Sep. 28, 2012 at 3:59 PM ET
The digital music revolution officially hit 30 years ago, on Oct. 1, 1982. While you may be surprised to learn that the heralds of the coming age were, in fact, the Bee Gees, it probably comes as less of a shock to learn that Sony was at the very heart of it. After years of research and an intense period of collaboration with Philips, Sony shipped the world's first CD player, the CDP-101. Music — and how we listen to it — would never be the same.
Today the CD player might be seen as something of a relic, since our smartphones, iPods and satellite radios provide seamless access to not only our entire music libraries, but to nearly every artist or track available. We can dictate any song or album to an app and have it playing in seconds, or download a new single by visiting an artist's Facebook page.
In such a world, the idea of carrying around a disc loaded with just 10 or 12 tracks and switching it out every hour sounds positively stone-age. But the MP3 and streaming media are not just the CD's replacements, but its descendants. The future of music in fact made its unofficial debut, believe it or not, in the hands of the Bee Gees.
It was on the BBC show Tomorrow's World in 1981 that the Bee Gees publicly demonstrated CD technology (and a new album, Living Eyes) for the first time. Artists were excited about the format — the prospect of a high-quality, track-separated, non-degrading medium was enticing, though many were still skeptical of digital encoding. But music industry heavies like David Bowie and renowned conductor Herbert von Karajan were quick to embrace it, and soon the likes of Dire Straits would hit a million sales and cement the CD's position as the new standard for music.
That triumph was a long time coming: development of the format began in the '70s, when both Sony and Philips were independently doing research on an digital, optical disc format to replace cassette tapes and records. Early work at Sony was led by Norio Ohga, who bravely bore the skepticism of his comrades in order to create and demonstrate the earliest versions in 1976 and 1978.
Meanwhile, Philips was on the same track, so to speak. Their original version, an evolution of the laserdisc, was a whopping 20cm in diameter, but after reflection they brought the size of their prototype down to 11.5cm — the same size, measured diagonally, as a cassette tape.
In 1979, the two companies decided to work together. They set up a task force of less than a dozen people — engineers who didn't know if they could trust each other. After breaking the ice, however, the team worked for a year and managed to arrive at a set of standards, called the "Red Book." The manufacturing process and method of encoding were contributed by Philips, while Sony created the digital error-correction that made reading the data reliable.
The new technology was privately inaugurated in 1980, and the first modern CD pressed was Richard Strauss's "Alpine Symphony." The next year, the Bee Gees went on the BBC, and the year after that the CD as we know it today was born.
That October of 1982, the CDP-101 made its debut in Japan alongside the first run of CD albums, led by Billy Joel's 52nd Street. The device was expensive: ¥168,000, about $730 at the time, or almost twice that when adjusted for inflation. But home audio wasn't cheap then, and there was a market eager to snap up the new, high-fidelity audio format.
The engineers behind it had really had a task: everything about the system was brand new. As Jacques Heemskerk, one of the senior Philips engineers on the project, told the BBC in 2007:
It was revolutionary in many fields — the optics were new, the disc was new. At the start of development there wasn't even a laser that would work well enough for our needs. The most advanced laser at the time had a lifespan of only 100 hours.
So the cost was justified by the complexity and novelty of the hardware. Other manufacturers, like Toshiba, Kenwood, and of course Philips, would produce variant CD players over the course of the next year.
The first CDs to market, with the notable exception of Billy Joel, were mostly classical. In fact, the capacity of the CD was raised during development from 60 to 74 minutes in order to accommodate Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The creators of the format knew that classical music lovers were more likely to appreciate (and more likely to pay for) the increased quality of the CD system.
The pop and rock market, however, was still in love with cassettes, which were more portable and more ubiquitous than ever. 1979 had brought the first Walkman, and cassette players were now standard equipment in car radios. The CD was, for the moment, strictly for the home, where your nice speakers and amp would make the improved fidelity sing. Even there, to this day, some audiophiles swear by vinyl records and an all-analog setup.
It wasn't until later in the '80s that things really took off. Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms sold a million CDs in 1985, suggesting that the format had finally hit its stride. It wasn't long before other artists were selling millions upon millions of their albums in CD format. The Discman, introduced in 1984, and the CD-ROM format, enabling computers to read the discs, further accelerated uptake.
The rest, as they say, is history. Since that time, hundreds of billions of CDs have been shipped and sold — the numbers are near-impossible to track, since the easily duplicated digital data led to an enormous increase in piracy and counterfeiting, not to mention the billions of copies and mix-CDs made by normal users.
Music CDs peaked in 2000 with global sales estimated at around 2.5 billion. Soon (legal) digital downloads began to replace physical media for many music buyers. Though its numbers are on the decline, CDs are still produced today on the order of hundreds of millions, and it will be many years yet before the world's CD factories shut their doors.
The size and shape of the CD, as well as its capacity, portability, and versatility, have been a major factor in how music has been developed and consumed for decades. Albums were written to fill it, new formats like the DVD were made in imitation of it, and entire new trends in media resulted from it. The Compact Disc started the digital revolution for music in the '70s, and we're still feeling the effects.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.