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Disc Deewane

Thirty years ago, a new format for storing and playing music was unveiled. Today, as it faces extinction, here’s the story of how the CD was born — to the tune of classical music, writes Indrajit Hazra.

music Updated: Mar 15, 2009 00:19 IST
Indrajit Hazra

We will do whatever the consumer wants. We’ll press music on vinyl, tape or even banana leaves if that’s what they will buy. Brian Southall, EMI spokesman, May 1983

On the last day of August 1982, Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger was No. 1 on the US Billboard charts. As the theme song of the year’s summer hit, Rocky III, the number would stay right on top of the charts for six whole weeks. But the real news had already happened some hours ago in Japan. There was an announcement from Tokyo that the joint efforts of record giants Sony, CBS-Sony, Philips and Polygram had paid off. The four-company team reported that it had finally ‘perfected’ the Compact Disc.

The story of the compact disc itself started three years earlier in 1979 as an off-shoot of the defunct Laserdisc, the first format for home video that never took off. On March 8, 1979, Dutch electronics company Philips demonstrated a prototype of an optical digital audio disc at a press conference — ‘Philips Introduce [sic] Compact Disc’ in Eindhoven.

Three years earlier, Sony had already demonstrated an early version of the audio disc. But as Kees Schouhamer Immink, the team leader of the Philips-Sony research team working on the compact disc in the late 70s, put it in his The CD Story, it was only after Philips joined forces with Sony that the CD that we know really popped out of the tray.

Strangely enough, the popular music industry didn’t sit up and take notice from the moment the shiny plastic disc was dangled before its nose. It was the classical record industry, groaning under diminishing sales that first smelt an opportunity. Conductor and classical music legend Herbert von Karajan was one of the first people to have predicted the demise of the long-playing record. Karajan even fronted a 1970 Sony press conference in Tokyo stating that video cassettes would soon replace “all phonographic records”. He was right about the demise of the LP. But he was backing the wrong horse.

The fillip to the classic music industry would come in the form of the CD. Sony founder Akio Morita was a classical music buff and was friends with the likes of Karajan and Leonard Bernstein. (The former would stay at Morita’s home while in Japan, swimming naked in his pool.) The original CD, demonstrated in 1979, had a playing time of less than an hour, the same duration as an LP. Morita wanted enough audio space for the CD so that it could accommodate his wife’s favourite work, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Norman Lebrecht writes in his book, Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness: “The Dutch went up half a centimeter to beer-coaster size, giving eighty minutes of play. The hole in the middle of the CD was cut around the diameter of the smallest Dutch coin… at the 1981 Salzburg Easter Festival, Morita and Karajan demonstrated the Digital Audio Disc. ‘All else,’ growled the conductor, ‘is gaslight’.”

All, however, was not smooth and terrific at the beginning of the CD. For one, EMI and RCA boycotted the new-fangled CD. There were even ‘purists’ who said that the CD sound was “too clean and sterile”. Pop music label owners even had their own slogans ready against the alien-ish CD and in support of the beloved LPs when the first prototype was played in 1982 in Athens: ‘The truth is in the groove!’

By October 1, Sony’s CDP-101 player entered the markets, with 50 CBS-Sony CDs — spearheaded by Billy Joel’s 52nd Street, the first commercial CD — providing the ‘software’. CDs were twice the price of LPs and even when cassettes entered the market, steeply priced. But music lovers with cash to spare lapped up the CD. By March 1983, 100 Polygram CDs — most of them classical music — were released. In Britain, 30,000 CDs were sold in a month. By the time other markets were lapping up CDs, hold-outs like EMI also came on board the ship. By September 1983 when CDs reached America, it was the default carrier of home music in Europe and Britain.

The rest, as they say, was the onslaught of cold, hard figures. In 1986, CDs outsold LPs. By this time, Sony’s Norio Ohga silenced the purists with one sentence: “Anyone who cannot hear that CDs are incomparably superior to records, 9.7 to a perfect 10, has a tin ear and no business listening to music.”

What Ohga didn’t — and couldn’t — have an answer for was that in 20 years time, the same quality of sound would be available in a totally different format that would herald the death of the music industry in general and his beloved Compact Disc in particular. The new enemy was the mp3.