STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Today marks the 30th anniversary of a musical format that has been, or was, a big part of our musical lives, the compact disc. It's been three decades since the first CD went on sale in Japan. The shiny discs came to dominate music industry sales, but their popularity has faded in the digital age, which they helped unleash.
As NPR's Joel Rose reports, the CD is just the latest musical format to rise and fall in roughly the same 30 year cycle.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: There had been compact discs pressed before 1982. But the first CD to officially go on sale was "52nd St." by Billy Joel.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG SHOT")
BILLY JOEL: (Singing) You had to have the last word last night, know what everything is about...
ROSE: The CD was supposed to have the last word when it came to convenience and sound quality. And for a while it did. The CD dominated record sales for more than two decades, in the late 1980s until just last year, when sales of digital tracks finally surpassed those of physical albums. It's a cycle that's played out many times in the history of the music industry with remarkable consistency.
If you look at the last hundred and 10 or 15 years, the major formats all have about 20 to 30 years of primacy.
Sam Brylawski he is the former head of the recorded sound division at the Library of Congress. He says one of the biggest factors driving this cycle is a desire on the part of manufacturers to sell new players every generation or so.
SAM BRYLAWSKI: The real money, the real profits for companies, have been in the sales of hardware - that is to say, machines that play back recordings.
ROSE: Brylawski says that's true for Apple's iPod, the must-have MP3 player that drove the demand for digital music tracks beginning in the early years of the 21st century. And it was just as true at the very beginning of the music industry for one of the pioneers of sound recording, Thomas Edison.
TIM BROOKS: Edison put his heart and soul into this beautiful equipment. He didn't care much about who the singers were.
ROSE: Tim Brooks is the author of "Lost Sounds," a book about the beginnings of the recording industry. He also collects historical recordings and the vintage machines you need to play them. Edison practically gave his recordings away for free in order to get people to buy his phonographs.
BROOKS: Here is an Edison Triumph machine. This was his high-end cylinder phonograph. It had a wood signet horn, very handsome wooden horn that sort of mellowed the sound as it came out. So you turn it on, lower the stylus on the end of the cylinder.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRACKLING AND MUSIC)
ROSE: 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 disk, touted by Edison's competitor, the Victor Talking Machine Company.
BROOKS: The early machines are very, very crude. 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 and that sort of thing.
ROSE: Convenience over sound quality, that's a theme we'll come back to later. The 78 reigned as the most popular format until the early 1950s when it was replaced by the LP. The bigger disc definitely sounded better. But its success stemmed in part from how conveniently you could listen to a dozen songs on a single disc. The LP was in turn the format of choice for, you guessed it, roughly 30 years, until it was challenged by the cassette and finally supplanted by the CD.
At each turn, of course, Brooks says the record industry was happy to repackage all of your old favorites in the new format.
BROOKS: Well, when 78s went out and LPs took over, the record companies were able to resell stuff that they had sold before. When CDs replaced, you know, LPs and cassettes in the '90s, go back to the catalog, you sell all the stuff all over again. So it's a cash cow for them that way.
ROSE: In their rush to capitalize on their catalogs, the record labels sometimes cut a few corners. Producer Greg Geller has worked for most of the major labels over the years. He was at RCA in the early 1980s when he heard test pressings of some Elvis Pressley CDs for the first time.
GREG GELLER: I'll never forget it. They were presented to me as though these were priceless jewels. And I put them on my brand-new CD player and they sounded horrible, abysmal. I mean just wretched sounding.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RETURN TO SENDER")
ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Return to sender. Address unknown...
ROSE: Geller says the industry eventually figured out how to make CDs that sound much, much better than those first test pressings. But then consumers decided once again that they preferred convenience over quality. Around the turn of this century, the MP3 file emerged as the format of choice. Sure, audiophiles complained about the decline in sound quality and a few consumers lamented the loss of cover art and liner notes.
But for the most part, writer Tim Brooks says the public seems to like the new the new format.
BROOKS: It's such an obvious increase in convenience that I think it made everything that came before it look obsolete. It's not too often that huge leaps like that come along.
ROSE: This 30-year leap turned the music industry's business model on its head. Still, physical album sales haven't declined quite as much as the most dire forecasts predicted. More than 300 million CDs were sold last year. And producer Greg Geller thinks they'll be around for a long time to come.
GELLER: Oh, I expect that when we think that the CD is gone for good - in other words, when the major record companies stop manufacturing them, as they did with the LP - others will spring up in their place to continue to provide CDs.
ROSE: Then they'll be cool.
ROSE: Cool kids will want them.
GELLER: Yeah. Yeah. There's no question in my mind, that that will be the case.
ROSE: Thirty years from now, maybe collectors will be swapping vintage CD players for thousands of dollars.
Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.