect of society because it was an important landmark in the history of sound.
As technology within the music industry improved at a rapid rate, the cost of production and consumer prices decreased correspondingly. For example, between 1983 and 1987, the price of a CD player dropped from $900 to $150 (Fantel 1985:50). Although it is not uncommon for the price of new technologies to decrease over time, some have speculated that the price fell so quickly because the music industry was determined to accelerate the adoption of CD technology. Therefore, if the record companies had not made the rapid improvements to CD technology that they did, it might have taken CD players a lot longer to become conventional in American society.
Although there has been some decrease in the value of vinyl records since they were invented, it is hypothesized that because of their rarity in today’s society, as well as their admiration by individuals in the record-collecting subculture, some vinyl records have increased in value.
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Booth, Stephen. 1983. “The Digital Revolution.” Rolling Stone 60:55-57.
Fantel, Hansel. 1985. “CD Grows Up: An Expensive Toy Becomes a Sound Investment.” Rolling Stone 96:50.
Goodman, Fred. 1984. “Record Industry Preparing to Bury the LP.” Rolling Stone 24.
Kirkeby, Mark. 1980. “The Pleasures of Home Taping: Tapers Reject Record-Industry Line.” Rolling Stone 62-64.
Lander, Dan. 1983. “Digital Discontent.” Rolling Stone 86–88.