The CD turned 30 years old
on Monday. That's a pretty significant birthday, isn't it? That's when young people start to worry about getting older. I'm 30 years old and I don't have my life figured out yet? Everything is in shambles.
Well, the CD is in shambles too
, but it's not for nothing. The compact disc had a great run as the universe's primary medium of music distribution from 1982 until the takeover of the Internet (date not conclusive), providing the music industry with by far
its most successful product ever. Album sales skyrocketed with the ease and accessibility of CDs, as it made it possible to purchase a single, relatively cheap copy of an album to listen to in your home, car, office, basically anywhere. While that may seem trivial now, in an age where we take advantage of technologies that enable us to wirelessly stream digital files that are stored in the cloud
, it wasn't always such a simple issue. You can't play a vinyl record in a car and you can't play a cassette tape at a desktop computer. The CD was a boon for the industry.
In music history, only 30 albums have sold over 30 million copies
worldwide...and of the 11 of those that were released before the birth of the compact disc, none of them would have reached their sales number had they not been released in this format. Michael Jackson's Thriller
had the fortunate advantage of being a phenomenal pop record that took advantage of the CD's breakout and
a newfangled product called the music video in 1982. The result was the best-selling album ever...and of Thriller
's 29-million-plus sales in North America, a shocking estimated 82 percent of them have been in the compact disc format.
On the same day I read about the CD's 30th birthday - in fact, within minutes after reading about it - I got an offer for a $5 credit to Amazon.com's MP3 store. All I had to do was input my student email and I would get a voucher delivered instantaneously. Now, if this were 30 or 20 or maybe even 10 years ago, and someone offered me a $5 credit toward any CD I wanted, I would have probably taken that right away. But a $5 MP3 credit? Is it really even worth it? When I spend money on music, it's usually on a physical product - and if I just want to download something, isn't it easier to find a pirated link than it is to download a coupon code, then go to Amazon's store and choose five different songs to get for free?
I ended up getting my voucher and downloading five Top 40 songs I had never heard but interested me. But even that hesitation - the mindset of "Is free music even worth my time?" - speaks leaps and bounds about the drastic transformations the industry has gone through. Would our parents have turned down a free CD single being handed out at the door of their local record store decades ago? Probably not. And not only would they have taken the CD, but they probably would have listened
to it! But how many times have you seen a free MP3 download advertised on a site like AbsolutePunk and just ignored it? How many times have people sitting in tents at Warped Tour offered you a free sampler CD with, like, a zillion bands on it and you didn't bother to walk the 10 feet to pick one up off the table? More so, how many times have you taken that free CD and never put it in a (gasp!) optical drive to listen to it?
We used to have to try to actively seek out content from our favorite bands. We used to search for their Myspace or Purevolume page to find out the latest information about them. Now, how hard is for a music fan to avoid
getting bombarded with too much information about bands they honestly don't care about? At the beginning of the 2000s, if a band sent you a message on Myspace about a new album release date, you probably would have checked them out. Maybe you would have bought their album at Target, maybe you would have downloaded it on Napster. In 2012, if a band invites you to a Facebook event advertising their new record's release date, you're simply annoyed. No, you're not just annoyed, you're pissed off about it! If you have the energy and willpower, you may even make the effort to click "ignore" on that band's event invites, or whatever.
The same day I read about the CD's birthday, I stumbled upon an article
titled "Who Owns Your Downloaded Music After You Die?" The article was about the legal ramifications of transferring possession of a library of songs purchased on iTunes to another family member following the owner's death. A sober topic, indeed, but an interesting one nonetheless. But I'm not interested in who gets my digital music library after I die. How am I going to write about that in my will? When I perish, please donate my organs to science and dump my ashes in the lovely lake in my backyard where I spent all my time after I retired. Oh, also, I'm leaving my 200,000 MP3 files to my grandsons and granddaughters. They can split it however they want.
Seriously - how depressing is that? I was lucky enough to inherit a modest collection my dad's vinyl records when I was a freshman in college. He bought me my first record player and gave me this box of LPs and a few 45s that hadn't been played in years, and those were the only records I owned. I listened to all of them at least once - a lot of them were albums that I grew up on, that I had the opportunity to experience in a brand-new way all these years later. I started writing for this very music website only months after getting those from my dad...and now I have my own collection of hundreds of records as vinyl has made a resurgence, and I'm the manager of record label that focuses mainly on vinyl.
But what are my grandsons and granddaughters going to do with my MP3s? By the time I'm old enough to be dead, technology will have advanced to some unfathomable degree where all you have to do to hear a song is speak its name to your holographic computer thing
. At least if you pass on a collection of records, or a collection of CDs even, there's going to be some sort of mystery behind that. When you're a young person, you're naturally interested by new things. Vinyl records are so old (even though they may be hip right now), that by the time we're ready to pass on our collections to the next generation, they're going to be new again. There will be the curiosity of scrounging for a record player, the anticipation of placing that needle down for the first time. We all love music to an immense degree - why wouldn't we want to give our children or our children's children the chance to love it as much as we do?
As the CD celebrates its 30th birthday and heads toward its inevitable irrelevance, it's important to think about how young people today are appreciating music. Well, first off, they're not appreciating it. Kids in middle school and high school are listening to songs on YouTube on their iPhones on the bus to class...not caring about who made that song, what that band is doing to support itself, when that band is going to be playing live in their town. We like to think that passionate musicians will always find a way to make themselves heard. Oh, they'll find a way to get their songs out there...they'll give it away for free, they'll start their own label, they'll just stream it on their website, they'll throw it at you in a digital ball of fire that will hit your iPhone and immediately start playing their leadoff dub-dance single. This is a myth that we flatter ourselves with. As new generations surface, they will have less and less passion dedicated to music because less and less of them will get the "full experience" that we talk about so much. How will we get another Gaslight Anthem if a kid never dusts off an old Elvis LP or Springsteen 45? How will we get another Brand New if no one passes on their Nirvana CDs? How will anyone write a guitar riff when all we have laying around are computers and synthesizers?
Happy birthday, CD.