*NEW* Industry Opinion: The CD Is 30 Years Old!

Our new weekly analysis of the music industry will debate the latest industry news. This week: The CD is 30 years old, but what will music formats look like in the future? And how will the Universal merger with EMI affect regular music fans?

*NEW* Industry Opinion: The CD Is 30 Years Old!
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Welcome to our new weekly roundup of music business analysis. Every week we'll be taking a look at the latest movements in the industry, but unlike regular news posts the aim is to extract lessons and insight to help you plan your future in music. Of course, in typical UG style, we'll be poking fun at the barmy end of the music business when appropriate. First, it's time to pay tribute to a music format which transformed music listening. The CD is 30 years old today. Best of all, it remains the most popular album format after all this time, unlike singles which ran off to have an affair with digital stores like iTunes. UG readers were concerned last year when we reported on claims that major labels planned to stop printing CDs by the end of 2012, but here we are in October and there's no signs of "disc-mageddon" so far. Still, streaming services have seen spectacular growth in 2012 and look set to become the dominant format before long. Spotify has been available in Europe for much longer than the US, and labels there are starting to see more income from streaming than physical releases. The tide has turned indeed. But is streaming the ultimate format? Labels are already preparing the next generation of music format with a focus on HD audio. Apple has been nudging producers to submit high-resolution audio files to help future-proof iTunes all year, but Neil Young thinks it isn't enough. Now Neil Young has launched his own ultra-high-resolution music player called Pono. It uses regular digital files, but insists on a staggering 192Khz/24bit resolution for all files. There's a catch to Pono, though. Neil likes to argue that original tape recordings suffer in quality when they're "downgraded" to CD files, but this isn't true. Good mastering engineers know how to prepare music for a format without losing any quality, and the final CD format of 44.1Khz/16bit is enough resolution to capture every audible sound without a loss in quality. It's exactly why CDs have lasted so long. Audiophiles like to argue otherwise, but in reality the vast majority of music wouldn't benefit from a higher resolution (and it's arguable whether other types would improve either). Whether it's true or not, major labels are re-mastering their music in the Pono format to exploit listeners who don't know any better and are happy to buy into the hype. We haven't even mentioned how ugly the player looks. Hey Neil, is that a Pono in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?
Speaking of majors, Universal is about to become the big baddie of the music world now it's officially bought EMI for £1.2 billion ($1.9 billion). But the rest of the industry isn't happy about the merger. The deal makes Universal the biggest label ever - it's basically Sauron from "Lord of the Rings" and we're all just hobbits without a clue of what dangers await us. Why is this bad? Imagine you live in a country where everyone can vote, but one person has 10 million votes. That's Universal (alright, I made up the figures but let's keep this simple). You might think it was a little unfair for one person to have that many votes, and that's exactly how the rest of the music business feels. It means that any future music platforms that launch will need Universal on side if it wants to succeed because it controls so many popular artists (The Beatles and Beach Boys are just two of the many artists it just nabbed from EMI, and that's before you consider everyone on Universal). Universal's support will literally make or break a new service, which means it gets to decide the future of music and how it's delivered to listeners. In the age of the internet, this matters. It always sucked that majors ran the music world, but for one major to be in charge? The consensus is universal: it sucks. Thanks for reading our first weekly music business discussion. We have a couple of questions to encourage the debate: How long will CDs last? Do ultra-high-resolution digital files really improve on CD quality? Should one major label have a controlling vote in the music business? Let us know your opinion in the comments. UG staff will be taking part in the discussion, so feel free to pitch some questions. Tom Davenport (Twitter)

162 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    KISSmyass666
    I like my CDs. Some of my Black Sabbath CDs are 20+/-Years old. I like booklets and sound quality with CDs. So what if there old.
    goingnowhere21
    Yeah, I agree. There's something to buying a CD that means more than just downloading an album off of iTunes. Maybe its the actual physical product you get or whatever, or the effort you made to get it. I don't think CD's are gonna change anytime soon. This new mp3 player won't really do much. Zune's sound quality was far superior to any iPod on the market, but it still failed in the long run because Apple's mp3 market is way too massive. This "Pono" idea might cause some hype at first, but give it a few years, it will be done with.
    The_DSO
    i would also add, a severe lack of marketing killed the Zune, and it was vastly superior to the ipod in every way, the user experience was amazing! However, Zune is still there on Windows Phone
    TombOfHorror
    I have a Zune HD, and the only thing I dislike about it is the small number of apps and accessories. The sound quality (last I checked, its been a while) is much crisper than the ipod. And the Zune program for Windows is very intuitive, graphically immersive, feature laden (like the music bios and 'related' music suggestions), and easy to use. Itunes sucks. I installed it and was rather underwhelmed by the interface, and the way songs are catalogued.
    baumaxx1
    I think a lot is better than the shrill, mechanical sound of the ipod. Ohh, also... it distorts very easily.
    goingnowhere21
    You pretty much hit the nail on the head there. It is nice though, that all the apps are free, even though there isn't a lot. My only complaints are that there was no external speaker and the lack of apps. But really though, apps don't really matter anymore, I just love it for its sound quality. Plus, once it starts to get full, some of the songs get screwed up after you sync them, having parts of other songs in them or just not working in general. It's pretty irritating sometimes.
    90'sMusicFanLMB
    I agree with u entirely, I am usually pretty selective in which cd's I buy however I think it's still is important to buy when in this day and age anyone can download music for free off the internet.Bands rely on that money and everyone should help contribute/support that band by paying for the cd if they enjoy their music .
    Diony x
    I cant be without CDs. If I listen music from iTunes, it doesnt feeel right. CDs and especially booklets are the best!
    muir
    I feel as though I don't own an album if it's a digital download. There's much more satisfaction in actually owning your own copy in my opinion
    TombOfHorror
    Same here. Opening the case, flipping through the booklet, reading the lyrics, looking at the artwork... and even just physically seeing it on the shelf. But... for the last 3 years, every CD I buy, I immediately rip to mp3 (320 bitrate) and listen to it on my mp3 player or computer exclusively. Its been years since I've actually listened to a CD. Hell, I don't even own a CD player anymore. But I still buy the CDs.
    baumaxx1
    Buy a quality hi-fi and I guarantee you'll be enjoying the CDs once again.
    baumaxx1
    Haha... CDs are a long way from being replaced. You can't beat lossless quality, and you can find CDs the same price or cheaper than digital downloads quite often. Most digital downloads are still lossy formats and many stores still sell moderate-low bitrate files. Until there is the capacity to provide every bit of music in a lossless format and server costs are reduced, CDs have a place in the music market. I also like the idea behind Pono, but it looks like a brick and quite basic. I don't see the point of producing a player that supports high quality formats only to have a cheap onboard DAC and no way to connect it to a high quality DAC. Spotify capability would be nice too, and as far as portable music players go, it is too bulky. The triangular shape is just awkward. In short, we need that to have wifi, android so it runs streaming services, it to actually be of a portable size and a coaxial or optical out for use with a proper DAC. Until then, the ipod's good enough for the bus/travel and I'll stick with my squeezebox and audiolab DAC at home with my CD collection encoded in FLAC. ... and the Universal situation is worrying. A similar thing happened with Apple and the portable media player market. You have a choice of an ipod and not much else; there's been virtually no progress in that market since the introduction of the ipod touch, which focuses more on games than being a quality music player. I miss my old Cowon which sounded fantastic and was miles ahead in music and video playback, but the new android based Cowon Z2 took too long to be released and was too expensive next to the ipod. That being said, Spotify off-line mode is a major win with android and iOs devices. Anyway /midnight rant on music formats and portables
    Macabre_Turtle
    You forget that CD's are just a way of storing music that is already in a digital format. As in, they are just a file being read by a computer. Every song that has ever been recorded and sold on a cd can be, and as far as I'm aware usually is, sold at the same quality online. That said, I will never spend money on a product I can't hold in my hands.
    baumaxx1
    Yes they are, but they are considered to be a hi-fi source. Now name a store which sells, say Karnivool's Themata in FLAC lossless format? I usually have luck with bandcamp for independent artists, but 7 digital, fairshare music and Qobuz do offer FLAC formats, but very few albums are offered in FLAC. The majority of what I wanted was in mp3. I just find it's a lot of effort trying to track down CDs I want in a lossless format on-line, and a lot is still unavailable.
    Macabre_Turtle
    Okay, I'm mistaken on the "as far as I'm aware usually is" bit. But that doesn't change the point that CD quality is not inherently superior. But again, I agree, I would never buy music for download.
    baumaxx1
    Of course not. but it beats buying files reduced to 10% of the quality of a CD from itunes.
    Valgoroth
    There will always have to be some sort of physical medium for music. You can't hand out demo MP3's at your concerts.
    wembly
    You'd be surprised. It wouldn't be hard to have a scalable QR code that gave you accesses to a downloads page.
    stickman31
    Yeah but it's more appealing to get a physical disc with art and whatnot. It's more down to earth than a black and white picture
    wembly
    Maybe to you, but some people just want ease of use. It sucks, but it's the way things seem to be going.
    link no1
    If I was given some crappy download code at a gig rather than a demo, it would probably go straight in the trash.
    wembly
    Yes, i would do the same too, but technology will advance, with or without us. Bands rarely sell many demo tapes at a gig anyway. The general rule of thumb is that 2% of the audience you're playing too will pay for your demo. gig of 100 people? 2 tapes sold.
    stickman31
    Well not to provoke a full blown argument, but how is it easier to flip out your phone, open an app and download the song (if you even have a phone capable of doing so) compared to taking a free CD and putting it in your PC/CD player?
    wembly
    Because people want to use their phone for anything. That's why we have all of these shitty apps. they don't want to have to carry something the size of a CD around all night (The horror!). Look, I'm not saying this is good or ideal, I'm just offering a different perspective, something which UG readers seem unable to do. Also going back to your example of the CD player thing, most people will put it on their computer now so they can have it on their Ipod's or whatever the **** those hipsters are buying now. Let's face it, the majority of youth suck ass. Most of them will have an iphone 4 that their parents bought for them after their 9th blackberry went missing. My main point is that eventually the majority is just going to go with technology. It always happens. True, us more guitary lot might take longer than the average troglodyte, but eventually we will just have to knuckle under. CD's are a dying breed anyway, nobody will buy them when it's cheaper to buy them online or torrent them. once CD's become a thing of the past, the rest of the people will just move on. Why would a band that probably are broke after recording, pay even more money to sell CD's, when nobody is going to have the technology to support them. Granted that might be a bit further down the line, but it could happen. Sorry, i kind of ranted, not trying to arguing with you. But yeah, there could be a million other ways to implement something where you get a bands demo tape for download.
    nickzippelli
    I don't have a blackberry, I don't have an android, I don't have an iPhone 5 4 3 2 or 1. My phone makes phone calls, takes pictures, and texts. If I want to listen to music- I bust out my iPod Classic (I'd rather have decent memory than shitty gimmicky apps). By the way, I'm 19 years old and have had my own job since I was 15. To be honest most of today's 'youth' do 'suck ass', but that's due to my generation's shitty pop and rap music. Oh wait - did you have shitty pop music when you were young a couple hundred years ago? I bet you did?
    wembly
    Oh wow you're so controversial. The point was that the majority is like that, but there always has to be one stuck up ***** who thinks that I'm applying it to everybody. And I never blamed it on music, the problem comes from the media.
    Cavalcade
    You kind of are applying it to everybody, making sweeping generalizations about "the majority of youth". Kids these days with their fancy I-pods and feeling-less "music". Do you have any idea how out of touch you sound?
    USCENDONE BENE
    Some bands hand out usb memory sticks with music on.
    brutalbl00d
    Why would bands do that? They would have to charge you quite a bit or they would be loosing money compared to handing out just demo cds
    USCENDONE BENE
    I didn't say i understood it, i just know that some bands do it This Japanese band I like called toe do it.
    link no1
    I would love to see an unsigned band do that who aren't funded by their wealthy parents.
    GhostPlayground
    I used to know a band who had all of their songs on a laptop, and would allow people to hook up their mp3 players to their computer so they could download some demo songs on them. The band broke-up, but the point remains that everybody at the show walked out with an mp3 file of the band's music. That wouldn't have happen if they handed out cd's, or gave out download codes.
    BassKid101
    Not true. When I was at Warped Tour 2010 this local band gave me a card with a download code for their self-released full-length. Though, they didn't compress the files so it was like 30mb per song which was a total pain in the ass, but still, I've had it actually happen so this could be the future at some point. I pray it doesn't though, way too much effort. I'd rather just buy a CD and pop it in for a listen than go through a bunch of online bs.
    mulefish
    The front page news reports are particularly good today. A variety of humour [beiber], gossip band news [muse], and than this piece. It's a good variety that suits a larger demographic, yet still retains at least one article that I will enjoy. Better than having the front page filled with gossip about nickelback and the marriage plans.
    on3andth3sam3
    People always want higher quality audio, but I'll take recording tools from the 60's and back any day.
    wembly
    That wasn't low quality, per-say. Just has it's own unique sound and was usually quite impracticable at certain things.
    xplosive59
    Screw the Pono, I listen to Black Metal, like I care about low quality recordings!
    Way Cool JR.
    Damn! I remember when CDs first came out. They were a downgrade in sound quality compared to Cassettes and Vinyls. I will say they were more convenient since you didn't have to flip or rewind them and you could skip straight to a song of choice. But when they created the auto flip tape player that basicly put an end to fliping tapes and having to rewind them . Nowadays a lot of CD's are sounding a-lot better especially some re-masters of old albums that were originally recorded in all analog. But for the most part IMO cassette and vinyl are still a step ahead in sound quality over CDs. I have a nice collection of all three formats so I am not bias at all, just opinionated.
    baumaxx1
    Not really. Cassettes sounded terrible, but they were more portable, and you could record to them. The cassette hiss and degradation and maintenance required spoiled things. Vinyls may have sounded better on day 1 with the best quality player, but they don't last either.
    Way Cool JR.
    Since I was able to listen to both formats of the same albums(tape/CD) when they were new on a great Hi-Fi system. I can safely say the cassettes sounded better than CDs. The CDs sounded thinner and to trebley with a lack of bass, tho they were crystal clear. I have original prints of the same albums in CD,cassette and vinyl and decades later the Cassettes and Vinyls still sound better. But to be fair I have some newer reprinted remasters of the same albums on CD and the sound quality is amazing. They have all the great sound of the original recordings (older formats) but without the hiss. The hiss on cassettes is unnoticeable anyways when there is music playing you only hear it between songs. The whole maintenance thing is really null since one decent scratch on a CD can destroy it the same goes for records. And tapes can break or get eaten by the tape deck but both of those problems are repairable. If it's eaten you just wind it back in and it might sound a little warblie in that spot. And if it breaks you can just glue or tape it back together and it will just sound strange for a split second in that spot. The only maintenance for cassettes is you have to clean the heads in the player once or twice a year. That's easily done in a minute with a Q-Tip and some alcohol. I love/have all three formats and enjoy listening to them all, so it doesn't really mater either way to me. I am not a fan of downloaded music, most all of it sounds terrible. Especially since I listen to all my music on a (great) Hi-Fi system and goo car sound systems. I don't listen to music on headphones anymore, not since I was a teenager.
    Soundservant
    I heard that the human ear can not even tell the difference between a 192kHz 24-bit file or a 96kHz 24-bit? Can someone elaborate on this?
    UGtom
    Both 96khz and 192 khz can accurately reproduce every audible frequency -- it means they'll sound exactly the same. Even a 44.1khz file can reproduce it, BUT... it's more prone to errors, especially if it's not converted by a very expensive converter. This is why people prefer to use 48khz or 96khz in the studio, so these errors are shifted above our range of hearing. No need to record above 96khz, but you'll never convince Neil Young of that. Hell, even tape can't reproduce higher frequencies, so Neil's argument that Analog is better resolution is bunk from the start. You might wonder, why does 192khz exist? Well, not all recording is for music. What if you're studying insects or bats and want to analyse audio higher than we can hear? In these instances (and probably many others) the higher sample rate is valid. With music? Not unless you're designing some next-level psychoacoustic stuff.
    killerkev321
    Ok I've studied both digital technology and audio electronics in school and it is true that 44.1 kHz reproduce every audible frequency but by saying that your missing a huge piece that is the audio wave it self. Take a sine wave for example the most common wave in music and nature and it is absolutely impossible for a digital format to faithfully recreate that wave which directly affects the tonality. The faster sample rate and higher bit rate allows computers to get closer to that sine wave thus it sounds. I can't believe people don't understand this. Didn't you ever wonder why a distorted guitar sounds the way it does? same frequency altered wave. And plus if you ever have decent ears and a decent sound system you can clearly hear the difference between 16bit/44.1khz and 24bit/96khz. Never tried 96khz vs 192khz though
    UGtom
    I ought to avoid getting into detailed discussions, but will try to explain in brief. "it is absolutely impossible for a digital format to faithfully recreate that wave which directly affects the tonality" Only if we joined up the samples. It doesn't behave that way in reality; no one joins up the samples. Digital samples *look* like they're not smooth like a sine wave, but that's what comes out. If you filmed the speaker cones playing at an ultra-high frame rate, then watched it in slow motion, the speakers don't judder forwards in steps, they move in smooth curves like the original analog wave. Of course, all speakers sound different because they reproduce these curves differently from each other -- much more significant than any difference in sample rate above 48khz/24bit! As you say, some assume it still affects the tone, but we've already established how the only audible tones are already recreated -- every single one you can possibly hear.
    UGtom
    Edit: Digital samples *look* like they're not smooth like a sine wave, but that's NOT what comes out
    dewitt
    The format you type in, the topics you discuss, the way you discuss them - and most of all, the specific comments you make - lead me to believe that you must have been browsing reddit.com/r/music yesterday, too.
    UGtom
    Not at all, though I write for several tech blogs too so maybe they were browsing my stuff
    baumaxx1
    Yeah, the Digital to Analogue conversion process basically joins the dots and fits an analogue curve/approximation.
    wembly
    that and the fact that a speaker can't vibrate fast enoguh to instantly skip between samples.
    killerkev321
    I did know that speaker cones don't move as jagged as the digital wave but their is still missing information. This is music so don't look at it listen to it 24bit/96khz does sound smoother and clearer than 16bit/44.1khz. If you don't have a hi-fi sound system don't sweat it if you can't hear the difference. But once you do enter the would of hi-fi the difference can be quiet clear
    wembly
    Thought I should point out "Take a sine wave for example the most common wave in music and nature and it is absolutely impossible for a digital format to faithfully recreate that wave which directly affects the tonality." If you look into harmonics, you will realise that a pure sine wave, or any sine wave really for that matter is very unnatural. it doesn't ever occur in nature. It's too perfect.
    Lord_Doku
    You will hear the difference between 192kHz and 96kHz. The arguement is that people don't hear the difference between 192kHz and a higher quality unless they listen for it on purpose, until it reaches a limit beyond which nobody can hear it.