The first CDs, the compact discs, came out of a German factory just forty years ago, on August 17, 1982. It was the beginning of a real revolution in the music industry. Here is the story of these records that have sold billions of copies.
August 17, 1982. Small circular, silver-colored objects with rainbow reflections come out of a factory near the city of Hanover in northern Germany: these are the first compact discs (compact discs) or CDs, produced on an industrial scale, reports the Associated Press. These CDs will sell billions of copies, in forty years of existence, before falling into disuse.
The story of the CD actually begins three years earlier, in 1979. At the time, the leaders of two conglomerates, the Dutch Philips and the Japanese Sony, set up a team of engineers responsible for working on a well specific: design a disc capable of storing music in digital format, says the British magazine The register. A disc smaller than the vinyl, standard of the time, and less fragile, underlines the BBC, the British radio-television.
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The first CD released was an album by American Billy Joel, 52nd streetalready released on vinyl in 1978. Here it is available in CD version on 1is October 1982 in Japan, along with the first CD player: Sony’s CDP-101, an imposing black device that read these new discs with a laser. No need, therefore, to place them on a turntable as for 45-rpm or 33-rpm vinyl.
Initially, Philips mainly produced classical music discs: in the minds of the company’s executives, these customers would be the most inclined to pay substantial sums to buy discs that “capture imperceptible nuances on vinyl”, indicated Agence France-Presse (AFP) in 2007.
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Sales started slowly, but everything accelerated in 1985. On May 13 of that year, the British rock band Dire Straits released their fifth album, Brothers in arms. Detail: this disc is the first album to be recorded entirely digitally, underlines the British daily The Guardian. It’s the album that “introduces the compact-disc to the general public, and becomes the first CD to sell more than a million copies”.
“The CD continues to exist”
In the process, sales took off between reissues of albums released on vinyl and new productions. In 1986, more CD players were sold than turntables, and in 1988, more compacts than vinyl, according to figures cited by the Associated Press in 2007.
And then, in the early 2000s, sales began to decline in the United States, as shown in an infographic published by the Statista portal. Under the effect, in particular, of the mass digitization of music: illegal downloading, online purchases of albums, the appearance of streaming platforms, etc.
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However, is the compact disc dead? “The CD continues to exist, says specialized journalist Sophian Fanen, interviewed by radio France Culture. It continues to sell a lot. Vinyl today is a very expensive collector’s item, while the CD remains a popular listening object, which people still buy in supermarkets, in specialized supermarkets…”
In the United States, CD sales even increased very slightly in 2021: 40.6 million were sold, against 40.16 million the previous year. Figures far removed from the most prosperous years, when CDs sold hundreds of millions of copies in this country alone…