Compact Discs, So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye!

For nearly three decades, compact discs were a mainstay of consuming music and media. From their first introduction in the early eighties to their dominance throughout the nineties, the millennial generation probably has memories of the first CD they ever purchased. However, they will also likely be the last generation to remember that milestone.
Indeed, compact discs, or CDs, have outdated so swiftly that many laptops these days don’t even have a disc drive. Since CD and DVD players and stereo systems have given way to streaming and/or storing media on hard drives, fewer and fewer people even have the means to play discs any more, resulting in the reality that teenagers today have likely never purchased an album or movie in a disc format.

Mobile Size Matters

And now, one of the last holdouts of disc usage – video games – seem to be ditching the format too. The soon-to-be-released Nintendo Switch will be using game cards rather than discs, which some say is “ringing the death knell of discs.” As Mashable wrote about the shift: “Discs have been the standard physical medium for console games for more than a decade, but discs just don’t make sense for the Switch. Including a disc drive on the hybrid home/mobile console would completely kill its mobile capabilities. At their smallest-possible size, disc drives take up a lot of space and would force Nintendo to make the Switch’s standalone mobile screen much bulkier — not a positive trait on a mobile system.” If Nintendo proves to be a trendsetter in this space, it won’t be long before we see other game consoles following suit.

Money Train All Out Of Steam?

Indeed, the overall shift to mobile media is a big driver of the decline of discs–not to mention the fact that discs are simply too big to fit in one’s pocket, let alone insert into a smartphone–but it’s not the only one. It’s easy to forget that discs used to be so dominant, and that they drove the revenue of the entire record industry for more than a decade as the profit margins on a $14 CD were so large when the product itself cost $1 per unit to produce.
As the Guardian reported, ”CD sales overtook vinyl in 1988 and cassettes in 1991. The 12cm optical disc became the biggest money-spinner the music industry had ever seen, or will ever be likely to see.” Industry insiders report that executives at the time were sure that this money train was going to last forever. It was precisely that false sense of security that led in part to the CD’s downfall.
The first major blow to CDs was the rise of Napster, a peer-to-peer file sharing service which shared music via MP3 formats. While this was illegal, there wasn’t much that that the industry could do about it at first. But as the medium became more prominent, record labels dragged their heels on coming up with a legal, commercial alternative for consumers that could be distributed online. With the rise of more legitimate alternatives like iTunes, which allowed consumers to buy MP3 files, and of course services like Spotify and Netflix, which mainstreamed the idea of streaming media, the need to “own” music and movies faded, effectively rendering discs obsolete.
It’s true that, in the future, the format could have a nostalgic revival in the way that vinyl records have experienced. However, as sound quality improves on modern formats, it will be unlikely that CDs will compete in terms of listening experience. At least for now, the CD remains a cautionary tale of what happens when industries don’t innovate, and assume that they can stem the tide of advancing and potentially disruptive technology in order to protect their profits.