Published Apr 30, 2014Nobody cares about CDs anymore. With vinyl and cassettes posting double digit sales increases over the last few years, we're back in love with these vintage formats. The CD has entered that awkward phase of industrial design: like Brutalist architecture, it was modern in its day, but is not at all cool anymore. It remains the symbol of the latter days of a bloated music industry at its zenith. But the CD format turned out to be much more than a cash grab — over two decades, it helped shape music in ways less obvious but just as fundamental as the LP.
When the CD was introduced commercially in 1982, its initial selling point was its clarity. CD playback eliminated LP rumble noise (seen as unpleasant back then) and greatly widened dynamic range — perfect for countless Radio Shack demos soundtracked by airy classical music. After all, this was a medium whose running time was inspired by the length of Beethoven's 9th Symphony: about 74 minutes.
All of the sudden, releases had to be 60 to 70 minutes so that a consumer felt they were getting their money's worth. This was especially true for reissued titles; there had to be an incentive for people to re-buy their collections, so B-sides, outtakes and alternate mixes surfaced as bonus material, expanding the context of each release. Compilation albums could become much more extensive. You could now fit 20-plus songs on a disc with no need to flip over a record, which opened up a world of possibilities for song sequencing. Certain artists' repertoire benefitted from the new format: the 1985 James Brown compilation The CD of JB contained hits, rarities and unreleased tracks that sounded incredibly compelling when delivered as a 70-minute slab of funk. All kinds of long-form music, from free jazz to DJ mixes to live albums, could now be presented with fewer editing compromises.
This led to the box set, that most dad-ly of holiday gift ideas. Multi-LP box sets existed, but they were cumbersome. Something like 1991's Complete Stax Soul Singles (nine CDs), in which the entire output of the soul label's seven-inch singles during its first nine years was presented chronologically, simply wouldn't have been possible on vinyl. Though the label had dozens of hits, there wouldn't have been the economic rationale to compile the other 80 percent of the label's non-hit material were it not for the giftable functionality of the box set, with its book-length liner notes and high-concept moulded plastic containers.
The CD was equally influential for new music. Electronic music was particularly flattered by the medium's quiet playback and wider dynamic range. One thing you simply can't do on vinyl is overdo bass frequencies or have too wide a stereo image of bass — in either case a turntable needle slips out of the groove. Being able to build an entirely different kind of low end gave rise to countless possibilities in music. All of these new sounds were more easily pushed out into the world because shelving in record stores effectively doubled when two CDs could be filed in one LP-sized rack space, exploding consumer choice.
The CD will never have the nostalgia factor of LPs. It was always criticised for its high cost, its supposedly inferior cover art (until designers figured out how to design for a five-and-a-quarter inch package), its infamous jewel cases that housed most CDs, and its relatively hollow sound. But don't believe the hype (seriously, Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back sounded better on CD than as a 57-minute album crammed onto two LP sides), the CD was the dominant music format for over two decades and laid the invisible groundwork for an era's major musical statements. Let's praise CDs before we bury them — which, admittedly, is the fate most of them face nowadays.