40 years after birth of CDs, fans remember the arrival: 'It seemed like a leap into the future'

Mike Snider
Compact discs and vinyl records remain popular and are often part of special releases such as this 50th anniversary box set of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon,' ($299.98), out March 24. The set includes the remastered studio album and ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon - Live At Wembley Empire Pool, London, 1974’ on CD and vinyl, plus remastered stereo versions on Blu-ray Disc and DVD.

Back in the 1980s, Peter Giles knew that the fledgling music format, the compact disc, came with some compromises. 

CDs were smaller than vinyl record albums. That meant the end of the 12-inch album cover and liner notes. "Listening to LPs meant sitting with the album cover on your lap appreciating the artwork and reading the story behind the music," he told USA TODAY. "CDs put an end to that practice."

But, like many other music lovers, "I liked the convenience of the format, and how startlingly clean the music sounded," said Giles, a public relations professional who bought his first CD player in 1987.

You slid the disc into the player and could listen to an hour or more of music. "Listening to CDs meant there was no longer a Side 'A' and Side 'B'," said Giles, who has worked with numerous music artists and record labels, as well as companies such as Yamaha and Casio, and organizations including The Grammy Foundation. "I could listen to the entirety of Pink Floyd 'Dark Side of the Moon' without having to get up to flip the disc over."

Peter Giles, a public relations and social media strategist who lives in Ridgefield, Connecticut, is shown with jazz keyboardist Bob James at the Jazz Forum Club in Tarrytown New York, on April 13, 2019. Giles holds an autographed copy of James' Espresso CD.

Music CDs offered convenience – and quality

The ease CDs offered – compared to vinyl LPs, cassettes and 8-track tapes – helped them become the dominant music format in the 1990s and 2000s until 2012 when sales of digital downloads surpassed CDs, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

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When you played CDs, you hit play – and you could hit pause or skip, too – and there were "no pops," said Jeff Joseph, a communications executive from Arlington, Virginia, in his late 50s, who got his first CD player within three years of the format's launch. The discs delivered a "clarity of sound," adding, however, that he "did not like the lack of warmth."

As a kid, he fell in love with audio after his father bought him a AM/FM/cassette player "as a reward for a strong report card," Joseph said.

The first of his friends to own a CD player, he prefers listening to music on vinyl these days, Joseph said. But he has kept 20-30 discs and still has a combo CD/DVD player. 

Jeff Joseph, a public relations executive from Arlington, Virginia, shows off his collection of compact discs.

Many who listened to vinyl records considered CD sound as inferior. But the convenience factor won out.

"Sound quality was not as good as vinyl, but close enough," said Jeff Samuels, 77, of Verona, New Jersey, who was an artists and repertoire representative at United Artists when the CD format was introduced. He still listens to CDs and buys them, admitting, "I didn't like the shrinking image of an album."

CDs delivered "overall bigger sound than vinyl," said Adam Sohmer, 62, owner of a public relations firm in Brooklyn, New York. He still buys and listens to CDs – although he buys more vinyl albums than CDs – and streams music as well. "Physical media forges a stronger connection to the music than streaming," he said.

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Noah Crane, 44, of Lebanon, New Hampshire, had an extensive collection of audiocassettes "and was resistant to CDs because I didn't want to purchase all the albums I already owned."

Still, he said, "I loved the simplicity of CDs, the ability to skip or easily replay a song and that I never had to use a pencil to wind the tape back into place." 

Compact discs were like 'a leap into the future'

Most of the readers who contacted USA TODAY about the 40th anniversary of the compact disc now stream music for listening. But many still play vinyl records and CDs.

In the U.S., 61% of music listeners stream music videos online and 57% stream songs online, according to entertainment data tracking firm Luminate. In comparison, 31% listen to CDs and 12% listen to vinyl records – 61% also listen to AM/FM radio, the research firm found.

When CDs were launched, music listeners could tell there was a paradigm shift happening. "I remember when I first saw a CD player, shortly after they were released. It was on display in a department store. It was playing an Asia CD," Jim Lenahan, 55, an editor who lives in Ashburn, Virginia. "I'm not sure if I knew that it would become the standard in a few years, but it sure seemed like something big."

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Corporate communications executive Rich Taylor of Arlington, Virginia, remembered the compact disc format "seemed like a leap into the future."

Other memories of his: "Going into Tower Records to buy a single CD and coming out with five which I very much could not afford at the time. That and the myth of the (green magic) marker around the edge making the sound better."

Perrin Kaplan, a Seattle, Washington, global communications and marketing executive, with some of the CDs in her collection.

CDs were "easy and flashy so you could show how many discs (you) owned," said Perrin Kaplan, 63, a global communications and marketing executive in Seattle, Washington. Listening to Steely Dan's "Aja" album on CD remains a vivid memory, she said. "What absolutely epic times." 

Kaplan still listens to her 400 or so CDs even though she subscribes to streaming music services.

Vasant Ramamurthy, 43, a software engineer in Bloomingdale, Illinois, bought his first CDs in 1994 and recalls "borrowing CDs from the library for many classic albums I had not heard before, like Dylan, Television, the Pretenders."

His library of about 1,500 CDs provides most of his music listening and he has his entire collection ripped onto his computer hard drive – and backed up in the cloud – to provide tracks he uses on his internet radio show "My Noise."

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Vasant Ramamurthy, 43, a software engineer from Bloomingdale, Illinois, shown with the first two CDs he bought with his own money:  Soundgarden's 'Louder than Love' and 'Temple of the Dog.' Also shown is his most recent CD purchase, Jabberjaw's 'Good to the Last Drop,' purchased last week.

Like many others, Crane made use of recordable CDs to make mixes – similar to mix tapes – including one he made for his girlfriend, who became his \wife, when she left for college, and a second one of Christmas songs he made for his mother that she still listens to 20 years later.

Now, Crane, who is president and founder of the Upper Valley Nighthawks baseball team and a campus minister at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., relies on digital music on his computer and iPod. "There is a beauty to having all my music on one device," he said, "but I do miss the physical CD, the artwork and the liner notes."

Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.