Day 347: The Discs Of Yore

originally published December 12, 2012

When the afternoon sun of one’s mortal stroll hits high in its arc, when one’s thirties begin preparing their thunderous finale from the stage in anticipation of the always-disappointing forties act to follow, one can’t help but face a myriad of reminders that one is getting old.

Not let’s-check-out-some-area-homes old, but with a distinct sense that what’s hip in the world, what’s culturally relevant, suddenly has nothing to do with you or your generation. My parents never had to go through this. The Baby-Boomers have made a strong case that their generation will continue to matter throughout the annals of history, and hey, they invented the Beatles and Gilligan’s Island so who am I to argue? I’m a part of Generation X, or really, Generation Meh. We don’t care about our place in history.

But kids – and I’m speaking here to the Bieberfied, autotune-blind masses who presently claim dominance over this silly excuse of a pop culture – your time will come. Your children, should they survive the inevitable robot and/or steroid-injected Super-Pelican uprising, will not know what to make of these:

When my daughter was two or three, I took her into a used record store because she was two or three and powerless to quell my whim to flip longingly through shelves of inexplicably overpriced 40-year-old vinyl. She pointed to one and exclaimed, “Look, Daddy! Look at the big CD!”

And just as my own flesh and blood found it curious that we would manipulate these clunky analog devices that produce only 20-25 minutes before needing a flip, your own kids will wonder why you’d want to listen to the new album by the Chad Kroeger / Avril Lavigne offspring on a disc-shaped piece of plastic, instead of simply injecting the data-fluid into your bloodstream so you can listen to it whenever you want.

In honor of the CD’s upcoming swansong, I’ve got a little history for you.

That is called a DiscoVision. It was unleashed upon North America in 1978, back when having ‘disco’ in your product’s name didn’t seem antiquated or cheesy. David Paul Gregg and James Russell patented the optical disc in 1961. It became a joint tech venture between MCA and Philips throughout the 70’s as they worked to bring a viable product to the market.

VHS had just begun trickling into homes, now it had competition. The freshly-renamed ‘Laserdiscs’ had better images, could hold multiple audio tracks, and could jump to a chapter, just like a DVD. The down-side was that the discs were heavy, prone to damage, and took up a lot of space. The players cost a lot of money and couldn’t also be used to record the latest episode of The Jeffersons.

While they toiled with MCA to find a new way to bring Jaws into North American homes (that was the first laserdisc to receive commercial release), Philips was also working on a side project, a miniature version of the technology that could store only audio. Sony entered the race too, demonstrating an early attempt at the new format in September of 1976.

Sony and Philips joined forces, and by 1980 they had settled upon what would be the standard sampling frequency, disc diameter, coefficient molecular isotope viscosity (hey, that sounds like a real thing!), and so on. A recording of Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie was the first test CD ever pressed. By August of 1982 they were ready to rock, setting up in a new factory just down the road from where Emile Berliner had produced the very first gramophone record in 1889. History was ready to be made. The first CD was set to be dispatched to stores, along with Sony’s new CDP-101 player.

If you couldn’t wait to dig into the new Billy Joel album in top-notch quality (and why not? It had “Big Shot” on it!), check out the sweet unit you’d be adding to your home stereo system:

Record stores weren’t sure at first what to do with these things. I remember flipping through a selection of about 25 or 30 CDs in a display on a store’s front counter, shrugging my young shoulders in mild curiosity, then getting back to buying the new Wham! album on vinyl with my hard-earned allowance.

And it wasn’t just that the stores weren’t sure whether or not these things would sell – they had no clue how to display them. Their bins were record-shaped, meaning twelve inches squared. To answer this, CD manufacturers came up with the longbox.

These 12-inch tall cardboard packages usually held the CD jewel case and nothing else, though a second CD could fit comfortably in there if necessary. They were harder to shoplift than the CDs on their own, and store owners didn’t need to replace their display shelves. It was a perfect fit, if you didn’t mind a bunch of garbage packaging with every CD purchase.

David Byrne slapped a “THIS IS GARBAGE” sticker over his Uh-Oh album’s longbox in protest, and Peter Gabriel simply refused to allow his music to be packaged like this. REM got a little more creative, encouraging their fans to sign their longbox as a petition in support of the National Voter Registration Act. 10,000 fans complied, and Rock The Vote was able to present the stack of signed cardboard as a legitimate petition to Congress, which helped push the bill forward. Longboxes disappeared around 1993.

Sony and Philips continued to reap the rewards of CD technology. Within ten years record stores were places for bootleg collectors and nightclub DJs to sift through on a lazy Saturday afternoon. In 1985 the CD-ROM was invented, followed by the CD-Recordable five years later. Records were out, floppy disks were out, even cassettes were out. The CD won.

For a while.

Between 2000 and 2008, CD sales among the major music labels declined by about 20%. MP3 has replaced the CD as the car-music tool of choice (though cassette players were still shipping with some vehicles up until 2010), and flash-drive storage has shoved the CD-R way down the list of logical choices for data backup.

The CD will go, followed by the DVD and yes, even the Blu-Ray. Technology is transitory, and there will come a time when a One Direction CD will be considered an antique (though doubtfully a valuable one).

So enjoy your time in the spotlight of relevance, kids. Your day of obsolescence will show up eventually. Me, I’m going to grab myself a cool hypodermic of liquid early Fleetwood Mac (the Peter Green era, back when your grandparents were making tea out of mushrooms, just to see if it would work), and inject myself with some righteous blues.

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