|The first CD players cost about $2,000 at today’s prices [AFP]|
Twenty-five years ago the first compact discs rolled of the production presses at the Philips factory near Hannover in Germany.
Since then more than 200 billion CDs have been sold worldwide after pushing out vinyl records and then cassettes as the format of choice for listening to music.
Those early CDs also paved the way for other digital discs, like the DVD and CD-Rom, which became ubiquitous in the computer and and movie industries.
“In the late seventies and early eighties we never imagined that one day, the computing and entertainment industries would also opt for the digital CD to store the growing volume of data for computer programmes and movies,” Pieter Kramer, one of the Philips engineers who developed the CD, said.
But their future looks increasingly under threat from MP3 players that play music downloaded directly from the internet or digital storage devices for computer files
Initially Philips hit upon the idea of digital recording for video and developed a 30cm golden CD to play movies, but the video disc never caught on.
It was only after that idea flopped that Philips engineers suggested making a smaller digital disc which only played sound – the CD was born.
|“It started out quite small
as many revolutions do”
“It started out quite small as many revolutions do,” Paul Solleveld of the Dutch organisation for the entertainment industry, NVPI, said.
The first CDs to be pressed were The Visitors by the Swedish pop group Abba, the top-selling artists on the Philips record label Polygram, and a classical recording by Herbert von Karajan conducting An Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss.
Only a limited number of CD titles were released in the early days, mainly recordings of classical music. The developers believed that classical fans would better appreciate the superior sound quality.
“When Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau recorded one of the first CDs for Polygram we discovered that he was grunting and panting while playing. Before on vinyl you didn’t hear that but on CD it was crystal clear,” Frank van den Berg, a former member of the Polygram CD development task force, said.
Classical music lovers were also generally more affluent than pop and rock music fans, and Philips thought they would be more inclined to pay the high price for CDs and early CD players, the first models of which cost about $2,000 at today’s prices, taking inflation into account.
There are numerous legends about why Philips and Sony – the Japanese company which jointly developed CD – chose to make the disc its now familiar size.
Some said it matched a Dutch beer coaster while others have claimed that a famous conductor or Sony executive wanted it just long enough for Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
But Kramer said truth is slightly less interesting, the decision apparently evolved from “long conversations around the table” about which play length made the most sense.
“The CD was in itself an easy product to market,” Lucas Covers, Philips’ current marketing chief for consumer electronics, said.
By 1986, CD players were outselling record players, and by 1988 CDs outsold records.
“It was a massive turnaround for the whole market,” Covers said.
The CD player helped Philips maintain its position as Europe’s largest maker of consumer electronics until it was eclipsed by mobile phone manufaturer Nokia in the late 1990s.
CD sales have been falling since 1991 and many people wonder if they will make it to their 30th anniversary.
Digital download sales are rising rapidly, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry says digital sales will account for one quarter of all worldwide music sales by 2010.
“The MP3 and all the little things that the boys and girls have in their pockets … can replace it, absolutely,” Kramer said.