Black Collar Workers



broken cd

Yesterday marked the 30th anniversary of the day CDs of Billy Joel’s 52nd Street went on sale in Japan, launching the format that would dominate recorded music sales in the ’90s and early ’00s. Recorded music formats tend to rise and fall in cycles of roughly 30 years, so yesterday’s milestone has predictably inspired a number of editorials on the CD’s demise. But there are a couple of interesting takeaways from this NPR article on the matter that I’d like to discuss, namely the “convenience over sound quality” discussion as it applies to digital audio and whether or not the 30-year cycle can be expected to hold up for MP3s.

1) The “convenience over sound quality” debate goes back to the earliest days of recorded music:

[Edison] invented the recording cylinder in 1877, but it didn’t really catch on until the 1890s. Cylinders were about four inches long, and they looked like empty toilet paper rolls covered in wax or lacquer. They were the state-of-the-art musical format for about 20 years, until they were supplanted by a new invention: the 78 rpm disc, touted by Edison’s competitor, the Victor Talking Machine Co.

“The early machines were very, very crude,” says Brooks [Tim Brooks, who wrote a book about the beginnings of the recording industry called Lost Sounds]. “The sound was not as good as the sound on cylinders. But it was a lot more convenient. They didn’t break as easily. They could be made longer, bigger, that sort of thing.”

Sound familiar? When MP3s first came onto the scene they were rejected by audiophiles who (rightly) claimed inferior sound quality. But as with the CD before, vinyl LPs before that and 78s before that, sound quality on those mediums improved as time went on and the kinks were ironed out (the 128kbps MP3s that were standard in the halcyon days of Napster are now laughed at, as 256kbps or even 320kbps are the standard sound quality bit rates). But more importantly, the “convenience over sound quality” debate has always been a thing, and convenience has always trumped sound quality in the end; the masses just don’t care how good something sounds as long as it’s easy to use.

2) I’d like to challenge the assertion that the 30-year product cycle rule will stick around, namely because I’m not sure it applies to digital formats. I’d like to invoke Moore’s Law — a widely held tenet of computing technology that’s proven remarkably accurate over the years — which claims that computing power of processing chips doubles every 18 months. Just 15 years into the MP3 era we’re already seeing mass proliferation of the next format, monthly fee-based streaming audio services (Spotify, MOG, Rdio, etc). The same sound quality arguments have inevitably been whipped out, but ever-improving technology is already addressing those complaints and the convenience of having every song ever recorded with you all the time is just undeniable. A future where streaming audio services dominate the marketplace is not that far off, like it or not.

Food for thought as we celebrate (or bemoan?) the 30th anniversary of the CD. Chime in with your thoughts below.


Thanks: Ron D.

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