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40 years of CDs: From listening pleasure to useless trash

Two DJ CD players, a mixer, two thick folders with burned CDs and a wooden box with original CDs. Completely old school.

40 years of CDs: From listening pleasure to useless trash
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NEW YORK: It’s 1985. We — budding sound engineers — are sitting in the classroom, listening spellbound to the sounds of “Friday Night in San Francisco” — the legendary guitar album by Al di Meola, Paco de Lucia and John McLaughlin, among the best guitarists in the world at the time.

The sound is crystal clear, the tones bubble out of the speakers. Although the music is playing at “room volume,” we have the feeling we can hear every note, every finger stroking the strings.

We even think we can hear the breathing of the musicians. What we don’t hear: The hiss from a tape or cassette, or the scratch and crackle of a vinyl record.

It was the first acoustic encounter with a CD for most of us and a revelation for our young sound-engineer ears.

The compact disc had been around for some time; there was just a long argument about how much music should be pressed onto it.

Finally, it was agreed that the playing time of a CD should be long enough to fit one of the world’s most famous classical works — Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 74-minute version.

In 1981, the CD was presented at the Berlin Radio Exhibition. The first industrially produced discs rolled off the production line on August 17, 1982, and legend has it that the ABBA album “The Visitors” was burned on them.

A short time later, Sony and Philipps launched the first freely available CD players on the market for around 1,200 euros — unaffordable for many people at the time.

Both companies had worked together on the development and were soon able to sit back and relax, because the CD business was going through the roof.

In 1984, 3 million CDs were sold in Germany alone; in 1989, the figure was 54 million. And the price wasn’t cheap: A CD cost 30-40 German marks (about 15-20 euros), more than twice as much as a long-playing record. And this success came despite the fact that nobody knew how long the data on the discs would last.

Over the years, CD players and CDs became more affordable, record stores had to rearrange as music fans started to trade in their vinyl collections for CDs — just like me.

My favourite records had become so crackly that I was eager to enjoy this music without noise for a change. And without turning them over!

I spent horrendous sums on new Pink Floyd and Prince CDs, and on The Beatles’ White Album — the most important record of my life to this day.

I bought jazz and classical music, and more and more pop, rock, soul and funk. Next to my record shelf, a CD shelf sprang up and quickly grew, spreading like weeds through the living room.

Records and turntables collected dust and ended up in the basement.

Even today, I still play music at parties from time to time. People look at me in disbelief when they see the luggage I arrive with.

Two DJ CD players, a mixer, two thick folders with burned CDs and a wooden box with original CDs. Completely old school.

Other DJs use laptops, have their music on a big hard drive and play it with software.

Sounds tempting — just like listening to music via Spotify & Co, which has been killing off the CD for years.

Even more tempting than Spotify playlists, however, is the vinyl record, to which I have once again become addicted after parting with my CD collection — as have numerous music fans around the world.

In 2021, for example, more vinyl records were sold in the US than CDs for the first time since 1991.

And at these prices: 30-40 euros for a 180 gram vinyl record is standard.

A record today costs more than twice as much as a CD — this sounds familiar.

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Silke Wunsch
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