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The Long Overdue Death of Retail Compact Disc (CD)

by Brandon Dimmel February 23, 2018

Memorializing the Compact Disc. Once upon a time, the CD was the ubiquitous music platform. Our story outlines how the disc-based music technology was adopted, loved and eventually abandoned by a generation that arrived a little too late to collect vinyl record albums. In its day, the CD weathered a storm of competitors that sought to usurp the audio throne by offering key improvements in storage capacity and audio resolution. But behind the inevitable fall of the CD is a story of how the music industry refused to read the writing on the wall.

All things considered, I was rather late to the compact disc game. Having been born to your typical middle-class family in the early 1980s, for much of my early childhood I made do with cassette tapes of my favorite acts, from the sweet, poppy sounds of Men Without Hats to a Canadian band with the (sadly for a pre-pubescent boy) very misleading name, Barenaked Ladies. Other great groups from the late 1980s and early 90s, like Guns N Roses, Nirvana, and Soundgarden, also managed to capture my attention despite some of the frustrating limitations of cassette technology - like having to fast forward and rewind just so I could listen to GNR's deliciously guttural rant "Get in the Ring" a few more times.

Compact Disc Firsts

  • Sony CDP-101Optical digital data-storage was invented by Jim Russel who filed the first patents in 1966, later purchased by Sony and Philips to develop the CD
  • Developed in collaboration by Sony and Philips, the Compact Disc launched in 1982
  • The first CD was officially released on October 1, 1982, it was Billy Joel album 52nd Street. 
  • The first CD player was the Sony CDP-101, also launched on October 1, 1982. It retailed for $730, a heavy price for the privilege of listening to 52nd Street by Billy Joel in pristine digital glory.

Soundtrack of Our Lives on CD

Sony DiscmanAh, but that all changed in the winter of 1995, when my parents placed a Discman under the Christmas tree, along with my first three CDs: Collective Soul's incredible blue album, Soul Asylum's "Let Your Dim Light Shine," and Foo Fighters' self-titled debut. For the next few years, I rarely left the house without that clunky, BK Whopper-sized device, which I connected to an old stereo when I got home. And, while my collection of CDs was by no means large, or even particularly impressive, I rarely went more than a month or so without thinking about, pining for, and then finally pooling what little grass-cutting money I had together to buy the next big album.

For the rest of my teenage years, I gravitated towards the kind of music that had animated my imagination when I first got that Discman, with CDs from Green Day, Stone Temple Pilots, Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam, and the Smashing Pumpkins. Then there were those bands that didn't quite pack stadiums and weren't everyone's cup of tea but, perhaps for those very reasons, garnered my love: Better Than Ezra, Toadies, The Verve Pipe, Spacehog, and Canadian acts like Moist, Limblifter, Econoline Crush, Finger Eleven, and, of course, my personal favourite, Our Lady Peace

US CD Sales Since 1982


Oh, those were the days. I'm guessing I'm not the only one who fondly remembers the smell -- of some weird, foreign and unhealthy chemicals, that gently emanated from the freshly opened case of a new compact disc. It was the good kind of miasma, the type that promised hours of enjoyment as I played video games, chatted about girls with pals, or drifted off to sleep. I can even remember how you had to pull a little harder to get the disc out the first time you used it -- the little 'squelch' sound the plastic made as the disc slid over the case's donut-hole plug for the first but hardly last time. Alas, these finer details of CD ownership are now little more than the footnotes in music history. By the early 2000s, a number of factors emerged that, within a rather shocking amount of time, signaled the end of the compact disc.

First and foremost for me, personally, it was remarkably hard to predict which discs would be winners. Sure, you could listen to the radio -- that's usually where I heard new music for the first time since my parents didn't have cable television and therefore no access to MTV or Canada's Much Music -- but for most bands that meant exposure to just one or two songs. In the end, this made the CD-buying experience a little like Russian roulette -- a slight overstatement, but less so when you consider, that through most of the 90s, each CD was about $20 and my job was cutting neighbors' lawns during the summer.

That meant I bought many, many duds -- usually, one-hit-wonder CDs where one fantastic song on the radio gave me hope the entire album would be amazing. Oh, I still remember the desperate, sinking feeling that washed over me as I frantically searched an album for a second or third decent track -- and then failing to land on one. It happened far too often for me, and as time went on I became less willing to gamble away the little cash I had. Eventually, even albums with two or three great songs seemed a waste, which complicated things further, since the early 2000s brought what I deemed fewer of the rock-solid albums of the 90s -- albums like Offspring's Smash, Green Day's Dookie, or Nirvana's Nevermind.

RIAA Recorded Music Sales

  • CD sales surpassed cassette tape in 1991, its final year as the top format in music sales was 2015
  • Music streaming subscription became the top selling music format for the first time ever in 2016
  • Adjusted for inflation, 2016 vinyl sales hit highest levels since 1989

Digital Downloads Arrive

Digital DownloadsRight around the same time, friends and coworkers at the grocery store where I worked started talking about this new software that allowed you to download songs or even whole albums without paying anything at all! What was this fan-dangled technology, I wondered, and how can I get in on it?

Although Audioholics can't condone unlicensed digital downloads, it's safe to say it was a significant factor in the decline of the disc because nearly everyone who listened to music at the dawn of the new millennium at least experimented with digital downloads. Although I missed the Napster train, I was most definitely aboard for the Limewire bus. It had some serious drawbacks - it left all kinds of nasty junk on the family computer - but all of a sudden I had nearly a world of music at my fingertips. And so began the age of downloading tracks and burning them to discs. In its own way, it was thrilling: you could create the ultimate CD tailored to your own music interests and not those of some goofball studio exec. My ripped discs would go from Blink 182 to Deftones to Eiffel 65 and I could often pack more than 20 tracks on a single CD.

And it was cheap: other than having to buy packs of blank CDs and paying to get the spyware wiped from my chugging PC, the process was very affordable. So affordable, in fact, that I no longer felt the need to protect my CDs as if they were children; instead, they fell down the side of car seats and slid under my bed, where they sometimes stayed until scratched beyond use. But no biggie; I could just use the files I'd already downloaded to create a whole new CD in a few minutes.

Retailers and Car Manufacturers Sense the Stench of Death of the Compact Disc

Car USBFast-forward a decade or so and the CD is finally, finally being phased out by the few retailers who still offer them. At Best Buy, one of the handful of companies that's so far (narrowly) survived the digital revolution, in recent years the compact disc section has shrunk down further and further, to the point where it's little more than a novelty; a place where your Dad can grab best-of albums from Led Zeppelin or The Who. From literally rows and rows of compact discs and several "listening stations," big retailers like Best Buy have in many cases shrunk their CD offerings to a small display at the end of a single aisle.

Now, even that meager offering is about to disappear, with reports indicating Best Buy will cease selling compact discs this July. Target, another brick-and-mortar retailer from the CD's heyday, is expected to follow suit shortly thereafter.

To add a final nail in the CD proverbial coffin, car manufacturers are phasing out CD players starting in 2018.  Instead, you will find at least one USB port, and Bluetooth capability for streaming music from your phone pretty standard fare.

In truth, this is long overdue. Even the Napster and Limewire age is a thing of the past, replaced in large part by streaming services like Apple Music, Google Play, Spotify, and countless others, which give you access to a great fount of music for less than what a single CD cost in the 90s. In fact, that's how I'm listening to 'ol Kurt sing about teenage angst right now.

Nevertheless, this seems like a good time for a heart-felt send-off to the compact disc and the many CD collections that are still out there, in basements, attics, storage lockers, boxes under stairways. Cheers and RIP. 

Now that the once dominant audio platform's days are behind us the question remains: Did you like CDs? Please share your thoughts in the related forum thread below.

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Recent Forum Posts:

Blue Dude posts on April 16, 2019 11:18
JerryLove, post: 1311214, member: 35326
I don't care how it's gotten to me. I just want a way to purchase (IOW. store on my own media and playback if I wish) high-dynamic-range multi-channel (5-channel or better) music.

Right now: all I can do is track down the small and over-priced supply of DVD and BD audio and hope they didn't screw the pooch on mixing.

There's not much content that's competently mixed and mastered in that format, mostly just audiophile classical and jazz titles, which is a shame.

There are a handful of orchestral soundtracks that were done this way, and they're spectacular, but even CDs don't sell in large numbers anymore. High quality restoration projects of classic scores are underway but they don't sell well, often just barely making back their own cost. There's simply no money in alternative mixes, so the mastering engineers focus on working in high quality sources and downmixing to the format with the highest potential for revenue: 2 channel 44.1k/16. Fortunately, the sources themselves are being archived at much higher resolutions before the analog master tapes degrade, so there's hope that future projects can remix and remaster at higher resolution and/or channels.
JerryLove posts on April 16, 2019 10:40
I don't care how it's gotten to me. I just want a way to purchase (IOW. store on my own media and playback if I wish) high-dynamic-range multi-channel (5-channel or better) music.

Right now: all I can do is track down the small and over-priced supply of DVD and BD audio and hope they didn't screw the pooch on mixing.
davidscott posts on April 13, 2019 19:02
Last time I checked the local Half Price Book stores had a huge inventory of CDs some as low as 3.00. And used LPs as well.
BoredSysAdmin posts on April 13, 2019 12:54
highfigh, post: 1310714, member: 36433
OKI, but if new CDs aren't going to be available, the choices are: buy used, trade with others or stream. I guess people could steal the discs they want, but….
You could also choose to purchase DVD audio or BD with recording concert or simply buy songs/albums on a plethora of online stores.
Again, I don't care if we discussing physical media (CD) or digital music sales. Mixing it Spotify (not a sale) into this conversation and complain about low payouts is not relevant. I think I covered the why more than a few times.
MrBoat posts on April 13, 2019 12:06
There are artists I listen to that I could youtube indefinitely but I am typically a fan, if I listen to more than a song or three. More recently, I buy the CD, often times in exchange for all the times I have taken a free ride off of them. At work I use streaming and I am constantly having to work the volume control. I notice that it annoys others when suddenly without any warning, my background music is blaring over them trying to talk to me and I have to actually rush to shut it down which makes me feel kind of foolish.
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