Sunday, August 19, 2007

Happy birthday (P.S., R.I.P.)

The compact disc was introduced 25 years ago. The format is now fading, with new digital media widely predicted to render silver discs commercially obsolete within a few years.

Assuming that CDs cease to be the dominant platform for recorded music by, say, 2010, how will this format compare with its predecessors in marketplace longevity?

The original recordings were wax cylinders, invented by Thomas Edison in 1876. Edison continued to manufacture cylinders into the second decade of the 20th century; but when Emile Berliner introduced the gramophone record in 1895, cylinders were doomed.

The gramophone record – rotation speed soon settled on 78 revolutions per minute – was the prevalent format from c. 1900 until the introduction of vinyl records (45-rpm singles and 33 1/3-rpm long-playing albums) in 1948.

Magnetic tape recordings were developed in Germany in the 1930s, but tape was not employed as a home-playback format until the ’50s. Record companies did marginal trade in pre-recorded open-reel tapes and generated higher sales of 4-track and 8-track tape cartridges in the early ’60s; but tapes really hit the mass market with the introduction of the cassette in 1963.

Vinyl records and pre-recorded tapes shared market dominance through the early ’80s. Vinyl quickly faded after CDs began to circulate in quantity, c. 1985. Cassettes continued to be marketed, in gradually declining numbers, until the first years of this century.

[Major proviso to head off outpouring of outraged-reader comments: Every "obsolete" format continued to be made and enjoyed long after its supposed demise. New vinyl continues to be pressed. You can even buy a new turntable that plays 78s.]

Proviso notwithstanding, the commercial reigns of successive recording formats look roughly like this:
* Cylinder recordings – 1876-1900 (24 years).
* Gramophone records – 1895-1950 (55 years).
* Vinyl records – 1948-1985 (37 years).
* Cassettes – 1963-2000 (37 years).
* Compact discs – 1982-2010 (28 years).

Those numbers suggest that the next dominant format (mp3 or whatever) will prevail for about a generation – unless we’ve lurched into permanent technological hyperdrive, in which case no format will last more than a few years, and households and landfills will be littered with digital-age equivalents to the Victrola.

For durability, the grooved disc still rules. Records can be played even in seriously defective condition. Not so worn or damaged cassettes or CDs or corrupted software.