Don't you forget about CDs

It's easier to listen to and purchase music now than ever before with a host of streaming sites available and a choice of formats. Go back forty years however and there were just a handful of options.

Vinyl and cassette tapes were the most popular at the time, but two technology giants Philips and Sony embarked on a joint venture to create a new format to play digital audio recordings.In 1979 the CD or Compact Disc was invented and was publicly released in 1982 as an alternative to vinyl and cassettes. According to Philips, the first CD ever manufactured was ABBA’s album The Visitors which was pressed at their factory in Hanover on August 17th, 1982. It was Dire Straits’ album Brothers In Arms that really saw the CD take off as it was the first time that a CD outsold the vinyl and sold more than a million copies upon release.

“Brothers in Arms was the first flag in the ground that made the industry and the wider public aware of the CD’s potential,” says the BPI’s Gennaro Castaldo. “It was clear this was a format whose time had come.”

Key Production have been in the music manufacturing business for over 30 years and have watched on as the landscape of this industry changed from year-to-year. In the mid-1990s as Britpop reigned supreme in the music charts, the compact disc was booming too. Thanks to the ongoing chart wars spearheaded by Blur and Oasis the public wanted to buy into the craze and CDs were their preferred method of doing so.

“In the mid-90s, retailers and labels felt indestructible,” says Rob Campkin, who worked for HMV between 1988 and 2004. “It felt like this was going to last for ever.”

In the early part of the 21st century the public’s music listening habits began to change with the rise of streaming sites like iTunes, Spotify, and Napster, the latter of these started life as an illegal music file sharing website. However, the CD remained the consumers number one choice of listening to music and in the UK in 2004 over 163m units were sold. As the century entered its second decade, the music industry was recovering from the financial crash and sales of physical products bore the brunt of this. Sales were down but then, suddenly in 2013, they rose with vinyl beginning to make a comeback. One of the reasons behind this was the various “deluxe” editions of albums. This included special edition CD boxsets. Key Production has manufactured many of these bespoke boxsets for clients in recent years, from The Divine Comedy and Nick Cave to Garbage and Erasure.

Mike Hicks, a head of sales at Key Production adds “You can creatively present CDs in beautiful deluxe packaging to further enhance fan appeal.  For example, this could be in little hardback books, or CD-sized box sets, or even just with beautiful booklets and artwork going into more standard CD products. CDs have never gone away and, despite the prevailing narrative which you might see in the press, they are still manufactured in large quantities”.  He continues. “Yes, it is not as large as it once was, and year on year it’s vinyl not CD that continues to increase, but the market for CDs is still strong, especially so for catalogue artists and the more specialised labels”. He explains that due to worldwide difficulties in the vinyl supply chain, Key’s customers are increasingly turning their attention to other physical formats to fill the gap, and this is where CDs come into their own. This can be more economic than the vinyl equivalent and incomparably quicker to get in front of product-hungry consumers.

The differences between a traditional LP vinyl record and a CD are stark. The compact disc is much smaller, easier to store and provides a cleaner sound. A vinyl record relies on the needle of the record player to read the surface of the record and produce the sound. CDs use a laser and the digital code beneath a layer of transparent plastic. The digital code contains up to six billion microscopic pits and spaces that represent the music like the grooves do on a record. The code is read by the laser and then converted back into the sounds of the original music.

It’s also worth considering the impact that music consumption has on the environment. So, you would perhaps be forgiven for thinking that streaming music is the best way to consume music whilst helping the environment as much as possible. However, there is an argument that suggests streaming music is worse for the environment than physical products. This is due to the way the digital files are stored on servers which are active and need to be cooled. The information is then retrieved and transmitted across the network to a router, which is transferred by wi-fi to our electronic devices. Once a CD or vinyl record is purchased, it can be played over and over with the only emissions coming from the record/CD player. Research undertaken by The Conversation (an independent news outlet that is sourced from the academic and research community) and published by BBC Future found that a vinyl record has twice the environmental impact of a CD based on estimated plastic used and greenhouse gas footprint of vinyl. It also found that a CD produced less of an environmental impact than a tape cassette. Ultimately, it comes down to the consumer themselves.

“If you only listen to a track a couple of times, then streaming is the best option, if you listen repeatedly, a physical copy is best.” – BBC Future

Despite the somewhat turbulent life of the compact disc over the course of its existence, it has proved to be a format that is still very much desirable and versatile. Coupled with the recent boom in vinyl sales, it very much shows that the public still want physical products to buy and keep particularly the bespoke products that really stand out. They offer something that streaming can’t. A connection to the music which you have bought into. It’s how the artist intended that a consumer listen to their music.


Introducing the CD - You Tube
Tomorrows World - YouTube
How The Compact Disc Lost Its Shine - The Guardian
Why Streaming May Be Bad For The Climate - BBC
Vinyl Industry Reaching Breaking Point - New Statesman