The CD turns 40: Inside the meteoric rise and fall of the shiny disc that changed music

The compact disc gave us our first taste of digital music – and we liked it.

Upon its arrival in the U.S. in March 1983, the sleek 4.7-inch plastic and aluminum disc – about the size of a drink coaster – promised crisp, clean digital music reproduction without the pops heard on vinyl LPs or the hiss from tapes.

The CD did have some drawbacks. Vinyl's coffee table-sized artwork and text were lost because of the new format's size.

And, initially, CDs were sold in not-so-eco-friendly cardboard long boxes to prevent theft. The plastic cases also had pesky little metallic tape seals called dog bones, which required a razor-edged tool to slice through.

But CDs let us listen to more than an hour's worth of music just by pushing play. We could skip tracks and shuffle, too. CDs propelled recorded music revenues to new heights in the late 1990s and early 2000s – and remained the dominant choice of consumers until 2012 when other digital formats supplanted the CD.

Over the years, U.S. music lovers have purchased 14.9 billion CDs since the format's arrival, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. 

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Musicians still like compact discs

Country star Thomas Rhett's most recent album, the 2022 release "Where We Started," is available on vinyl, CD and cassette – and, of course, as a digital download or stream.

"Everyone is streaming music," Rhett told USA TODAY. But over the last few years, there's been a move to make music available in more physical formats, he said. 

"There's something to me about having ownership of music," Rhett said.

'I feel like they're kind of coming back'

For international touring band Radkey, sales of CDs and vinyl at the Kansas City band's live gigs help keep the show on the road. "You can always count on your merch sales to pay the gas and hotel and stuff like that," said bassist Isaiah Radke.

"CDs still do pretty good," he said. "I feel like they're kind of coming back in a way."

The band Radkey, made up of brothers bassist Isaiah, at left, lead vocalist and guitarist Dee, and drummer Solomon, perform in Bonner Springs, Kan., on Aug. 5, 2021.

Coming back indeed. Physical music sales – primarily vinyl records, but CDs, too, and even cassettes – increased 4% in 2022, the RIAA said.

Leading the way was Taylor Swift, whose "Midnights" album sold the most physical copies: 945,000 on vinyl, 640,000 on CD and 14,000 on cassette, according to entertainment data tracking firm Luminate. Swift also sold 174,000 "Folklore" vinyl LPs in 2022.

When you add in on-demand audio and video streams, Bad Bunny's "Un Verano Sin Ti" was the year's top album, according to Luminate, with the equivalent of 3.4 million albums sold, compared to 3.3 million for Swift's "Midnights."

Global sales of vinyl, CDs and other physical formats increased 4% in 2022, accounting for $4.6 billion of the $26.2 billion worldwide music market, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry's Global Music Report 2023. It was the second consecutive year physical music sales increased, the IFPI said. Vinyl has been the driving force, with revenue up 17.1% in 2022, after a 51.3% increase in 2021. CD sales declined slightly in 2022, the IFPI said.

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Digital music sales are increasing

Streaming services drove music spending to a record $15.9 billion in 2022, accounting for 84% of all spending, the RIAA said. Music streamed through subscription services, ad-supported services, digital radio, social media, digital fitness apps and other options collectively amounted to $13.3 billion. 

Paid subscriptions to services such as Spotify rose 8% in 2022, topping $10 billion for the first time.

Vinyl records beat CDs for first time in decades

Consumers bought more vinyl LPs than CDs for the first time since 1987, according to the RIAA. Consumers bought 41.3 million vinyl LPs and 200,000 vinyl singles in 2022, an increase of 3.2%. CD sales decreased 28% to 33.4 million albums and 100,000 CD singles. 

Spending on vinyl LPs, which typically cost more, passed CD revenues in 2020 with $643.9 million for vinyl and $483.2 million for CDs, the RIAA says.

Vinyl album sales have slowly risen since accounting for only $14.2 million in revenue in 2005. In each of the last two years, sales of vinyl LPs have surpassed $1 billion in revenue; vinyl increased 20% to $1.2 billion in 2022.

CDs sales, which had increased 21% in 2021 to $585.4 million, declined slightly in 2022 to $482.6 million.

When was the compact disc invented?

Sony and Philips, which brought to market the laserdisc in 1978, began developing the compact disc in 1979. The first player and discs were released in Japan in 1982, followed by Europe and the U.S. in March 1983. The first CD released in Japan? Billy Joel's "52nd Street."

During that initial 1983 launch in the U.S., only 75 stores in the country sold CDs and the players were pricey, about $900, The Atlantic reported. That amounts to about $2,700 in today's dollars. Discs, which initially cost $16-$20, with inflation cost the equivalent of $48-$60 today.

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How does a compact disc work?

Digital data is stored in a long spiral string of microscopic bumps – or pits, if viewed from above – measuring 125 nanometers in height or depth (in a weird coincidence, that's equal to the microscopic size of a COVID-19 virus particle). The data string making up the album on a music CD, if stretched out straight, would be about 3.5 miles long, according to scientists at Yale University

When you put a CD into a player, an infrared laser reads up through the transparent polycarbonate plastic substrate comprising most of the disc's thickness and reflects off an embedded aluminum layer. As the laser hits the bumps, the change in the intensity of the reflected beam is registered by a sensor, which translates that into the music's digital data.

What made the compact disc a success? Cool looks and portability

Several factors drove CD's success. Record labels and electronics makers could charge more than they did for vinyl LPs and turntables.

CDs may have cost more, but consumers could see the value. "From a purely convenience standpoint, the CD was unbeatable," said Ken Pohlmann, columnist for Sound & Vision and author of Principles of Digital Audio.

"Discs were almost as cheap to manufacture as LP records and were more robust than LP records. They were also cool looking, which was a huge selling point," said Pohlmann, professor emeritus of music engineering at the University of Miami.

"And the real breakthrough was that the CD allowed music to be portable. … You can play it in the house, in the car and on the airplane and while you are jogging. You had one format to rule them all. That was just mind-blowing to the consumer at that time."

The compact disc led to subsequent formats such as the DVD and Blu-ray Disc, each of which stored movies, video games and music on ever-more data-rich discs.

How well did compact discs sell?

Eight years after the CD's arrival, it became the dominant format surpassing the audiocassette. Total CD album sales of $4.3 billion in 1991, made up 55.4% of the total recorded music revenue that year, according to the RIAA.

In 1999, consumers spent $13 billion on CDs – 88% of the $14.6 billion spent on music. In today's dollars, adjusted for inflation, that year's consumer spending on CDs would add up to nearly $23 billion, and would make up most of the $25.6 billion spent on music that year, in what would be considered the industry's most successful ever, the RIAA says.

CD sales have trended down since 2000. The slight uptick in CD sales in 2021 could have been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown with people staying at home and buying more discs, Pohlmann said. "The pandemic distorted everything," he said. "I wonder if that's just another distortion."

Will the compact disc live on?

When the format was being designed in the 1980s, optical discs were the obvious storage media because of their ability to store millions of bytes of data (many minutes of music) at low cost.

"Once solid-state memory became affordable, MP3 players and iPods proliferated," Pohlmann said. "That was the death knell for CDs because they had all the advantages of the Compact Disc but were even smaller and even more convenient."

So the lifespan of the shiny silver disc may be waning. But one beloved music format may live on, he said.

"I think the LP will outlive the CD. It pains me to say it, but the LP is a more retro technology – more genuine, more romantic," Pohlmann said. "The CD was one of the most beautifully engineered products to ever come out of the late 20th century. It opened the door to our modern world of digital music, but I think it was a transition technology whose time has passed."

Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.