Long live the compact disc

Johannesburg - What was the first CD you ever bought?

The first compact disc (CD) I ever saved up for was Lil’ Bow Wow’s Beware of Dog. I recall so much about that experience. Trying to hide the parental advisory sticker from my gogo, and then spending the rest of the day spinning it from cover to cover. The CD’s inlet or sleeve allowed you to pour over the lyrics as well as thank you messages from the artists, not to mention pick up some fashion tips. I know some people used to cut out the images in the sleeve to stick on their bedroom walls.

Years later and I still feel exactly the same way. I still go hunting for albums in strange places like Musica. For the most part this is something I reserve for truly worthy albums; I even own a CD player and quite an impressive collection. Being able to hold an album in your hand provides a feeling of security. It isn’t a bunch of code on a computer, created to give the illusion of ownership. You can file the album away and return to it when your pallet allows.

Granted, CDs do require upkeep. You have to keep them in the cover and even give them a little wipe so they won’t skip. The real beauty of the hard copy album is the cover art: beautifully designed images or photographs that provide a teaser of what you can expect to hear. These days, engaging with the music involves a screen and staring at a square block.

The record set straight: vinyl

To truly map the demise of cover art and the CD, we need to start at the beginning. In 1857 a French printer and bookseller Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invented the first sound recording devices. The phonautograph or phonograph could detect sound amplitudes by replicating the intricate design of the human ear. This idea was taken further by an Emile Berliner.

By the 1890s, phonographs and a few similar devices fought to be the biggest in the North American market, but innovations made by Berliner, a German-born American, ensured that his gramophones became a success. He devised a way to create flat discs, which enabled much easier manufacture and longer play times, and made the system easier to use. The material that is most associated with gramophones, vinyl, came to be used during the 1950s with the birth of a monument to music all across the world – the record store.

In order to fully convey the importance of vinyl, I spoke to a local master of spin – a man who’s been around for decades of music and its consumption. He makes up one third of a group that consists of the most gifted hip-hop DJs this country has ever seen, the Beat Bangaz. DJ Reddy D is a true OG of the local DJ movement. The iconic Prophets of Da City bestowed on us their politically charged rhymes, with Reddy D providing the sonic direction as well as more than a few venomous scratches.

If there’s one thing a DJ knows, it’s what sounds better from a technical standpoint. “I choose good quality, pressed and mastered vinyl,” Reddy tells #Trending. “There’s more frequency, audio vibration and depth to the music because of the way that it’s delivered via a needle and turntable process. “Unfortunately, digital sound cannot recreate the warmth that turntable-accustomed audio aficionados are used to.”

Reddy’s collection of vinyl is around 7 000 pieces strong. He shares the memory of one of his first purchases of vinyl with me. “I bought a UK compilation titled Street Sounds. One song that grabbed my attention was Wiki Wikki by a band called Nucleus. We found the name of our B-Boy crew in 1982 in one of the verses of that song. The crew was called the Ballistic Rockers.”

The vinyl was phased out by the CD. One of the reasons was that the size of vinyls, around 31.43cm, made the packaging quite expensive. The bottom line is king, even in art. The covers of these are substantial works of art in their own right. Vinyls, having been around since the 50s, can hold a sense of nostalgia for a person, which is why vinyl collecting is still an enjoyed pastime by many.

The tape

In 1963 the audio cassette or compact cassette was introduced to improve on recording processes as well as to simplify life for the listener. At the time, reel-to-reel recorders were pricey and not exactly easy to use. The tape made using sound equipment simpler. The players are way smaller as are the actual tapes, which are pretty much the size of a business card, but much thicker. Cassettes store sound on a magnetic tape wound around two reels inside of it.

The compact cassette format, when initially released, did not offer reliable sound quality and was marketed for recording voice and dictation. Fortunately, the technology was advanced with improvements in the noise reduction and other features that would seem really obvious today, such as the capacity to play stereo.

The cassette tape reached its peak in the 80s. After this it suffered a dramatic decline. By the early 90s the CD was steering the direction of the music industry. By 1993, cassette player and tape deck shipments had dropped by 7% and continued to fall. In 2001, cassettes made up less than 5% of all music sold. Despite the fact that most US music companies stopped making cassettes by the end of 2002, some stores still sell blank cassette tapes today.

Photos: Supplied/City Press

From CD to MP3

According to Billboard magazine, consumer electronics company Best Buy, an American department store, will no longer carry physical CDs, and Target, another US major chain retailer, may be following suit in the near future. As of July 1, Best Buy will no longer sell CDs. This could put the nail in the coffin for CD sales, which have suffered a 18.5% dip since the announcement. We could trace the demise of the disc to one pivotal moment – the creation of the MP3 file format in the 80s.

In 1999 and 2000, CD sales soared, reaching an all-time peak of 2.455 billion units. The year 1999 brought about a change that would shift that status quo. A pair of teenagers, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker changed the way we engage with music. The infamous Napster launched, with the idea behind it of simplifying the exchange of music. This gave rise to other services like LimeWire, founded in 2000 by Mark Gorton, a former Wall Street trader, which, at its pinnacle in 2009, boasted astronomical stats. According to The Guardian, LimeWire was used by 58% of people who have downloaded music from a digital music service. If you ever used these sites, then you will recall that not much emphasis was placed on what the album looked like.

The MP3 gave rise to iTunes, which has since added Apple Music to its arsenal. You pay a subscription fee and a monthly fee, and you have access to all music on these databases, provided, of course, the artist you’re looking for has placed their work on iTunes. This was an improvement on Napster and LimeWire, as now the record label could gain from sales, royalties could be distributed fairly and the whole structure was less shady.

The CD graveyard

I walk into the Musica at Eastgate and it looks more like a tech spaza. This was once the mecca of music, a young teenage boy’s sonic playground. I was one of those kids who was asked to leave after an hour of just chilling at those stations with the headphones, listening to albums I wouldn’t be able to at home. Do they even still do that at CD stores? I was probably the reason they stopped.

The stock seems to have decreased in store. The music section plays a secondary role to things like PlayStation games that are, for the moment, exempt from the curse of the disc. It’s rough out here for discs – I mean, when last did you rent a DVD? Musica sent #Trending a brief breakdown of the change in CD sales over the last eight years:

2017: 12.8% decline

2016: 2.6% decline

2015: 0.4% growth

2014: 7.2% decline

2013: 6.5% decline

2012: 5.1% decline

2011: 13.0% decline

2010: 0.2% growth

Perhaps this is all just nostalgia and not really wanting to let go. Although the market for CDs in our country is perhaps not quite as bad as it is overseas, we know South Africa is slow to react and perhaps we will see major stores cut their CD supply. Maybe the disc will go down a similar road to vinyl and become a niche hobby for people like me and Reddy D.