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The CD is Totally Dead!: Seven Battles Royale That Killed Music Formats in the Past (Who Will Vanquish the MP3?)

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Fri, Jan 14, 2011 at 8:10 AM

click to enlarge Disc Phonograph
  • Disc Phonograph
The way we live now: consigning CDs to the dustbin of history . This week, Sony announced that it will be laying off 300 workers at a CD manufacturing plant (which they somehow found time to do even though they are suing the hacking group 0verflow and debuting a 3D television series in Japan ). Anyhow, Sony cited "challenges facing the physical music industry" as their reason for shutting the plant down. CDs are merely the latest device to bite the dust; what follows is a history of the fights-to-the-death between physical music devices, and their demises, (with much help from Mark Coleman's amazing book Playback: 100 Years of Machines, Music, and Money):

click to enlarge Disc Phonograph
  • Disc Phonograph

7. Format War: The Disc vs the Cylinder Phonograph

Although it was invented as early as 1887, Thomas Edison finally tried to introduce the cylinder phonograph to the public in the early 1900s. (the patent office registers it at 1888) and other sources discuss his development of a commercial phonographs and wax cylinders between 1887-1889) (Note: commenters point out that he technically invented it in 1877; yes, the tinfoil cylinder was invented in 1877 but the wax cylinder was largely the product of efforts taking place somewhere between 1887 and 1888. It was moulded cylinders of this type that were introduced to the public in the early 1900s. We can see how this may have been unclear!) . Additionally, he pushed his Diamond Discs series of "Edison Tone-Test Recitals", wherein a live performer and a recording of the performance were subjected to audience scrutiny. Unfortunately, he forgot to advertise about such performances, or seek out much publicity, so public interest in the device wasn't what he'd hoped. So when Emil Berliner invented the disc phonograph, which he called the gramophone, a format war ensued. (note: some commenters have contended that the name is "Emile", not "Emil"; here is a Billboard magazine calling him "Emil"--other sources exist that do the same; the name was spelled both ways.) The invention of the gramophone was incredibly significant: the recording process allowed for the production of a master recording, which meant that one master could allow ease in the mass production of an unlimited number of discs; Edison's disc phonograph on the other hand required a bank of recorders and endless takes in the studio. (Note: a commenter took issue with this; the point is that Berliner's process allowed for having an unlimited number of discs stamped from a single master recording, which wasn't the case with either of Edison's devices ) It soon became clear that the gramophone was preferred by all. (Note: We had left this out for the sake of brevity but since a commenter took issue with our paraphrasing of this particular part of music history, allow us to add that Berliner would be sued by Edison for copyright infringement. Berliner would win, but would be financially ruined as a result. Eldridge Johnson then bought the Berliner Gramophone Co., and named it Victor Talking Machine Co. to commemorate Berliner's victory. In any case, the point here is that after years of litigation, the disc emerged as the dominant format. A brief overview of the details of that battle is in the next section.)

click to enlarge HIS MASTER'S VOICE
  • His Master's Voice

6. Format War: The gramophone vs the Victrola

Enter the Victor Talking Machine company, formed in 1901. The Victrola would eventually became more popular than the phonograph, gramophone or the cylinder phonograph due to aggressive marketing . Also, the Victrola, unlike the gramophone or the cylinder phonograph, was self-contained and pretty simple to operate, and the discs were easy to store. At first, all discs were 7" wide and 2 minutes long ; after 1903, Victor began releasing formats on 8", 10", and 12". (Note: a commenter took this to mean that we think Victor introduced all of those formats in 1903; we mean here that as of 1903, these were the three formats that Victor made available. This was because Victor abandoned 7" records, so as of 1903, the 8", 10", and 12" are what remained.) The enduring popularity of the brand is pretty clear when you consider that the image of the pitbull (an image called "his master's voice") is still recognizable today. (note: some commenters have questioned whether or not this is indeed a pit bull. There is no clear consensus on Nipper's breed, given that many of the breeds we know and love today were not recognized by the AKC at the time. The contention that this is a staffordshire bull terrier is anachronistic, staffordshire bull terrier wasn't recognized as a breed until 1975. Some say Nipper is a plain bull terrier, which had been recognized as a breed by then, but there's no consensus that this is the case--some sources even refer to him as a fox terrier. This documentary refers to Nipper as a pit bull, and the BBC says he was a Jack Russell. Also, the dog in the picture doesn't look like a bull terrier.)

click to enlarge LPs
  • LPs

5. Format War: The Victrola vs. the LP

In 1948, Columbia Records held a press conference to introduce a new device for listening to recorded music, the LP. This was pretty bold--the LP was an untested format, and after a small slump in sales in the mid-20s, Victrolas had rebounded and remained popular. The first LP was Mendelssohn's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E minor. And no one much cared. (Note: a commenter took issue with the designation of this concerto as the first LP, however several sources refer to this as the first LP. We'd love to see a source that says otherwise though--our curiosity is piqued!) Columbia decided to offer the technology for free to anyone who wanted it in order to speed the adoption of the format; in spite of this rather disappointing introduction, Billboard still followed the LP closely, writing that this could change music consumption and production as the world knew it. Dealers saw the 33 1/3 speed as hype, given that the Victrola had run on 78 since its introduction; suddenly, RCA announced it would start making 45s. Sales dived, as record buyers waited to see which format would take hold. (Note: some commenters have suggested that the LP was well-recieved immediately; while the new technology may have been a sensation, that doesn't mean that it sold well, or that the LP was without obstacles. We have linked to sources in the following few sentences that will help shed light on the challenges that the LP faced when first introduced). The LP struggled at first--initial market results were disappointing in part because of a recession and in part because the public was put off of the 'war of the speeds'--- but the stalemate decisive coup came when Columbia secured the rights to the musical South Pacific; shortly thereafter RCA announced that it would make its catalog available on 33 1/3 RPM records.

click to enlarge the 8-track
  • the 8-track

4. Format War: Stereo 8 tapes verses Cassettes

Conceived by William Lear (as in "Lear Jet"), the 8 track cartridge contained continues loop-tape with four sets of paired stereo tracks in the early 1960s. The design was ideal for the automobile, and Lear approached Ford with his design; they in turn teamed up with Motorola and RCA to install 8-tracks in all their top-of-the-line models. by 1967, Billlboard magazine wrote that "Stereo 8 cartridges have brought new life to the musical experience". Although we think of 8 tracks as a relic of the 70s, the last of them were produced in 1988, speaking to the enduring nature of the format. The introduction of the cassette, however, with its cheaper, smaller cartridge would be its undoing.

click to enlarge Home Taping is Why We Can't Have Nice Things.
  • Home Taping is Why We Can't Have Nice Things.

3. Format War: Cassettes vs LPs

Had it really come to this? It sure had. In 1978, music sales were down and the music industry was lamenting the introduction of such gadgets as home tape-recording machines and Walkmans. By 1980, half of Americans had a tape recording machine in their homes, and it was estimated that 400 million albums were taped off the radio in that year alone. They claimed that "home taping was killing the LP and even created a stamp that said as such, placed on many records sold in the 1980s. This was quite a turnaround since cassettes appeared on the market in 1960. At the time, however, they had been more expensive than records, and had worse fidelity. Prices eventually dropped, quality improved, and the tape gained traction. The invention of the walkman by Sony in 1979 sealed the deal.

click to enlarge Cassettes
  • Cassettes

2. Format War: Cassettes vs CDs

The CD was launched in 1982, one of the worst years for the recording industry, well--ever. The first CD produced in Europe was Abba's The Visitors; in the U.S. it was a toss-up between Billy Joel's 52nd street and Glenn Miller's In the Mood. Like the LP before it, it had been designed for classical music, and history repeated itself. Fans of classical music were willing to buy recordings that they already owned in this newer higher-fidelity format. The cost should have been prohibitive--CDs, at the time of their introduction, cost twice as much as LPs but very little to make, and record companies were thus widely accused of profiteering. Still, Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms became the first CD to sell a million copies by specifically promoting the album as a CD.

click to enlarge iPods
  • iPods

1. Format War: CDs vs MP3s.

The MP3 was actually invented in the early 1987, introduced by the Moving Picture Experts group as an audio-only format; in 1993, mp3s were introduced to the internet for public consumption. Fun fact: it was Suzanne Vega's voice that was used as the model for the compression algorithm in the mp3s development. Fun fact 2: iPods are louder than most mp3 players because Steve Jobs is partially deaf. Anyway, in 1995, RealAudio was developed. This software allowed users to stream mp3s, but it wasn't until 1997's launch of mp3.com, which put free mp3s online for users to download. By mid 2000, there were somewhere between 100 million and 100 billion songs floating around the internet for users to download. Mp3.com, like its follower Napster, was hit with a copyright infringement suit; still, the illegal downloading of mp3s goes on.

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