Said dead and still there: 40 years of music CDs


The digitalization of music began 40 years ago with the CD, which turned the industry upside down. However, the Internet played the song of death for the CD.

When the machines started up in the Polygram factory in Hanover-Langenhagen on August 17, 1982, another piece of music history was written there. Commercial production of the compact disc began with the CD version of the ABBA album «The Visitors». The factory on Emil-Berliner-Straße, named after the inventor of the gramophone, was already involved with other sound carriers such as the vinyl record, which had been dominant until then pioneer.

But as it turned out, the CD was much more revolutionary than previous innovations in recording media. Because it carried within itself the seeds of its own demise: for the first time, a music format made for consumers was digital. That didn’t just mean clean sound without the hiss of a music cassette or the cracking of the needle in the grooves of a record. The conversion of the songs into files with rows of numbers made up of ones and zeros laid the foundation for being able to do without physical sound carriers altogether. Because from then on it was only a matter of time before music was mainly distributed over the Internet – like today with streaming services. “The CD has established a digital culture,” was how culture researcher Ryan Daniel from Australia’s James Cook University put it in a nutshell.

The beginnings of the CD era were marked by debates about whether the sound of the twelve centimeter silver disc was too sterile compared to the warmer analog sound of a record. And from the criticism of the high price of the first players. But the CD was well received by consumers. In 1985, 26 million discs were produced in Langenhagen alone.

The CD initially gave the music industry a golden age. Not only chart toppers like Michael Jackson, Madonna or U2 filled their coffers. Be it the Beatles or the Bee Gees, customers also bought millions of pieces of music they already owned on CD. Some albums even several times, if there were new editions with a polished sound. “The Visitors” by ABBA, for example, was re-released four times.

The birth of music piracy heralded its decline

In Germany, the music market peaked in 1997 at around 2.3 billion euros. However, the industry’s great fortune did not last long. Because German researchers unleashed the revolutionary power of digitization. At the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits in Erlangen, a team led by Professor Karlheinz Brandenburg developed the MP3 format. This allowed music files to be reduced to about a tenth of the CD size. MP3 was originally intended for radio broadcasting and the music industry, but the encryption was cracked. Suddenly anyone could copy a CD and exchange it on the Internet. Because in the specification of the CD no copy protection was provided.

The decline of the CD began with the birth of music piracy. After all, who likes to pay for something they can have for free? The music exchange market Napster, which had more than 60 million users at its peak, became a prime example. The record industry finally forced them online with lawsuits, but other sides followed suit. Sales in the music industry plummeted.

At the new start after the Napster shock, the CD no longer played first fiddle. With the success of the iPod player, Apple boss Steve Jobs convinced the music bosses in 2003 that legal downloads with simple operation and a price of 99 cents per song are the future. Streaming, where you don’t have to buy the music but only pay for it as a subscription, quickly seemed like the next logical step – but it took a long time for the breakthrough, until fast mobile networks and powerful smartphones gave consumers the security that they could listen to music at any time get to their music.

The plant in Langenhagen closed in 2017

Streaming has become the new savior of the music industry. Last year, the turnover of the industry in Germany rose to 1.96 billion euros. However, they are distributed very differently than before. A good 68 percent of this came from streaming, while only 3 percent came from purchase downloads. The CD still achieved a respectable 16.3 percent. However, she no longer comes from Langenhagen: the CD factory there closed in 2017.

In the world’s largest music market, the USA, there was even a countermovement in 2021 with a sales increase of 47.7 percent. The fact is that with 46.6 million compact discs sold, the level before the corona pandemic with its store closures was only just reached. But the recovery also shows that while streaming has become the measure of all things in the music industry, the 40-year-old CD format still has its loyal customers who don’t want to be without it. By Andrei Sokolov, dpa


Source: com! professional by www.com-magazin.de.

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