Consider what forms recorded music has taken since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877.
Edison’s original contraption used tinfoil wrapped around a cylinder. Within a decade or so, those gave way to disc records that could easily be mass produced.
That format ruled through an assortment of musical revolutions (and doggedly hangs on now), although the materials changed from hard rubber to shellac to vinyl, as did the speeds at which records played. (We imagine most folks just stacked up some albums or poked those little plastic inserts in their singles, and never comprehended that 33, 45 and 78 actually reflected their turntables’ RPMs.)
Pre-recorded 8-track tapes appeared in the mid-1960s. They may have been big and chunky, but they offered a portability that records lacked (if you could handle the inopportune channel changes during songs).
Cassettes followed, which were simultaneously more portable, convenient and troublesome. (Raise your hands if you ever owned a Walkman or tried to remedy a tape snarl.)
Fast forward (we couldn’t resist) to 1983, and the arrival of the compact disc, billed as the ultimate way to deliver music. CDs contained digital bytes that were read by lasers, instead of grooves that required needles or magnetic impulses that needed translating by tape heads. They proved quite popular; a record 712 million CDs were sold in the U.S. in 2001, less than a generation ago.
So, why are we giving this musical history lesson when so many hotter things are percolating locally, statewide and nationally?
Call it a “take a breath” diversion in one sense, but we noted (and republished) a story last week from the Los Angeles Times that basically was playing taps for the CD.
It cited a report in Billboard that Best Buy will stop selling CDs this summer, and Target may follow suit unless record labels agree to switch to a consignment distribution model where they and not Target bear the inventory risk.
Others who picked up the Billboard report speculated that two major vendors exiting the sputtering CD market — sales last year were 85.4 million, an 88 percent decline from that 2001 high — would be the death knell of the format. The L.A. Times actually used the word “hospice” in its headline to describe the situation.
That’s a little melodramatic, but no one should be stunned by this development. We’re in the midst of another, broader technological revolution that has ceded a big chunk of control from labels and even artists to consumers.
Those consumers, especially younger ones, are voting with their dollars (and their smartphones) for streaming services like Amazon, Apple Music, Pandora and Spotify, rather than having a bunch of CDs (or tapes or records) piled up. (Downloads have even gotten passé.)
It’s frustrating to labels who see their profits ebbing, and to artists who want fair compensation for their work and insist that their particular artistic visions might not be properly represented by picking and shuffling a few album tracks.
CDs aren’t going to spontaneously disappear, mind you. The L.A. Times reported that used sales actually jumped by 28 percent from 2016 to 2017. Some folks still want them.
Don’t be surprised, however, if labels take the hint and at least tiptoe toward a phaseout of new CDs. Why make them if no one’s selling them?
Don’t be surprised either if, a decade down the road, we’re discussing how streaming is suffering in the wake of a new way to deliver music.
Technological advancement is an eternal process. Somewhere, Edison is smiling.