When CDs Launched in America

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Thirty-three years ago this month, in March 1983, America got its first whirl at the compact disc. CDs first launched in Japan, but they didn’t make their way to the States until several months later. (NPR has a helpful timeline of the important dates in compact-disc-tory.)

It might seem silly, but, back then, these mirrored plastic orbs represented an incredible technological innovation. Here’s a New York Times report from that March:

The digital compact disk and player, which is making its debut in retail stores this month, is being likened in the music industry to the advent of stereophonic sound or the long-playing recording. Still, the CD’s effect on record makers, manufacturers of audio equipment and - most important - the music-loving consumer will probably be more gradual than were the two previous revolutions, according to analysts.

The technological leap is indeed radical. Compact discs are 4 3/4 inches in diameter as opposed to conventional 12-inch long-playing records, and approximately the same thickness. CD’s are made principally of clear plastic and aluminum. They are played on one side, yet yield up to 60 minutes of playing time.

Sold? Not so fast: Only 75 stores nationwide sold CDs, and you’d have to be willing to shell out the big bucks—about $900 for the Sony and Magnavox players, with disks ranging between $16 and $20.

Flash forwarding a decade-and-a-half, here’s Ralph Lombreglia in 1998, writing for our early website (Atlantic Unbound) about how much CDs changed the process of making and consuming music:

Of all the arts, music has probably been changed the most pervasively by digital technology -- a change heralded by the recording industry’s shift in the 1980s from vinyl platters to the compact disc. Most consumers don’t associate their CDs with computers, but, of course, the music on those discs is digital data. As such, it shares the great benefits of all digitally encoded information -- it’s perfectly reproducible (a copy is identical to the original) and completely editable. Today, especially in pop music, many of the sonorities and instrumental voices originate from within digital equipment, and the layering of the many tracks that make up a performance is entirely computer-based.

Nothing lasts forever; the CD would soon gave way to the era of MP3 players and iPods, then to iPhones and Spotify. An early example of that transition comes from Ben Auburn in The Atlantic in 1999: The Beastie Boys released a non-traditional album that allowed buyers to “select any Beastie Boys track (including unreleased and out-of-print material), arrange your selections on two compact discs, and order the resulting set,” thus “essentially negating the artist’s intent in collecting and sequencing a group of songs.” He continues:

This process, though, still retains an analog, or rather a solid, portion: ultimately the music you select is burned onto an actual disc, a cover is printed, and the whole package is mailed to you. Until MP3 players (essentially small hard drives onto which you load sound files from your computer) become as prevalent as the Walkman (or the car stereo), this tangible aspect of online music buying will remain. Except for early adopters -- such as college students with fast Net connections and money to spend on the first Walkman-type MP3 devices -- most music buyers, like most book readers, still want something to hold on to, something to prove that they own the songs they’ve chosen. Most of us are perfectly happy to listen to the radio without taping it for posterity, just as we’re perfectly happy to read and then recycle a magazine; but records, like books, remain non-disposable -- they are things to be put on shelves in living rooms, totems that help us define our characters.

Only when we’re willing to give up the tangible -- perhaps when our data can follow us around as easily and as securely as a book or CD can be stuffed in a briefcase -- will downloadable music eclipse the compact disc.